A once in a lifetime Indiana NCAA experience

Good luck and good planning. That’s how the NCAA beat the coronavirus, somehow making it to the finish line at the end of the road to the Final Four Monday night.

It took tricky logistics and intricate protocols to nurse the last of the teams through the championship finale at Lucas Oil Stadium. How much of a bummer it would have been if players on Gonzaga or Baylor tested positive for the virus at the last minute and the game was cancelled.

That would have been the greatest sporting anti-climax of all time. Instead, the survivors of the long-haul season successfully dodged germs and won first prize of staying in Indianapolis the longest of the 68 teams that began play three weeks ago.

This was the season of the plague, the COVID-19 pandemic, a season plagued by disease. There was good reason to wonder if the tournament would play out. After all, 20 percent of regular-season NCAA Division I games were cancelled.

Coaches, players or staff flunked tests repeatedly, right through the conference tournaments when entire teams went missing in action because of COVID. Remember, poor Virginia Commonwealth was a team casualty in NCAA play, failing tests and forced to forfeit and go home.

Gonzaga negotiated its way through the land mines of the season to reach Monday night 31-0. Baylor was 27-2 and lost three games from its schedule, one which would have pitted the No. 1 Bulldogs against the No. 2 Bears months ago.

This was supposed to be Gonzaga’s long-awaited coronation, a first-time title-winner after making the field 22 years in a row. Instead, Baylor looked sharper, played better defense and imposed its game plan and will for an 86-70 victory.

At times, especially early, when Baylor played with more hunger, Gonzaga seemed flat-footed, drained from its Saturday night epic, overtime semi-final win over UCLA. Or were the Bears just better?

In an improbable season, college basketball got an improbable champ, Baylor has long been haunted by the ghosts in the attic.

It was notable enough this was the Bears’ first time in the title game since 1948. But outside of Waco, Texas, it’s not clear how much of a constituency Baylor has. There is no real Baylor Nation.

When it comes to all-time college basketball scandals, the roulette ball stops spinning on number 2003. That year Bear player Patrick Dennehy was murdered by a teammate and his body buried with no trace. Coach Dave Bliss was implicated trying to cover up illegal actions by suggesting Dennehy was selling drugs.

Eventually, teammate Carter Dotson confessed to shooting Dennehy and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Like Dotson, Baylor was fortunate to avoid the death penalty of its program.

Scott Drew arrived as coach that year with the daunting assignment of lifting Baylor to respectability with few scholarships and a king-sized black smudge on the team’s reputation. It took 18 years for to guide the Bears to this title, which announcer Jim Nantz labeled the sport’s greatest bounce-back of all time.

As for Gonzaga, a squad loaded with future NBA talent, and having dominated the regular season, one must wonder just when it will ever capture a crown.

Strange days indeed. And that includes downtown Indianapolis, long-ago designated as the site of this year’s Final Four. But with no Fan Fest, no hordes of spectators, with limited fans allowed into games, it in no way resembled a usual fan-jammed Final Four. Basically, as a whole, the tournament was 99 percent TV show.

The condensing of the entire tournament into Indianapolis and its environs was a bold experiment by the NCAA, driven by the emergency of a deadly virus. Often enough, someone suggests Indianapolis should be the permanent site of the Final Four because Indiana is the king of hoops and Indianapolis plays its role of host so well. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

It is even far less likely the NCAA will ever again center the whole tournament in one tight geographic area. The tournament is too valuable a property and other cities want their cut of the financial bonanza.

Besides, Gonzaga may never come back.

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