NEW ORLEANS – The two friends bore the 12-hour car ride on their face and the day of waiting in their wilting frames. They were dog-tired. They were nervous.
But most important: they were 20 steps from the court, an hour shy of tipoff. Ben Syndergaard and Vincent Swope had made it. Basketball was all that remained.
The Kentucky duo had paid their dues to get to this point, a point that happened to be the Wildcat student section at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on college basketball’s biggest weekend. Around eighteen million viewers would watch the Final Four on television screens worldwide. Syndergaard and Swope would watch from the front row.
They leaned over the rail, a sea of endless blue behind them, tracing through a taxing and frenzied previous 20 hours. The shook their head, almost in unison, at the absurdity of it all.
“We left Lexington [Friday] afternoon and drove through the night,” Syndergaard explained.
“We got here at three in the morning. We came straight here. We were the first fans waiting in line.
“It was horrible at times,” he said slowly, thinking back to an exhausting car ride and an even-more exhausting 17-hour stay at the Superdome Saturday.”
“But we’re here,” Swope concluded. “We’re finally here.”
The dedicated duo, along with thousands of other Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville and Ohio State students, trekked from campuses to the Big Easy for their shot at a ringside seat for this year’s Final Four. At just $25 a pop, tickets are appropriately priced for the lucky 710 college students that are selected through lotteries on each of the Final Four campuses.
But only half of those — the first 355 in line Saturday morning — earn a spot on the floor. The remaining half is left to gaze from the upper deck.
Thus becomes the ambition for Syndergaard, Swope and the remaining 2,838 from the four schools that snatched up a student ticket earlier in the week: get a spot on the floor.
“The NCAA works with each participating school to allow their student fans access to the Final Four,” said Josh Logan, NCAA director of ticketing for its championship events. “The student sections are filled with the most rabid student fans, and that is the main reason to have the students down on the floor.”
Thus, the hours of waiting come into play. For further proof, consider their testimonies.
Josh Whiston got off work in Lawrence, Kansas on Friday evening, then drove 15 hours with two friends to get to New Orleans. On Saturday, hours before tip, he proudly sported his Jayhawk uniform on the floor while his buddies caught a quick nap by leaning against a barrier on the Superdome floor.
“The whole drive, you wonder if you’re going to end up on the floor or the other seats,” Whiston said. “You have to get lucky, and we’re pumped to be one of the lucky ones. You just have to give up some quality sleep to get there.”
Cacie Bowles and Blaine Norton waited, waited and waited Saturday morning. Their Louisville Cardinals were facing bitter intrastate rival Kentucky in the first game Saturday. They had no intentions of missing it.
They arrived at the Superdome at 7 a.m. They wouldn’t leave for 16 hours.
“It was chaos,” Norton explained. “We waited in two lines, and at one point, there was a mad dash from one to the other. People just started running, so we did too.”
When the dust settled, Bowles and Norton were one of the lucky Louisville 355.
“When we walked in, and got to our seats on the floor, there wasn’t a better feeling,” Bowles said.
Devin Moore and Jake Lepezia, a pair of Buckeye backers, were the final two Ohio State students to gain entrance into the lower level.
“You can’t beat this,” Moore said a few hours before tipoff, standing tall, arms crossed, equally proud of his luck and his accomplishment. “We’re watching our team in the Final Four.”
Bowles, Norton, Moore and Lepezia will have to forfeit their floor seat for Monday’s title game. All 710 fans from the schools of the championship participants — Kentucky and Kansas — will corral the contingents behind both baskets. Louisville and Ohio State fans will watch from the upper deck.
Ryan Mahan, another Wildcat fan that will shuffle into the Superdome Monday and return to his spot on the Superdome floor, wouldn’t swap much for this weekend’s experience. Like the Wildcats he lives and dies with every game, it’s been quite a journey.
“This is going to be amazing,” he said. “It’s going to be something you never forget.”
The unbridled passion brought by the feverish fan bases of four of college basketball’s blue blood programs stretched from one side of the Superdrome to the other Saturday night. It was felt by the players on the court, and known well by the experienced coaches on the bench.
“I’m telling you, these are the greatest fans,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “They’re the most passionate fans. They’re into it like you can’t believe.”
The rock-chalkers from Kansas are no slouch, either.
“I think our fan base it he most realistic, unrealistic group you could ever be around,” Jayhawk coach Bill Self said Sunday. “And I mean that in a good way. They appreciate our team, they appreciate our guys playing hard.”
Now, for two teams, and similarly, for two fan bases, there is but one obstacle to overcome. Through triumph or defeat, fans like Ryan Mahan, Ben Syndergaard, Vincent Swope and Josh Whiston will ride the emotions of the national championship game from the best seats in the house.
“When you walk into the arena, you just feel it,” Mahan said. “I thought, ‘This is going to be amazing.’ There’s not anywhere I’d rather be.”