Well, this is going to be weird.
North Dakota State's men's basketball team, which earned a coveted trip to the NCAA tournament by beating North Dakota Tuesday night in the Summit League title game, will play its opening-round game in a near-empty arena.
NCAA President Mark Emmert in a statement Wednesday said the organization will hold all of its upcoming championships, including the wildly popular men's basketball tournament, with "only essential staff and limited family attendance" in an attempt to help stop the spread of the virus.
"While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States," Emmert said. "The decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.
"We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families. Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed."
The games will still be televised, of course, but the Bison and 67 other teams will be playing in practically empty arenas in virtual silence.
One of the great atmospheres in American sports will be reduced to that of a YMCA gym — surrounded by thousands of empty seats.
Call it March Sadness.
"I'm sad. I'm disappointed it's come to this," NDSU coach Dave Richman said. "That being said, I get it. We have to be precautionary. This is a serious health issue and we have to take the necessary steps to keep everybody safe."
The Bison will find out Sunday who and where they'll play when the NCAA announces the tournament field. Two top bracket prognosticators, ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CBS Sport's Jerry Palm, predict NDSU will be a 15-seed and will play second-seeded Florida State in Tampa in the first round March 19 or 20.
Not that it much matters. NDSU's previous four trips to the Big Dance were the classic combination of fans, cheerleaders, bands and energy. They were noisy. They were festive. They were exciting. Last year's game against Duke in Columbia, S.C., drew 16,219 fans.
This time it will be a low-key affair played before what will likely be only several hundred people. Amelie Arena in Tampa, if indeed the Bison play there, seats 20,500 people. There would likely be 20,000 empty seats in the cavernous building.
They could just as well play in a YMCA.
"It's probably the safest course of action for everybody involved," Bison athletic director Matt Larsen said. "Unfortunately, it's going to affect the atmosphere and the experience of the student-athletes."
Richman said his veteran team, filled with the likes of seniors Vinnie Shahid, Tyson Ward and Jared Samuelson, and experienced juniors Rocky Kreuser, Tyree Eady and Cameron Hunter, will handle the eerie surroundings just fine.
"Our guys are really excited about being on the NCAA tournament stage, no matter the circumstances," Richman said, tossing in a reminder that schools from smaller conferences often play games before sparse crowds. "The magnitude of being in the NCAA tournament will cancel out any environment thing."
So will playing a game in front of almost no fans be a help or a hindrance to the Bison, who will enter their opening-round contest as a huge underdog? That's the nature of being a team seeded 15th or, if NDSU gets lucky, 14th. The Bison will be matched up against a highly ranked team, likely from a major conference.
There are two ways of looking at it.
Early round games are often filled with fans of high-seeded schools close to the host arena. A game pitting NDSU against Florida State in Tampa, for example, would be like a home game for the Seminoles. That would be a disadvantage for the Bison. So an empty arena would benefit NDSU.
On the other hand, sometimes crowds get behind the underdog when it has a chance to upset a big school. The Bison learned this in the 2014 tournament when they shocked Oklahoma in overtime. As the game wore on, the fans in the Spokane, Wash., arena cheered wildly for NDSU as they were keeping pace with the Sooners.
For now, that's too much thinking. Richman said his team will be ready, no matter the crowd size.
"This group is very mentally tough. They're not going to worry about whatever is surrounding them or their games," Richman said. "They are going to go out, tee it up and make no excuses."
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