College basketball is going to be weird.
And while weird can be used to describe every sport that’s played during a pandemic, this one will be the weirdest of them all.
College basketball is a very loud sport. Teenagers play inside gyms, fieldhouses, and arenas with crazed college kids screaming their lungs out only inches away. It’s what makes the sport unique. NBA arenas can get noisy, but the closest seats are filled by the rich and wealthy. And while football and baseball play in large stadiums that can be deafening at times, there’s still a barrier between the field and the stands.
But in college basketball, you can be as loud as you want while sitting/standing on the very floor the game is being played on. That’s what usually happens at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The place that serves as Duke’s home court and arguably the most intimidating venue for opposing teams to play in all of sports.
Cameron was dead on Tuesday, and so was Duke. Michigan State (3-0) knocked off the Blue Devils (1-1) 75-69 for the program’s first win at the venue, improving Tom Izzo’s record to 3-12 against Coach K.
The teams met in the opener of the Champions Classic, an annual event that started in 2011 and serves as the pseudo-kickoff to the college basketball season. Every November, four teams get together in the sport’s most-prized possession besides the NCAA Tournament.
No. 6 Duke.
No. 7 Kansas.
No. 20 Kentucky.
No. 8 Michigan State.
That’s 18 national championships, four Hall of Fame coaches, and a whole bunch of really good basketball players. Tuesday night served as the 10nth anniversary of the event that’s taken place at Madison Square Garden, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the United Center, and the old Georgia Dome in Atlanta. For the first time ever, this year’s edition was split into two venues due to COVID-19.
Duke and Kentucky played at Duke, while Kentucky (1-2) and Kansas (2-1) squared off in Indianapolis.
The entire night was …weird.
Originally, the game was supposed to have taken place last month at the United Center in Chicago. A place that’s regional enough for the Wildcats, Jayhawks, and Spartans, and an arena that the Blue Devils are very familiar with. The game puts four rabid fan bases all in one place, which is why Tuesday night was so odd.
Duke and Michigan State were playing in an empty gym in North Carolina, while the two winningest programs in the sport’s history went head-to-head in a silent NBA arena in Indiana.
Knocking down jump shots can be tricky when the voices of your teammates and coaches and the squeaking of shoes are the only sounds you hear. Duke was held to 32 percent from the field while Michigan State was 10 percentage points better at 42.9 percent. And at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Kentucky converted on 36 percent of its shots, while Kansas only hit 29.9 percent of their attempts.
A dunk like that would have usually ignited Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation, but not this season. Kansas was able to hang on to defeat the Wildcats 65-62 in a game that got close, and eerily quiet, down the stretch.
As college basketball gets started with a season that will be without bands and cheerleaders, much of the pageantry of the game will be lost. And when the sport’s next champion cuts down the nets, they will be able to say they won the most unusual NCAA Tournament of all.
It won’t be easy to create madness in March when there aren’t any fans around.