Contrary to popular belief and a football-first shtick, I periodically enjoy other sports. On Saturday, I very much enjoyed college basketball, because Florio Jr. and I made a bucket-list trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, to take in the sport that started in 1891 with a pair of peach baskets.
Making the Final Four more attractive in 2019 was the fact that the games are being played in Minnesota, a place that we’ve visited four times in less than three years and that occupies the top spot on the short list of places to which I’d move if I ever leave West Virginia, which I’ll never do.
After a late Friday night dinner at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul (probably my favorite place to eat, anywhere), Jr. and I got a good night’s sleep and then headed over to U.S. Bank Stadium, where a football venue had been converted to college basketball’s epicenter, at least for a weekend.
With due respect to all other NFL facilities (and acknowledging the fact that new stadiums will soon be opened in L.A. and Las Vegas), U.S. Bank Stadium currently is the league’s best venue. From the unique design to the natural light to the sea of purple seats to the soaring, slanted roof, to the many bells and whistles tucked into the nooks and crannies of the structure, there’s nothing like it.
The fact that the stadium transitioned so seamlessly to an oversized basketball arena makes it even more impressive. All of the windows were covered to facilitate proper lighting for basketball, the purple seats in the lower bowl were replaced with a swarm of black folding chairs, the one-of-a-kind roof was concealed by a Close Encounters mother ship spreadsheet that hovered over the floor. The end result was that the football stadium didn’t feel like a football stadium, at all.
Of course, some football principles trickled into one of the games, with a controversial foul call (and an even more controversial missed double dribble) allowing Virginia to steal a berth in the championship game from Auburn. In the building, we had no idea what was happening; we thought the game was over, and then we noticed after 30 seconds or so that the teams weren’t leaving the court.
And then Kyle Guy quickly drained a pair of free throws with a confident-to-the-brink-of-smug smirk to tie the game, before Auburn called a time out. (For a few seconds, we thought that Guy’s foot had been on the line for the last shot, resulting in only two free throws; that’s one of the realities of watching a game in person without access to radio or TV commentary.)
The timeout didn’t affect Guy’s affect. He drained the game winner with that same skinny-guy swagger.
There surely will be endless debates about the events that led to the Auburn loss, including the question of whether the game’s replay rules should allow a double dribble to be called after the fact. In the aftermath of Rams-Saints, I’m glad this isn’t my fight. Instead, we simply enjoyed the second Saturday basketball game played at a football stadium, and now it’s time to return with full focus on the sport that pays the bills.