The calm before the storm. That’s what it felt like Friday at AT&T Stadium, when any and all fans were invited inside to watch their teams practice, hear the bands play and cheerleaders cheer.
They sat down low, smiling wide because they paid nothing but were in seats that will cost a couple thousand bucks Saturday. They stood with arms oustretched, trying to catch one of the Reese’s orange T-shirts fired into the crowd.
And they wondered: What will it be like Saturday at 5:08 p.m., approximately, when the Final Four tips off for real inside this mammoth stadium that Jerry Jones and the city of Arlington built? And they wondered, can their teams really cobble together two more wins and take home a national title? It’s almost too much to think about just yet.
“I think we’ve got a good shot,” a pensive, red-clad Badger fan told me Friday, as he sat courtside watching his Wisconsin team practice. (He also enjoyed playing the parlor game of trying to figure out who all the sports talking heads were set up on the perimeter of the court. “Is that really Jim Nantz over there?” Yes, sir. Score!)
Wisconsin faces the freshmen-filled darlings of the Final Four, the No. 8-seeded Kentucky Wildcats.
Now, UK fans would have you believe their team is the underdog in Arlington, but who are they kidding? Kentucky is never really an underdog. They’ve got too much history, too many true Blue fans, and too many national championships (8). So let’s put that to rest -- the team with the most wins in NCAA basketball history (2,136), the most NCAA tournament appearances (53) and the most tournament wins (117), can’t really sneak up on anyone.
I lived in Lexington for seven years, and couldn’t help but get swept up in the Big Blue wave. I partied on Euclid Street when Tubby Smith’s Wildcats won in 1998, and would love to see them advance to the championship game on Monday night.
But if they do make it to Monday, and their opponent happens to be the favored Florida Gators (36-2), it will be the best of times and the worst of times -- at least for me. I graduated from the University of Florida in 1987, and like most Gator fans, still bleed orange and blue. So I’d be torn. I can’t help rooting for Kentucky; living in Lexington for seven years has that effect on you. But it’s still Great.. to be.. A... Florida...Gator!
First things first, however. Florida has to vanquish the University of Connecticut Huskies, one of only two teams to beat them this season. Florida may be the pundits’ pick, but that worries me and most Gator fans I talked to on Friday. (So does Shabazz Napier, UConn’s star guard who gave the Gators fits back in December.)
But at least on Friday and early Saturday, we tried to stay calm, because we knew the storm was coming.
They don’t call this March Madness for nothing, you know.