NCAA president has ‘complete confidence’ in Columbia as tournament host
Whether it was spontaneous or not, Mark Emmert’s positioning for an interview Friday was ideal.
The NCAA president — a man on the move this month — just happened to stop against a wall covered by a giant bracket and spend a few minutes with local reporters. It was the kind of scene that helped further confirm reality that Columbia was, indeed, hosting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament again.
The 49-year drought officially ended around 12:40 Friday afternoon when the basketball was put into play for eighth-seeded Oklahoma and ninth-seeded Ole Miss at Colonial Life Arena. Emmert took in that game before jetting off for first round action in Columbus, Ohio.
“We want to make sure all the logistical stuff, in the back room, things work really well for the players, for the athletes that are here,” Emmert said. “And so far, it’s been great. You got a wonderful local organizing committee here. The city, the whole community’s been really, really excited to make it all work well. And so far everything’s fabulous.
“We have complete confidence in being here. And the fact that this is a kind of a historical moment, haven’t been here in a long time, that just adds luster to the game. They have some great matchups, gonna have some really good ballgames here, I think.”
Colonial Life Arena was mostly full for the Sooners’ 95-72 win over the Rebels. The atmosphere kicked up a notch for Virginia-Gardner-Webb as it felt like all of the Bulldogs’ student body had made the two-hour drive from Boiling Springs, North Carolina.
Dan Wolken, a national sports writer for USA Today, tweeted during the Ole Miss-OU game, “Really like Columbia as an NCAA tournament venue. Arena feels full even for the early game and has more of a college feel than a lot of the cookie-cutter NBA arenas.”
This was Columbia’s first time in this kind of spotlight since 1970, when the event fielded 25 teams and didn’t have nearly the fanfare. The capital city was tabbed a regional host two years ago.
“I think the energy, the enthusiasm, the commitment to the community to make sure it goes right,” Emmert said of Columbia’s appeal. “You got beautiful facilities here of course because of the university because it’s a terrific location, a great part of the country to be in, lots of local energy around the game, so you know you’re gonna have big crowds.
“All of that combined made it a very logical fit for us.”
Greensboro and Raleigh will take this region’s spot as host the next two years before it returns to South Carolina with Greenville in 2022. Columbia is hopeful to do it again in 2023.
“We recognize this as a national game,” Emmert said. “Obviously North Carolina’s a bedrock of a lot of basketball, but there’s a lot of good basketball down here, too, and we’re delighted to be here.”