“You just feel badly for everyone”: Cougars lament fanless March Madness, understand prioritizing public health
The Cougars travel to Fort Worth to compete in the American Athletic Conference tournament Thursday and will likely play in the NCAA tournament, but with the announcement that this year’s March Madness will be held without any fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players and coaches are wondering about playing in unprecedented environments.
“First of all, it shows how serious it is,” said sophomore guard Nate Hinton after practice on Wednesday afternoon. “ I didn’t really know how serious it was, but now that I see how it’s affecting us, I see that it is very serious.”
The NCAA tournament is synonymous with unexpected buzzer-beaters and underdog upsets, and a big part of the March Madness frenzy has to do with the crazed passion from university fans and students.
“(The fans) drive everything, and for them not being able to experience it, you just feel badly for everybody,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Sometimes we have to step back and say, ‘why are we doing this?’ It’s people’s health. At the end of the day, our health is more important than basketball.”
For players in any sport, the fans provide an emotional boost for both the road and home teams.
On Sunday afternoon, the crowd at the Fertitta Center played a role in the Houston-Memphis regular-season finale.
The Cougars struggled offensively during that game, and could not buy a 3-pointer as they got deep into the second half without hitting one until sophomore guard Quentin Grimes finally took the cap off the rim for Houston.
The crowd erupted when they saw the ball go in on a 3-pointer, and the Cougars took over the game from the point onward, outscoring the Tigers 17-2 after that basket.
“It’s not going to be as fun I guess,” said junior forward Fabian White Jr. “It’s always nice to have the crowd there being loud and, for the new guys, they won’t get to experience that. There is just not going to be that energy and hype before the game.”
The NCAA tournament games in 2020 will not have the extra buzz when a team executes an alley-oop or when a player knocks down three shots in a row, and players can only guess as of now what that atmosphere will be like as it is unprecedented.
“Before the preseason, we scrimmage certain teams, I think it will be like that,” Hinton said. “We really just have to go play basketball… It’ll be a scrimmage vibe.”
The lack of a big-game feel that the fans provide will add an extra hurdle for the players.
“You still have to be aware of the stakes,” Hinton said. “You can’t be like, ‘Oh, well it’s just another basketball game’ or ‘It’s like a scrimmage’ because they are still taking count that there is going to be a champion at the end.”
While the decision is a disappointment to hardcore supporters of the colleges, Sampson is grateful that teams will still get a chance to compete for a national championship, which has not been the case for every school.
The Ivy League canceled all spring sporting events for the remainder of the academic year, which includes the conference tournament that is similar to the AAC tournament that Houston will compete in over the weekend.
“We have to sit back and trust (the health officials), and I do,” Sampson said. “I feel bad for everybody involved, but I’m just thankful we are still able to just play.”