BLACKSBURG, Va. — If you’re one of the few hundred people that gets to take in a live college basketball game this season, get ready for an eerie, scrimmage-like experience. Most of us are used to seeing student sections packed with screaming fans, the band blaring songs during timeouts and the cheerleaders on the sidelines. The crowd can either work in your favor as a player playing at home, or cause you to miss crucial free throws in the final minutes when on the road. A live crowd during a sporting event adds a pulsating element to the game that enhances the experience for the player and fan. So what happens when that is taken away?
“The crowd carries us a lot in games. They’re the best sixth man in the country and we love them being there,” Virginia Tech guard Wabissa Bede told Yahoo Sports. “I miss looking around and watching all the fans get hyped for the game. It’s definitely a different vibe this year.”
It’s 6:30 p.m. in Blacksburg, Virginia, and the Virginia Tech Hokies are facing the No. 24 Clemson Tigers. Cassell Coliseum seats 9,275 people and just a year ago was packed to the rafters during a close win over Syracuse. Now with strict COVID-19 guidelines from Virginia governor Ralph Northam, only 250 people are allowed to attend — that’s 3% of capacity — with all of the fans being friends and families of the players and coaching staff.
Each person is required to wear a mask and temperatures are checked at the door. There is no traffic getting to the game and no parking attendants directing cars. Once inside, it takes a minute to grasp the vastness of an empty arena and the players warming up on the court. Half the arena is closed off to fans and only sections two through 18 are open for seating. There are two rows of cardboard fans (and some dogs) right behind the Virginia Tech and Clemson bench. It has become the go-to for programs across college basketball to simulate some sort of visual for fans watching on TV. No one is allowed on the floor at any point before, during or after the game.
“We treat the court and the two rows around it like a mini-bubble,” Virginia Tech’s assistant director of strategic communications Lance Dozier told Yahoo Sports. “There are only 34 people on the floor and they have all taken and passed a COVID-19 test just like all the players and staff.”
Everything feels like an exhibition scrimmage until the announcer welcomes everyone — all 250 people — to the game. The national anthem is a recording of a Virginia Tech student shown on the jumbo screen. She too is singing in an empty Cassell Coliseum at half court. The Hokies start every game with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” which usually gets the place rocking. A year ago, the entire arena was jumping up and down with a pulsating energy in anticipation for the game. On Tuesday night, the pregame energy fell flat.
From last college season to now. 9,000 fans to 137. What a difference a year makes 😷😳 pic.twitter.com/tUobqPhnou
— Krysten Peek (@krystenpeek) December 16, 2020
“The bench is now our energy. We can hear them talking and even though it’s not the same as 9,000 people we can still hype one another up and encourage one another,” Bede said.
Clemson was coming off a road win against Alabama and was 5-0 heading into the game. Senior forward Aamir Simms has been solid earlier in the season, scoring 24 points against Purdue and 16 against Maryland. On the other side of the ball was junior Keve Aluma, who is averaging 15 points per game and had a monster game in an upset win over Villanova. The first half was a battle with both teams shooting around 50% from the field. After 20 minutes in an empty arena with crowd noise dubbed over the loudspeakers, the Hokies had a five-point lead, 32-27.
There was no halftime entertainment. No Red Panda on her tricycle catching bowls on her head like years past. There was one concession stand open with options like BBQ sandwiches, popcorn, pretzel, candy, soda and bottled water available.
“I know this is only our fourth home game but I’m already starting to recognize the family members and know what they want for a halftime snack,” one of the concession workers said. “I think I’ll know most of their names by the end of the season.”
The second half started and Virginia Tech expands its lead to 16 points in the first eight minutes with Clemson struggling to make a basket.
“We gotta go at our pace, our pace!” You can hear Clemson head coach Brad Brownell yell to his players on the floor. “He’s holding him! I can see it from here,” he said to the ref at the other end of the court.
Being able to hear the bench so clearly during the game is the most enjoyable part of this basketball season. The communication is more streamlined and the players are more responsive on the court. People can start to recognize different commands like hearing “55” and know the defense is switching to man-to-man.
“It definitely makes things easier to communicate with players, but the downside is that other teams can hear your play calls crystal clear,” Hokies assistant coach Christian Webster told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of teams are now using whiteboards to make play calls and you have to also remember that there’s a lot of emotion on the court during games. Referees can now hear everything so you’re seeing a lot more players and coaches get technical fouls.”
The Tigers got within two points with 30 seconds left in the game and a timeout was called. A timeout that would have put the entire student section on their feet to help will Virginia Tech to a win. Instead, there were two fans that struggled to start the echoing “GO ... HOKIES” chant in an attempt to bring some life to the crowd. It lasted five seconds before the efforts died completely. A missed 3-pointer from Clemson’s Al-Amir Dawes and some key free throws by Hunter Cattoor and the game was over. Virginia Tech secured the win over ranked Clemson with a final score of 66-60. The Hokies are now 5-1 and tied for first place in the ACC alongside Florida State.
“You can’t be too high on any win but at the same time, we don’t know what’s going to happen and if we’re going to have another game to play because of everything surrounding COVID-19,” Bede added. “So every win is a big deal this season,”
There were no handshake lines. A few players on Virginia Tech chest bumped one another on the hurried walk off the court, which took only two minutes to clear entirely. The band didn’t play the school song and the cheerleaders weren’t out celebrating on the court. Fans didn’t have to wait for the aisle to clear before heading to the car. Cassell Coliseum was completely empty by 8:45 p.m.
The Hokies’ next game is Saturday at home against Coppin State pending all negative COVID-19 tests from both teams. Staff and players will wake up Friday morning at 6:30 a.m. to take another test, the third one of the week and almost the 40th of the season. It’s an astronomical number knowing teams are only seven games into the season.
“We all just want to play basketball. It was taken away from us without warning last [season] and if we have to take 100 COVID tests or whatever the case may be, we’re going to do it if we want to play,” Bede said.
A stark reality for a college season that is holding on by a thread. Each team and state is different depending on state restrictions and sometimes internal program guidelines. Kansas, Texas Tech and Florida State are all allowing up to 3,000 fans, including cheerleaders and the band, to attend home games. Teams like Duke are not allowing any fans or NBA scouts to attend games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. There is still some doubt that we will even make it to March and an NCAA tournament. But for now, players will accept the reality of playing a season full of games in a scrimmage-like atmosphere and look ahead to a time when fans can return and be the active sixth man at home games.
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