(Special Article by John Huang for Midwest News and Sports)
Exceptional, exhilarating, and exhausting are three adjectives I would use to describe my initiation yesterday into the media March Madness frenzy that has annually come to define the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Credentialed officially as a photographer, I was assigned to Des Moines, Iowa, covering my beloved Wildcats as they seek to win that elusive championship number 9. Imagine a lifelong Cat fan being given the coveted opportunity to sit right on the hardwood just an arms-length away from an Alex Poythress pivot and dunk or a Jamal Murray bow and arrow. That was me yesterday, awestruck but focused, naive yet nuanced in the subtleties of the BBN. Like a kid in a candy shop, Isavored every fleeting second, eager to transcribe my thoughts and experiences to a fan base hungering for anything remotely UK blue.
I’ll confess, I was in basketball heaven. I don’t care that 3 of the four games were blowouts. The lone exception was UConn rallying to defeat Colorado 74-67. Watching Kevin Ollie cringe and rant on the sidelines brought back sordid memories of Dallas 2014, where a couple more Julius Randle dunks in the final game could have sent the hated Huskies back into obscurity longing for the return of the dubious Jim Calhoun. Kansas and Indiana then both flexed their offensive muscles against outmatched opponents with Kansas overwhelming Austin Peay 105-79 and IU shooting down Chattanooga 99-74.
The Hoosiers shot a torrid 64.9% for the game surely staunching the blood flow coming from the purported festering wound along Tom Crean’s receding hairline. Kansas meanwhile, looked to be a team on a mission, lead by the dead eye shooting of Svi Mykhailiuk (gesundheit!), and the crafty spin moves of the always geriatric looking but deceptively nimble Perry Ellis.
During halftimes and in between games, I wandered along the bowels of Wells Fargo arena, rubbing elbows with the likes of national writers such as John Feinstein and Pat Forde, together with local scribes such as John Clay and Jerry Tipton. Is that Jim Nantz over by the media buffet line or Bill Raftery at the next urinal? The presence of sideline reporters Tracy Wolfson and Kaylee Hartung only added to this ultimate fantasy experience. Throw on an endless supply of drinks, chips, popcorn and peanuts, nearly unlimited access to press conferences and locker room player interviews and you can see why many media members become jaded and undoubtedly feel entitled. They can’t help but become sports snobs and if this is what it’s like to intimately cover the Wildcats, I can’t wait to get in that snob line also.
When the main event rolled around, my sore hips and bruised butt became a distant memory as the Cats took the floor. Everything looked bigger from this vantage point and the UK players did not disappoint. Skal channeled his inner Dikembe Mutombo as UK set a single game NCAA record with 15 blocked shots. Jamal Murray caught fire after a slow start and Tyler Ulis enjoyed an unprecedented but well deserved 10 minute rest on the bench as Kentucky methodically pulled away from a cold shooting and outclassed Stony Brook team to win 85-57. It took all my resolve to not blatantly cheer every time UK scored or came up with a steal. I had a few close calls with players diving towards me for loose ballsbut generally avoided the fate like that suffered by the UK trombone section when a Stony Brook player barreled into our unsuspecting beloved band . Through it all I tried my best to get some noteworthy action photos but was just too mesmerized by my “best-seat-in-the-house” to do much more than pretend. I’m sure I was the only photographer on the floor not viewing the action through the camera lens. Of course, I knew I was also the only photographer there wearing a tie, dress shoes, and deodorant.
Now comes the big game with the Hungry Hoosiers tomorrow. Jim Nantz says it’s the biggest round of 16 game he’s ever covered. IU fans are talking smack and literally salivating for the biggest win in program history in the last 20 years. And I’ll be there–snapping photos and reporting the action courtside–on one hand thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity while one the other hand sweating it out like Sean Miller in a Brooks Brothers suit, wondering if the dream ends here. Go Cats!