By now, you think we’d be used to watching sports in a pandemic, but last night’s Champions Classic still found a way to be surreal.
No fans were allowed in to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Kentucky vs. Kansas, and ESPN decided not to pipe in crowd noise, leaving shoe squeaks, bench screams, and the occasional wail from John Calipari as the only sounds alongside the commentators. In fact, the broadcasters themselves weren’t even in the building, with ESPN’s Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale calling it from their homes and Tom Leach and Mike Pratt doing the radio call from a bunker somewhere in the Bluegrass:
— UK Sports Network (@UKSportsNetwork) December 2, 2020
If not for Dick Vitale yelling at his wife to get pizza ready for his halftime snack, I wouldn’t have noticed that the broadcasters weren’t there, but not having a crowd, or specifically, any crowd noise, was jarring. Every big play was met with screams from teammates, but quickly after, silence. Normally, this dunk by BJ Boston would have brought the arena to its feet and launched a hearty “GO BIG BLUE” chant. Instead…
Good evening, BJ Boston. pic.twitter.com/BlH53L4Quf
— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) December 2, 2020
Compare that to this clip of Olivier Sarr’s dunk at the start of the Richmond game on Sunday:
More of these, please
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 29, 2020
It’s clearly not the roar of a packed Rupp Arena, but even having 3,000 people in the stands helps the experience, both for players and fans. Crowd noise was also piped in to Kentucky’s first two games, and without it last night, I found it much more difficult to stay engaged and I’m just a blogger sitting on my couch; I can’t imagine being a player. No wonder some of Kentucky’s freshmen look like they’re playing in AAU games — strip the logos off the floor and that’s essentially the setting.
Calipari has brought up limited crowds several times in the past week, always with the caveat that the other team’s dealing with the same thing; yet, I would argue that for a team this young, it has an even bigger impact. With little to no energy from fans, the bench — or rather, sideline of socially distanced chairs — becomes even more important. On Monday, Terrence Clarke noted that Richmond’s team, a group of veterans, did a great job of keeping the momentum rolling on Sunday.
“No fans, it’s different but it is basketball at the end of the day. We have the hoop. The momentum was definitely there for them as soon as they got it going and it starts on the bench. I think that’s one of the main things we’re going to hit on too especially since we don’t have any fans at all tomorrow. Just supporting each other and being as loud as we can for each other is definitely going to help us with our momentum when we get into a run too. That’s probably the main thing.”
To Kentucky’s credit, the bench was louder last night (or maybe we just heard them because there was no crowd noise); however, when Kansas started chipping away at the Cats’ lead at the end of the first half and went on its big run to take the lead in the second, you could feel the energy drain from Kentucky’s side of the court. Afterwards, Isaiah Jackson admitted that’s been one of the toughest things to adjust to this season.
“Playing with energy the whole game. Because once you stop playing with energy and they start to get that run, if you don’t make baskets or get stops, it can keep going.”
For now, Kentucky can keep having limited crowds at Rupp, but these neutral-site games may be a different story. No fans will be allowed in to the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta on Sunday. Fan attendance for the UCLA game in the CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland is to be determined. Who knows what they’ll do for the NCAA Tournament next spring. Yet, if last night taught us anything, pipe in that crowd noise. We all need it.