Reflections from the Final Four

Column by Richard Smith

The Final Four was coming to the Valley and I knew I couldn’t get my hands on tickets to the hottest playoff in college basketball, so I aimed for a press pass.

That did not sound like a problem except for two things:

• I have not covered college basketball in 19 years — aka when I was still in college.

• Neither I nor my employer have what you’d call a national profile, at least in big-time sports circles.

Much to my surprise, I received the OK for a pass the day after I made the request as did our photographer Jacob Stanek. Here is what I took away from the first Final Four to play in Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium.

From where I sat:

• Most of the media, except for those who sat courtside in press row, were split in half and positioned on the stadium floor behind the student sections on each side. A straight on view of a basketball game is not what you’re used to, but the view was basically unobstructed.

North Carolina’s (#) against Gonzaga during the NCAA Basketball Championship game Monday, April 3, 2017 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

• The NCAA should be applauded for the idea of setting aside bleachers behind each basket for student sections. I’m not sure when this started but I think it was fairly recent. During Saturday’s semifinals student sections on our side changed with the games. Gonzaga students sat on the floor for the first game while Oregon students were in the stadium seats. Before game two they switched places. I’m assuming the same happened with South Carolina and North Carolina fans on the other sides.

• Students wanting to reach the concourse at halftime or get out after games had two ways to go — and plenty chose to go right through the press. I chose to find it entertaining, whether it was the Gonzaga fan dressed as the Pope or the Oregon fan declaring it was “tie to get drunk,” after the Ducks failed to grab a defensive rebound down one point in the final two seconds.

• The loudest moment in all three games, hands down, was during South Carolina’s 16-0 second half run to regain the lead against Gonzaga. Fans of the other schools joined in, too and the Oregon supporters behind us were going nuts.

• Saturday had more of a party atmosphere outside and inside the arena, during and after the games. Monday night for the championship was more serious for players, fans and even the staff handling operations.

• Let me be the thousandth person to write that the title game was a disappointment in almost every sense. Neither team shot well in the first half and the avalanche of fouls early in the second would have made me reach for my remote in other circumstances. Thankfully, the game loosened up in the final five minutes and the winner was decided on the court.

• North Carolina basketball is synonymous with many things. Defense is not usually one of them. But the 2017 squad raised the trophy thanks mostly to its defense. The Tar Heels shot alarmingly poorly in both games. But their length at every position besides point guard kept Oregon and then Gonzaga from getting most of the shots they liked.

Behind the curtain:

• I told several people that covering a Final Four after nine years on the high school sports beat is like stepping into Oz. I’m used to taking stats, scrambling to record interviews with coaches and players and listening to the playback an hour later at home.

• Thanks to the NCAA and Arizona State University sports information staffs, I quickly realized I could have stayed at my seat all day and written a game story. Within 30 minutes of the end of the semifinals, each media member received a 20-plus-page book, including halftime and final stats, the play-by-play account of the game, shot charts for both teams, and the entire postgame press conferences.

The backstage of University of Phoenix Stadium features a NCAA Championship illustration on the walls. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

• That said, I tried to be a good-working journalist and attended five of the six postgame pressers. I didn’t know any of these teams so locker room interviews made little sense. Twice, I planned to ask a question only for the national writers in the front rows to beat me to the punch. Guess that’s why they work for ESPN, USA Today and the like huh?

• All this and a good buffet, too. Solid dinner fare like pulled pork and build-your-own soft tacos. Then after the night games they roll out the pizza and the starving (and well-off) journalists go to town.

• Books can (and have) been written about the NCAA’s foibles but they did an excellent job of catering to players and team staff as well as media in Glendale. The coolest touch. The entire hallway in University of Phoenix Stadium with the teams’ locker rooms were repainted with the Final Four colors and logo. Each team’s locker room door received a vibrant depiction of that team’s logo. And the hallway facing those locker rooms featured a smaller logo of each team surrounded by blown-up cutout photos of four or five key players from each team in game action. To me this detail was the coolest thing of the whole weekend.

• Hoops royalty, as you might expect was everywhere. Saturday night I forgot to make the turn into the media room and was stuck among the hungry stadium and security employees. When I wiggled out of that I was in a quieter area of backstage reserved for the national TV broadcasters and managed to see Charles Barkley and Clark Kellogg whiz by on golf cars. Big men sightings included Dikembe Mutombo Saturday and Bill Walton in between radio standups Monday. Walton has written about his recent recovery from extreme pain. I cringed watching him walk Monday so I shudder to think what he went through during the worst of it.

• Finally, it was great to see the local media luminaries and colleagues that I’ve either grown up or worked with walking around the stadium or typing in the media room. The Final Four is old hat for many of them. But this was the first in the city we all call home. There was a certain pride that came with being the host, and I don’t think anything that happened that weekend diminished that pride. In the last three years University of Phoenix Stadium hosted two Super Bowls, college football national title game and Final Four. Get used to it. These will be regular events in our big-time city.

Editor’s note: Richard Smith is the editor for Surprise Today and West Valley Preps

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