Fans weren’t the greatest casualty of the NCAA canceling the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in 2020. They weren't the ones who had put in so much hard work over the year only to be left wondering what the point of it all was.
But for the traditions of skipping class to watch games, rooting for schools no one had ever heard of before or friends lining up their computer screens to watch all the games at once, these fans had no replacement and were forced to resign to miserably hunkering down to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic isn’t over yet, but March Madness came back this year. The tournament, which concluded with Baylor defeating Gonzaga on Monday night, looked different, and so did the ways people enjoyed it. UNC students were excited to return to some of their favorite traditions.
“In past years, I’ve mainly participated in a few bracket pools with my friends and family, and I’m still able to do that this year,” first-year Parker Harris said. “I’ve also had the opportunity to watch most of the games with my friends on campus.”
Harris and his friends often look to outdoor seating on Franklin Street for COVID-19-safe spots to watch games. He’d usually be watching games with his family — which has had bracket competitions since he was young — but he hasn’t been home this year. Watching the tournament with his friends has been a good substitute.
“Probably my best memories outside of the (Gonzaga-UCLA Final Four game) were watching all of the Oral Roberts upsets with my friends and continuing to cheer them on as they kept winning,” Harris said.
For Harris, watching the games wasn’t as much of a highlight as spending quality time with the friends he met last semester. He usually makes friends during March Madness, and he said the effect has been even greater this year.
Sophomore Ashlyn Rhyne’s family also has deep-running March Madness traditions.
“Every year, my dad does a huge bracket pool with his business to raise money for Relay for Life (a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society),” she said.
As a lifelong basketball fan, Rhyne has fond memories of some of the tournament's most exciting moments, and she was usually accompanied by her family and friends during those instances. She still remembers the excitement of 2017, when UNC won its last men’s basketball championship.
“We were jumping up and down on the floor and the furniture,” Rhyne said. “I remember three of my cousins jumped in a pool in their clothes because they were so excited.”
These gatherings can’t happen in a pandemic, but Rhyne is still competing in bracket pools and making friends from other schools. Brackets always dominate conversations during March, but she said this year, it’s been a bigger talking point since there’s not much else going on.
That’s not the same experience for first-year Ronik Grewal. Unlike Harris and Rhyne, Grewal did not have the same traditions in his family. However, since arriving at UNC, he has found more time to make brackets and watch games.
“My family aren’t big basketball fans, but I am,” Grewal said. “So naturally, I’m not home, so I’m able to do more of the stuff I’m interested in.”
Though the pandemic has severed students from their family traditions, it has also given these fans a new way to experience the excitement of the tournament. As the world slowly moves closer to normality, perhaps these new traditions could also have their own kind of longevity.
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