Men’s Sweet 16 teams might be stuck in Indy, but they don’t want to leave

Before the Big Ten Conference men’s basketball tournament began two weeks ago, University of Michigan Coach Juwan Howard packed as though he was planning to live in Indianapolis for a month. He brought enough clothes for four weeks—the length of a trip that would end with a Final Four appearance—and some laundry detergent.

“This is the first time, I would say, I look forward to being away from my family for a month,” Howard said on a radio show before his team took a four-hour bus ride to Indianapolis. “That’s the goal.”

Players prepared for the extended stay that sequesters them to individual hotel rooms with carefully organized practices and activities. Before the Wolverines left their Ann Arbor campus, the team’s freshman star, Hunter Dickinson, interjected during a media Zoom call to ask teammate Franz Wagner about his plans for all the downtime, specifically how many games of FIFA on PlayStation he would lose against Dickinson. “I don’t plan on losing at all,” Wagner said.

The more the Wolverines win on the court, the longer their trip becomes. With the NCAA tournament confined to one location, personnel from the final 16 teams have already lived in their Indianapolis hotels for nearly two weeks, but none for as long as Michigan. The Wolverines arrived March 11 for the Big Ten tournament, also staged in Indianapolis, which allowed teams to stay in town through Selection Sunday. That limited the risk of the coronavirus seeping into their programs and prematurely ending their seasons and meant Big Ten teams would play all of their postseason games during one long trip to central Indiana.

Michigan, which won the regular-season Big Ten title, has played four games in the past two weeks, with hopes of playing four more and staying in the team’s makeshift home through the national title game April 5. The Wolverines lost in the conference tournament semifinals, but they’re the only one of nine Big Ten teams still standing after the NCAA tournament’s first weekend.

“We’ve embraced living here in Indy, and it’s been great,” Howard said Thursday as his top-seeded team prepares to face No. 4 Florida State on Sunday in the Sweet 16. “We made sure that we continue to keep changing our bed linens and getting comfortable with our hotel room.”

The juggling act all season has been the effort to keep the virus at bay—both to protect the players’ health and keep the season from spiraling into a cancellation-ridden affair—while ensuring their lives don’t become excruciatingly monotonous. The tournament setup, with a massive convention center that’s doubling as a practice facility connected to hotels via skywalks, gives the NCAA its “controlled environment” in its effort to shield players from the virus. But it is lacking when it comes to sunlight and fresh air.

“I don’t know what the air feels like outside anymore,” Dickinson joked last week before the team had participated in outdoor excursions. He added that not having a roommate gets boring, so “sometimes I’ll just find myself walking into my teammate’s room not even having anything to say, just having some company.”

Members of each program had to test negative twice before teams could begin practice. Once that quarantine ended, opportunities for off-the-court activities expanded. The hub of hotels is next to Victory Field, the home of the city’s minor league baseball team, the Indianapolis Indians. Teams have frequently stopped by the ballpark, which was particularly busy when the full 68-team field was in Indianapolis. Players’ minds wander from basketball while they take up Wiffle ball, badminton, corn hole, soccer and football, with varying degrees of skill and seriousness. Some coaches walk laps around the warning track. It’s essentially recess for adults.

“I feel like we’ve been pretty busy,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “Certainly challenging for everybody but well worth it.”

When speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Musselman said he had just come from study hall and a trip to Victory Field to play Wiffle ball. While there, his collection of various gear from sports teams grew with a gift from the Indians, whose director of communications, Cheyne Reiter, worked for the Class AAA team in Reno while Musselman coached at Nevada.

Musselman called the NCAA’s setup “as true a bubble as you could imagine,” presenting an emotional challenge for players. The third-seeded Razorbacks were one of the teams to visit the Indianapolis Zoo this week. They’ve had trips to TopGolf, and Florida State’s M.J. Walker said, “we’ve got a lot guys with a little touch with the golf club, man,” including himself on that list. Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton said the outside activities have let his players clear their minds, and the coaches have stayed busy with game preparation and recruiting.

As losing teams travel home, the NCAA and Populous, the firm that helped coordinate tournament logistics, planned to repurpose the convention center space. A ballroom that housed a practice court was set to turn into a movie theater with refreshments before the Sweet 16. Marc Klein, senior event manager for Populous, likened the convention center to a mix between a college’s student union and a recreation center.

The Populous staff considered adding restaurant options and an outdoor hospitality space, but when asked which amenities were added during the tournament, Populous directed questions to the NCAA. An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to a request for clarification. The NCAA announced Thursday that an outside firm would review gender equity across sports after disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments were highlighted on social media.

Some men’s basketball players criticized the NCAA for not allowing athletes to be compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses, while they isolate in hotel rooms for weeks as part of a tournament that generates millions in revenue. Before the tournament began, Dickinson posted a picture of his breakfast, sarcastically writing: “An impeccable breakfast from the NCAA.” Dickinson later told reporters Howard said to “embrace the suck” and he wouldn’t complain again about the circumstances.

The players, of course, do not want to leave Indianapolis. It can be mentally taxing, but “you want to be one of the last teams here,” Arkansas guard Jalen Tate said. “What motivates you even more is seeing the teams that aren’t here anymore.”

Early on, the hotels and convention center bustled with several hundred players. Now only 16 teams remain on the giant bracket that hangs from the J.W. Marriott next to the convention center, and every program wants to extend its stay.

“Our goal is continue to keep moving forward,” Howard said. “And how long we’re going to be here, we’re going to enjoy it. We’re not looking forward to going home early.”

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