Forget about the blue bloods. Here comes some new blood.
If there is a mantra for the quartet of teams and fan bases descending upon Minneapolis for the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, that is it.
For the first time since 1987, the Final Four won’t feature at least one of these six traditional power programs, often referred to as blue bloods: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Louisville.
In their place are Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn — the latter two for the first time ever and Auburn after defeating three of those storied programs on the way to the Final Four.
If that has dented the excitement of some casual fans, it has had the opposite effect on the die-hards from the nontraditional powers who are treating this weekend like it might never happen again.
Final Four teams arrived Wednesday, and on Thursday they had closed practices along with media availability at U.S. Bank Stadium. They’re getting acclimated to a new city and the media crush — not to mention a different type of facility.
“We walked into the stadium and I really didn’t know it was a football stadium we were playing in so it definitely caught me off guard,” Auburn senior Horace Spencer said.
Virginia guard Braxton Key hit the two main national media themes in one quote Thursday, saying that it’s “cold” and that he hopes to make it to Mall of America.
Other players said they hoped to get a chance to walk around more Thursday night and get acquainted with downtown. The giant Ferris wheel is in place along Nicollet Mall, in anticipation of the public festivities kicking off Friday along with the first significant wave of out-of-town fans. Most of the gawkers Thursday looked like locals on their lunch breaks, but that will all change soon.
Minneapolis is ready for the spotlight and a big party said Kate Mortenson, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Local Organizing Committee.
“The teams are in town, and everyone downtown is starting to look a little taller than the average citizen,” Mortenson said. “We are really looking forward to seeing how our region responds to the invitation we’ve made to them and be a part of this.”
The absence of Duke freshman Zion Williamson, the presumed No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, might have dimmed the star power. But it doesn’t diminish the event, said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team knocked off Duke in the region final.
“The Final Four is bigger than a player, it’s bigger than the coach, and it’s bigger than a program,” Izzo said.
A big stage
The Final Four is arguably the second-biggest neutral site team sporting event in the United States every year. What makes this year’s event even more interesting is that just 14 months ago Minneapolis also hosted the biggest such event.
If last February’s Super Bowl is your frame of reference for huge local sporting events, though, you should know the Final Four will have a different feel.
Secondary market tickets for Saturday (both sessions) were $250 for the cheap seats, while fans could grab a pair of seats for Monday’s title game — teams TBA, of course — for a little over $100. Super Bowl tickets, meanwhile, were more like a mortgage payment (or two).
There can be a discernible shift, too, in both the atmosphere and fan bases as the Final Four is narrowed to two teams. Some fans from Saturday’s two losing teams will try to sell tickets for Monday’s championship game and leave town, while others will swoop in.
The fans who are here, though, will be emotionally invested. The Final Four tends to feel less corporate than the Super Bowl, with college pride bursting all over.
Here they come
That’s the case with Kelsey Johnson, a Texas Tech alum who is all-in on this year’s Final Four. Johnson, 31, is driving to the Twin Cities all day Friday and part of the day Saturday from Lubbock — more than 1,000 miles — with his girlfriend, Lacy Brown, and her two sons Logan, 8, and Caden, 12.
“It almost feels unreal,” said Johnson, a season-ticket holder for Texas Tech football and men’s basketball. “But I’m sure when we start heading that direction Friday it will feel more real.”
He and Brown made a holiday trip to New York to see the Red Raiders face (and lose to) Duke, and they had their eye on a revenge game in the Final Four until Michigan State pulled the region final upset.
“But we’re not disappointed by any means. Michigan State and Virginia are very good. Auburn might be the hottest team right now,” Johnson said. “It’s a good field. I think it’s pretty even across the board. Anybody could win it, and I think that’s what gives us some optimism.”
That optimism is fueling a northward surge.
According to data from HotelTonight, Texas Tech fans have been searching for hotels in the Twin Cities at the highest rate of any of the four fan bases. StubHub, a secondary ticket marketplace, reports that outside of Minnesota, the most ticket buyers on the site for the Final Four are coming from Texas — presumably to see the Red Raiders — than any other state.
Red Raiders fans have a reputation for traveling well, and they turned out in big numbers for the first two weekends of the tournament as their team continued its march to Minneapolis.
The scene in Lubbock, Johnson said, has been one big party. With three of the four fan bases unaccustomed to the Final Four — and likely to treat it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience instead of a birthright — that giddiness could extend across the Twin Cities.
“With co-workers and people around town it’s all people can talk about. I walk down the hallway at work, and there’s people talking about who have never said anything about it before,” said Johnson, the director of the local YWCA. “It’s hard to get any work done knowing what’s coming.”
Izzo has brought Michigan State to the Final Four eight times — the Spartans have by far the most experience in this setting of the four teams — including a 2001 trip in Minneapolis at the Metrodome. Back then, Izzo said, teams stayed out by the airport because the tournament rules were different.
“I think this is going to be a tremendous setting right downtown, and I’m really looking forward to it,” Izzo said.
So is everyone else — except the blue bloods.
“It’s going to be the culmination of over 1,000 days of planning,” Mortenson said. “We’re not excited for it to be over. We’re excited for it to begin.”