Time for a rousing verse of Back Home Again in Indiana?
My home state is a basketball hot spot, and we’re not kidding. Not this college season, anyway. March Madness all ours, from the First Four to One Shining Moment? The NCAA tournament bubble to be 100 percent made-in-Indiana? Maybe, if all the whys and wherefores can be agreed upon. There have been a gazillion memorable moments in this state surrounding the game of basketball, but nothing quite like this Hoosier hoopsapalooza. God and pandemic willing, of course.
The mean face of COVID-19 has given birth to decisions that would have seemed unthinkable eight months ago. The NCAA tournament, after all, is meant to be spread across the land, like candles on a birthday cake. The first one was 81 years ago, and they played games in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Evanston. But the NCAA sees the same relentless virus infection carnage all the other sports see and understands how the bubble concept has been the one thing that seems to work. It is important — for lots of reasons, it is vital — there not be a second tournament washout, and games in 14 different sites seemed highly undoable under current conditions. So here we are.
Sorry Boise and Brooklyn, Minneapolis and Memphis, Dallas and Detroit. Sorry Dayton, which has always taken such loving care of the First Four since its creation. But this year, the world is different. Indianapolis is the logical choice, and not just because the Final Four was supposed to be there, anyway. Let’s take a little tour and see why, if the tournament must be planted in one place, it might as well be Indy.
We’ll start at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the 2021 Final Four was assigned. Or as it should be called, North Krzyzewskiville, since Duke won its last two titles there. This is where Kentucky’s unbeaten season hit the wall in 2015, and Butler nearly took out Duke in 2010. By the way, in five minutes you can drive to Oscar Robertson’s old high school. Another 25 minutes, you’re in Zionsville, where a skinny kid named Brad Stevens once played, before he decided he wanted to be a coach.
Now let’s go, five blocks from Lucas Oil. There’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That’s not only the Pacers’ home, but it has seen more Big Ten tournament games in there than you can shake a towel at. The NBA is supposed to have its All-Star Game there in February, but chances are, that’s a no-go.
Next, head six miles north to Butler’s campus. Yep, there stands the majestic old queen of an arena, Hinkle Fieldhouse, which has been collecting memories for 92 years. That would include not only all of Butler’s doings, but both the filmed, fictitious ending to Hoosiers, and the real-life shot it was based upon. That jumper was taken by Bobby Plump, and the restaurant he gave name to — Plump’s Last Shot — is 10 minutes away.
A few miles east to the State Fairgrounds, and there’s the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, another standby from the 1930s, where the Pacers played in their early days.
Go 90 minutes northwest, and there’s Purdue. Rick Mount once shot the Boilermakers to the national championship game. You pass his hometown of Lebanon on the way. The sign on I-65 tells you so.
Drive an hour southwest, and you’ll find Indiana University. Count the five hanging national championship banners.
Head 75 minutes west and there’s Indiana State. Note the Larry Bird statue outside the arena. A similar trip northeast, and you’re at Ball State.
And we haven’t even gotten to the high school arenas yet, many of which are large and lovely, because this is Indiana. Whether the NCAA would think about a high school location is questionable, but here’s an idea. Seventy-minutes east of downtown Indianapolis is the largest high school gym in the world at New Castle, which once had 9,000 seats and is now just under 8,000. New Castle sent two of its sons on to star for Indiana national champions, Kent Benson in 1976 and Steve Alford in 1987. Not that seating capacity will be an issue if attendance is restricted, but it’d still be a swell place to play.
Get the idea? This state has basketball arenas like it has cornfields, and a lot of them are close to one another. It’d be perfect for a bubble. If all the games have to be in one state, why not a basketball holy land?
Indianapolis could certainly use a break. Like many cities, it has been hammered by the consequences of the pandemic. The Indy 500 had to be run in August, to empty stands. One of the jewels of minor league baseball, Victory Field with its panoramic view of the downtown skyline, sat empty all summer. Indianapolis lost the Big Ten men’s tournament and NCAA regional in March. It will probably lose the NBA All-Star Game. The downtown, with all its hotels and sports venues within easy walking distance, has always thrived on out-of-town money, but much of that has vanished the past eight months.
And if the 68 teams have any spare time and can safely do it, they can roll 30 miles down the highway from downtown Indianapolis to a tiny spot on the map with no stoplights and maybe 30 citizens. Hall, Indiana. John Wooden’s birthplace. He still has won nearly one of every national championships ever played. Chances are, he’d like this idea.