Niyo: Life in Indy’s NCAA Tournament bubble — a different world

The rallying cry sounds bit different now, nearly three decades after now-UM coach…

Niyo: Life in Indy's NCAA Tournament bubble — a different world 1
Niyo: Life in Indy's NCAA Tournament bubble — a different world 2

The rallying cry sounds a bit different now, nearly three decades after Juwan Howard and his Fab Five teammates made their NCAA Tournament debut in Atlanta.

As Michigan fans may recall, way back in 1992 — a smiling Howard made sure to point out his gray hair Wednesday — the Wolverines found out they were staying at the same hotel as Muhammad Ali for the opening week of the tourney. And it was during an hourlong chat in Ali’s suite prior to their first-round opener against Temple that the boxing legend told Michigan’s precocious young basketball stars to “go shock the world” — a mantra they’d repeat throughout their improbable Final Four run.

Yet Tuesday night at Michigan’s team hotel, the message Howard delivered was updated to fit the times, even if the goal — winning a national championship — hasn’t changed.

“Coach Howard talked to us last night and told us, you know, we need to really just buy in and ‘embrace the suck,’ as he calls it,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said Wednesday morning, before the top-seeded Wolverines headed to West Lafayette to practice at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, the site of Saturday’s first-round game against either Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern in the East Region.

That’s because this NCAA Tournament is unlike any other, with 68 teams all living in what organizers are calling a “controlled environment” in Indianapolis. The entire event — one that generates more than $800 million in revenue — is being staged in a bubble-like setting due to the pandemic. Participating teams are largely confined to separate floors in four downtown hotels, their movements restricted to bus rides to and from games and practices held at game venues or one of a dozen basketball courts installed inside the 600,000 square-foot Indianapolis Convention Center, which is connected to the team hotels via skywalks.

Players are undergoing daily COVID-19 testing, wearing KINEXON SafeTags to monitor social distancing and help with contact tracing, and eating meals in their own rooms during a check-in quarantine period. And it was one of those meals — a sad-looking plastic tray of scrambled eggs and bacon — that Dickinson posted to his Instagram account earlier this week that drew attention to the athletes’ rather joyless pre-tournament experience.

“The NCAA has tried their best, I guess, to kind of do the best they can under these circumstances,” Dickinson said Wednesday, relaying the larger message his coach was trying to deliver the night before. ”No matter what kind of conditions that they give us, we have to do our best to overcome. And that starts with, I guess, the food.

“So from now on, you won’t hear me complain about the food or anything like that. I’m embracing the suck, as he says.”

And for good reason, Dickinson noted, because many of his teammates know what the alternative feels like, with last year’s tournament getting wiped out.


That’s the same thing Michigan State coach Tom Izzo keeps reminding his players, more than a week after they packed up and left East Lansing for what they hope is an extended stay in Indianapolis.  The Circle City also hosted last week’s Big Ten men’s and women’s tournaments.

The Spartans switched hotels Sunday and, by luck of the draw, they’re now housed in the upscale JW Marriott, “so there’s been worse bubbles, you know?” Izzo laughed.

The WiFi has been spotty — “Oh, my goodness … it’s not the best,” senior Aaron Henry chuckled, a few minutes before a Zoom call froze, right on cue — but the king-size bed in his room is a welcome change for an adult his size.

“There’s a lot of things you could complain about because it’s just different, but there are a lot of great things too,” Izzo said. “And the best thing of all is that I have 15 guys here that get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes, you take that for granted at Michigan State. You take it for granted until you don’t play one last year.”

And to be honest, all this self-isolation isn’t exactly new thing for college athletes. Both Michigan and Michigan State endured two-week shutdowns earlier this winter due to COVID concerns. They’ve spent the last eight months enduring daily nasal swabs and avoiding everyone outside their basketball team, including their families. Sacrifices? Yeah, they’ve made more than a few to help fund College Sports, Inc.

But even after a year of living strangely, this is still going to take some getting used to, this Olympic-sized endeavor that requires them to spend days on end essentially trapped in a hotel room.

“Yeah, I haven’t been outside since Sunday,” Dickinson said, pausing to count the days in his head. “I don’t even know what the air feels like outside anymore.”

It’s a concern Izzo shares, too. He and his staff actually scheduled time for players to “have a stretch out in the hallway” in addition to film sessions and meetings. The NCAA also has turned Victory Field, the minor-league ballpark across the street, into an outdoor activity area where teams will have scheduled time to toss a football around, play badminton and so on. (Michigan was expecting to get its turn to walk the yard Thursday.)

“We heard loud and clear from coaches and others that getting outside some was really important,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball.

Scheduling that time for 68 teams — with 34 members in each team’s traveling party — is easier said than done. And as North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, after spending an hour walking laps on the warning track, “It hasn’t exactly been Maui.” But the good news for those teams that survive-and-advance in the tournament is “they will have some more entertainment options going forward,” Gavitt said, including outings to Top Golf and the Indianapolis Zoo. Food help is on the way as well, he added, with carry-out options from area restaurants and tournament sponsors like Buffalo Wild Wings.

In the meantime, it’s safe to say the animals are getting a little restless. Aside from practice and film, North Carolina senior Garrison Brooks’ Tuesday itinerary was pretty simple: “I watched Spiderman 1, 2, and 3.”

Not having a roommate has its perks, sure, but players say they miss the banter of a usual road trip. Henry typically bunks with Marcus Bingham or freshman Davis Smith, while Dickinson apparently has instituted an open-door policy this week with fellow freshman Terrance Williams across the hall and sophomore Zeb Jackson next door.

“It gets pretty boring, you know?” Dickinson said. “Sometimes I’ll just find myself walking into my teammate’s room, not even having anything to say. Just to have some company.”

They’ll have some company on the court soon enough, along with fans in stands up to 25% capacity, but it’s “anybody’s guess on how everybody is going to react to these different things,” Izzo said.

By the time Michigan State tips off tonight against UCLA at Mackey Arena, the Spartans will have spent nine days in a hotel and a week off since their last game.

“So I do think we’re going to be fresher,” Izzo said. “But, you know, laying around worries me, too, because we can’t do the things that you’d want to do. You’re spending a lot of time in a hotel room, which I’m not sure is good, either. …

“I think you’re going to see some strange things (in this tournament), because it’s going to come down to how everybody handles the adversity they’ve all been placed in. It has not been bad, and it has been the same for everybody, so it’s even. … It’s just different.”

Shockingly so, in some cases.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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