KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With Wednesday’s announcement that the NCAA Tournament will be played in virtually empty arenas, fans now barred from entry due to coronavirus concerns, it’s accurate to say this year’s March Madness will look like none before it.
The only untouched aspect, then, may be the trophy awarded to the eventual national champion, a point noted by the head coach of the nation’s top-ranked team and the tournament’s likely No. 1-overall seed.
"There’s not going to be an asterisk next to it, ‘Well, they played without fans,’ in the record books, so you still have a chance to have a very similar-type legacy," said Kansas’ Bill Self. "I did tell (the players) this: It will be the highest-rated television tournament that anybody’s ever seen. So that’s a positive, you could be a part of that."
Preparing for the Big 12 Tournament at Sprint Center, the Jayhawks (28-3) took the floor for practice Wednesday as the fluid situations regarding both relevant postseason tournaments unfolded around them.
NCAA President Mark Emmert announced his organization’s no-fans policy approximately 15 minutes before KU’s shootaround, and after Self’s post-practice news conference, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby declared the league would implement limited access for Thursday’s quarterfinals through Saturday’s championship game, with only 125 tickets given to each program for guests of student athletes and staff personnel.
Self, who delivered the NCAA Tournament news to his players, indicated they responded "OK" to the disheartening development from a body language standpoint.
"The thing I told them: You know, it sucks, but it doesn’t just stink for us," Self said. "It stinks for everybody that wants to be entertained at a concert or anywhere. It stinks for the market. Certainly sporting events, schools moving forward and whether or not you’re going to be able to have school on campus and not do everything online. It’s far bigger than just basketball.
"Certainly it’s sad. Sad for the fans and it’s sad for players. You dream of playing in a situation where you’re playing for the highest stakes on the brightest stage, and certainly it’s hard to imagine that being the case if nobody’s there in person to see it."
Self acknowledged he’s yet to fully grasp how playing postseason games in empty arenas will affect several aspects of the game, including whether his players’ rest schedule will be impacted. Without the well-traveled Jayhawk fan base, motivation among players may be another area in need of monitoring, though Self has already figured out the rallying cry in that regard.
"I told our guys: Why did we all start loving this game, and why did we all start playing it?" Self said. "Do we do it because we want people to watch us, or do we do it because you actually love it? We need to get back to our roots, our childhood roots in which you got turned up to play if you’re playing shirts and skins in the park."
Self is certain the NCAA Tournament action will still be "highly, highly, highly competitive."
"It’ll be different, it will have a different feel, but the kids will still play like there’s no tomorrow, which there isn’t in a one-and-done situation," Self said. "It’ll be different but they’ll make the most of it, we’ll all make the most of it, and still enjoy the process and actually participate."
Another part of Self’s message to his players? Nobody is picking on you, he told them, emphasizing that similar developments are affecting every walk of life worldwide.
"We obviously want to play in front of fans, but you know, it’s bigger than us," said freshman guard Christian Braun. "We know we play for the love of the game, not for fans, so it’s business as usual."
Still processing Wednesday’s developments at his afternoon news conference, Self nevertheless said he’s given ample thought to one side effect of the fan ban: In open space, everyone can hear you scream.
"I actually have (thought about that), because there’s some really bad actors in our league, at other schools," Self joked. "You stop and think about it though: Everything that you say will not be muffled or muzzled. So I think that the way you communicate with your players and maybe even with the officials needs to be in a way that you know it’s a one-on-one conversation."