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March Madness visits Tampa

Experiencing March Madness firsthand is undoubtedly one of the more unusual experiences I’ve had the pleasure of enduring.

After witnessing six games without a single upset or overtime nail biter – though several were close – I can now testify that the real madness takes place off the court, in the NCAA circus.

Take, for example, the legend of the soda.

At every event I’ve covered in my limited professional career, complimentary drinks have been provided for the media. But the NCAA tournament takes this tradition a bit further – as a journalist, I was not even allowed to pour my own drinks. Our host, the St. Pete Times Forum, provided a staff specifically for journalists’ drink-pouring needs. I witnessed a photographer start to pour his own Coke only to be quickly stopped by an employee who finished the job.

I also witnessed a journalist arrive on the press level, which is situated directly behind one of the players’ benches at the St. Pete Times Forum, and sit down with an unopened can of Coke Zero. I’m not sure where his contraband originated, but before he was even able to open it a security guard promptly arrived to pour it into a red and black cup prominently labeled with the Powerade logo.

I watched a faithful group of Princeton students, two wearing nothing but orange spandex body suits and sunglasses, cheer on their beloved Tigers. Then I watched as heralded freshman point guard Brandon Knight – who had been held scoreless for 39 minutes and 58 seconds – broke those Princeton hearts as he drove the lane for a game-winning layup for the Wildcats with two seconds left in the game.

What I witnessed next will stay with me for a long time. Princeton coach Sydney Johnson sent his players back to the floor to cheer for the fans that had supported them all season long.

“We didn’t want to celebrate a loss in any way, shape or form,” Johnson said at a press conference after the game. “That’s not what that was about. I just feel like there’s a lot of love for our program, and our alumni and fans and families and everybody has come out to support us in droves, and you have to acknowledge that. You know, as much as I love our guys, they have to realize that we’re all people and we’ve all got to do things the right way, and when someone is giving you the support that our fans have given us, you’ve got to say thank you. You know, you can’t take that for granted.”

Johnson then broke down in tears.

Johnson wasn’t the only one to cry behind the lectern Thursday. Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas also broke down after the Spartans nearly erased a 23-point second half deficit against UCLA. Lucas struggled offensively in his final collegiate game and when asked about it, he couldn’t speak, leaving teammate Draymond Green to answer.

I also watched the less than tender Kentucky head coach John Calipari yell at a teenager who had volunteered to mop sweat off the court for not doing his job as quickly as Calipari would have liked.

“Go, go, go. Get out of here, you’re fired,” he said, yelling at the boy.

Calipari’s team erased an eight-point halftime deficit against West Virginia to secure passage to the Sweet Sixteen. While walking back on to the court for the second half of that game, I heard a woman behind me ask the score. When someone informed her of the Mountaineers’ lead, I heard a shriek of joy that forced me to turn around and look.

The woman was no other than USF President Judy Genshaft. Big East loyalties reign supreme, I suppose.

Eight teams came to Tampa and six were sent home early. Florida beat UCLA on Saturday to advance to set up a matchup with BYU in New Orleans on Thursday. Kentucky is off to Newark, where a meeting with overall No. 1 seed Ohio State looms.

I’ll be watching those games, as well as the rest of the NCAA Tournament games, if only to make sure no soda cans sneak onto press row.