Road Trip: Under the Big Top

Jason Caldwell gives a first-hand report of the scene at the biggest show in collegiate athletics.

Atlanta, Ga.--With my apologies to Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, what I witnessed Saturday night was truly The Greatest Show On Earth. More than 52,000 fans packed into the Georgia Dome to see four teams fight for the right to play in Monday night's National Championship game and they came away in awe of the performances they saw.

Unfortunately for me, the sight I saw, at least in the first game between Indiana and Oklahoma, was mostly between squints of my eyes from my seats in section 313 in the upper level. To give you some perspective on my view, if you stood on top of the upper deck in Jordan-Hare Stadium and watched a basketball game on the playing surface, you wouldn't be any further away than I was Saturday night. Still, there was no place I would have rather been than holding my binoculars watching my first Final Four.

Walking into the Dome the sight that greeted my eyes was the overwhelming numbers of Indiana fans in attendance. Although they have never been one of my favorite basketball schools, they earned a great deal of respect from me Saturday because of the large following they had draped in red for Saturday's first semi-final. In talking with several students who made the trip, they were still amazed that this team made it to the Final Four. They were even more amazed their Hoosiers pulled off the upset of Oklahoma to make the title game. Everywhere you looked between games you could see an Indiana fan on a cell phone screaming or crying to a loved one or friend about the continued run of the Hoosiers.

That run wouldn't have been possible without the play of Jeffrey Newton. Forced to step up when superstar Jared Jeffries went out in the first half with foul trouble, the Atlanta native carried the Hoosiers with a will larger than his slight frame seemingly would allow. A whirlwind of activity on both the offensive and defensive ends, Newton came into the game averaging just 7.8 points per game but scored 18 on the night and added several key blocks at important times. His play at times had Hoosier fans around me asking where this guy had been all year. Not unlike in years past, it took the biggest stage in all of college basketball for a star to shine.

In between games Kenny Lannou, who works for the Auburn sports information department, and myself decided to try our luck by moving a little closer to the court. That chase came up roses as we found a friendly face who said he had two seats open beside him in the middle of the Maryland section just behind the basket. That was perfect for me because I was definitely rooting for the Terps in game two against the Kansas Jayhawks. On the way to our new seats we saw several faces that are familiar to sports fans, including Trey Wingo of ESPN Sportscenter fame.

When we finally settled into our seats we began to realize just what this event was all about. Maryland fans were in a frenzy and the battle cry of Fear The Turtle could be heard reverberating throughout the Georgia Dome.

Surprisingly, that cry easily muffled the cheers of the Kansas crowd, which had perhaps the smallest contingent among the four teams along with Oklahoma, who had to split their crowd among both the men's and women's final fours. Before the game began all the talk was about the Maryland big men and the difficulty they would pose to the smaller but more athletic Kansas front line. While that ended up being the case, this game was all about Juan Dixon. While Duke's Jason Williams may be named the National Player of the Year, there is no doubt in anyone's mind who saw Saturday night's game that Dixon should win the award. Watching his team fall behind 14-3 early in the game, he went on a tear to close the half and put Maryland in front after the first 20 minutes. Finishing the game with 33 points, including a late basket with a one-time 20-point lead down to just five, Dixon refused to let his team lose the game as it had one year earlier against Duke in the semi-finals. That trait is what makes Dixon my choice as the true player of the year.

Now all that's left is to determine the national champion. On paper it looks to be a mis-match as the deeper and stronger Terps take on the methodical Indiana Hoosiers. But these Hoosiers have been beaten on paper in two of the last three games they've played only to come out on top when it counts. Coach Mike Davis has done one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory and that alone will keep Indiana within reach, but in the end I expect to see Dixon give Coach Gary Williams his first national championship after so many tries. Whether it's Maryland or Indiana, I'll be there to witness it with a wide-eyed enthusiasm (and a pair of good binoculars) only a college basketball junkie could appreciate.


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