ARLINGTON, Texas -- There isn’t a word in the dictionary to properly describe AT&T Stadium, err JerryWorld. But here it goes: It’s massive. It’s huge. It’s imposing. It’s mammoth. It’s monumental. It’s gargantuan. It’s towering. It’s surreal.
It can’t be real. It’s what Jerry Jones wanted us all to think when we walked in here for the first time. It isn’t easy to impress seasoned media folk, but the largest domed structure in the world has done just that.
It’s been done before -- Kentucky and Florida have already played games here in the past couple of seasons. But not like this. Not with the court at midfield. Not without any black curtains covering the furthest seat.
Florida lost to Michigan in the Elite Eight a year ago in these surroundings. But the total attendance for that weekend -- 77,224 -- will likely be topped in a single session this time around. Kentucky lost to Baylor on Dec. 6 when the Wildcats were ranked third in the nation. There were 12,818 fans here. There might be that many fans with standing room only tickets on Saturday.
Playing in a non-basketball venue has been status quo for the Final Four since 1997, when the RCA Dome in Indianapolis hosted. Many will mention how difficult of a transition it could be for good shooters to go from their “small” venues with shooter-friendly backdrops to such a large place that hurts anyone without good depth perception.
For the most part, these guys aren’t worried.
“The NCAA's given every school an opportunity to get multiple practice opportunities here from [Thursday] for an hour and a half, [Friday] there will be an open practice as well and shoot around times the day of the game,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. “We had the opportunity last year to play here, so for some of our guys, it is a familiar place. But I think there's enough time to get ready and play in this kind of venue, because it is a little bit different. But everybody here is dealing with the same thing. We have all been given the opportunity to come out there and shoot and see what the building's like.”
UConn head coach Kevin Ollie remembers his last trip to a venue like this when he was an assistant in 2011. He helped take the Huskies to Houston where they won the national championship by scoring 56 points in the semifinals and only 53 in the title game. It might be easier for his guys in 2014.
“I really appreciate the NCAA giving us this opportunity,” Ollie said. “Back in 2011, down in Houston, we didn't have a 90-minute practice. It was the open practice that we're going to have and then the shoot-around. So this really allows our players to see the ball going in. We always want to see that. Just seeing them get used to and relaxed and shooting in a venue like this is a great opportunity for us.”
Many believe the all-time record for attendance at a college basketball game will be rewritten -- 78,129 at Detroit's Ford Field in 2003, when Kentucky played Michigan State. And why not? The record for a Cowboys’ football game is 105,121. The mark for a basketball game was set by the 2010 NBA All-Star Game, when 108,713 were packed in.
You likely won’t see six-figure numbers, but it’ll still be crowded.
For a coach like Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, who has won four national titles at the Division III level with Wisconsin-Platteville, it doesn’t matter if it’s 5,000 or 105,000. The game is the same.
“I always promised my Platteville guys that I’d stay true in those national championships that we had, we played in front of maybe 5,000,” Ryan said. “So I don't know what it's like being in front of 75,000. Once the ball is thrown up, you still have to manage in those first timeouts. No matter whether it's Division I or Division III, you got to manage emotions and energy and try to channel it the right way and get everybody concentrating on what it is we do and don't try to be somebody that we're not.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari has done plenty in front of crowds like he’ll see on Saturday. But not his crop of blossoming freshmen.
“We know our guys are going to get in front of 75,000, look around and think, ‘Oh’ my,’ … it's going to be that way,” Calipari said. “Then we'll both try to settle down our teams and try to get them to focus on basketball, lose themselves in the game and just play a basketball game. But if you think these 18- and 19- and 20-year-old kids are going to be not cognizant of what's going on around them, they will be. So our whole thing right now is stay in the moment."
Are the shooting numbers lower since Final Fours moved to football venues? It’s an inexact experiment. Shooting in NCAA tournament games tends to be lower as it is. You’re facing the toughest of competition. The Final Four could be played in a cave, or underwater and teams would still find a way to play the games.
They’ll figure out JerryWorld, too.