Sam: 'March Madness in town: What fun'
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – "And in Jacksonville the Tar Heels are going to advance to the Sweet 16."
Words most long-time residents and sports fans thought they'd never hear. But for the third time in 9 years the NCAA returned to the Arena for the second and third round of the basketball tournament known as "March Madness."
"They won't come back here until we get a bigger arena with better television access," one observer sent out on Twitter this week. I wasn't sure how he came to this conclusion since the NCAA has chosen Jacksonville as a regional site THREE times. Same arena, same "television access" and moreover same hospitality, same weather (great) and same conclusion: We're a great spot for this event.
Everything about the NCAA Tournament is fun and Jacksonville is the perfect venue for five days of basketball, the beach and enjoyment. Somehow, the three times the tournament has been here the weather has been great. (Conversely when The Players started here in March it always seemed to feature some of the worst spring weather of the year).
While the city still lacks at least one more upscale hotel (a la the Hyatt downtown) we're easy to get to for a lot of fans and something new for a lot of the visitors following their teams. Georgia State, UNC, Ole Miss and Wofford supporters had no trouble driving if they chose. Harvard (Boston, and please get me out of this snow!) Baylor (Waco, TX) and Xavier (Cincinnati) had easy flights, either non- or one-stop. Arkansas's fans could drive or fly and escape their own pre-spring chill. Several members of the Crimson noted the Jacksonville weather in their opening press conference. They stayed at One Ocean so a peek at the beach and "being somewhere that used air conditioning" was a treat.
Whether it was a Bolles, UNF or JU, there were plenty of places for the eight squads to practice. The Tar Heels had dinner at Ruth's Chris on the Southbank Wednesday night. No dealing with anything out of the ordinary when it came to weather or getting around. In fact, the JSO provided escorts for the team buses wherever they went.
Where we did drop the ball was allowing the Main Street Bridge to be closed on Thursday night and having no access to I-95 off the Acosta the same evening. I know the construction there on the interstate and surrounding roads has taken a long time but with this many people in the city from out of town, ease of getting around is paramount. Not just for this trip but to encourage people to come back. And the $30 charge for parking in the garages smacked of gouging a captive audience.
Much like when the Super Bowl was here and the NFL Owners stayed at the Ritz at Amelia and Amelia Island Plantation, most of the NCAA executives were at the Ponte Vedra Club or the Lodge, providing a nice home base other than their standard business hotel.
Having the food trucks by the arena was a good idea and it's always a nice sight when people are walking along the river headed to and from the game. (Imagine if the Shipyards project ever gets built!)
I wish more fans had the opportunity to take advantage of the Wednesday shoot-around for all eight teams. It was a nice touch when Head Coach Roy Williams stopped UNC's session early for a dunk and half court shot contest and then sent his players into the stands for pictures, to shake hands and sign autographs for those in attendance. "I thought there were a lot of kids there who would get a kick out of it," he told me later.
Going to the NCAA Tournament is a treat and when they have it in your hometown, it's really special.
Hopefully, they'll be back. Soon.
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