Cleanthony Early landed a three-point basket a little more than a minute into the Shockers’ eventual 64-37 win over Cal Poly in their first NCAA Tournament game on Friday in St. Louis.
But there wasn’t much applause.
It’s not that Shocker fans had grown apathetic, 34 wins into the season. It’s just that they weren’t there.
Delays in games that were played before the Shockers’ tipoff on Friday, combined with NCAA rules that require arenas be emptied out and fans readmitted between sessions, meant that very few Shocker fans actually saw the start of the game – or the first three minutes, for that matter.
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Most of the 5,500 WSU fans in attendance were stuck in long lines outside the arena’s three entrances. Many of them were unaware the game had started.
Joe Verbeckmoes, stuck in a sea of people trying to get through entrances and past ushers checking people one-by-one with hand scanners, wondered whether the Shockers thought their fans had abandoned them.
“We wondered if the team knew what was happening,” said Verbeckmoes, who described the crowd in front of Scottrade as so large it flowed off the sidewalks and into the street. “They were playing in front of an empty arena.”
The team didn’t know. After the game, sophomore guard Evan Wessel said team members were confused.
By the time the Shockers and the Cal Poly Mustangs took the floor on Friday, the 19,000-seat arena was only about one-third full and stayed that way for the first several minutes. Team introductions were quiet.
“I guess we were a little shocked because we’re used to a much bigger crowd,” Wessel said. “You could tell when they started to filter in, though.”
The problem followed a series of unplanned delays, said Jack Watkins, associate Missouri Valley Conference commissioner and the tournament director. Watkins said he sympathized with fans who missed the first part of the game, but he said nothing could have been done to avoid it.
“I understand the frustration of the fans,” he said. “But quite honestly, with the way start times are stacked up, it makes it very difficult.”
Friday’s first tournament game, which featured Stanford’s victory over New Mexico, started on time at 12:40 p.m. but ran about 30 minutes longer than expected, Watkins said. KU’s game against Eastern Kentucky was supposed to start at 3:06 p.m., but it started at 3:36 p.m. and ended at about 5:45 p.m.
WSU vs. Cal Poly was supposed to start at 6:10 p.m. CBS, the network broadcasting the game, pushed tipoff back to 6:25 but would not go later.
According to Scottrade Center and NCAA rules, the arena must be cleared before allowing fans to re-enter, and their tickets have to be rescanned. Scottrade staff had only 40 minutes to clear 17,955 fans from the KU game, and no one left early because the game was fairly close until the end.
“According to the NCAA and Scottrade, we had to get all fans out of the building before we could open the door,” Watkins said. “The start time was set by CBS at 6:25, only 15 minutes later they were originally scheduled.”
Watkins said all three entrances to the arena were open, but that when so many people are using them, congestion is inevitable.
“When you try to move 18,000 people out of the building and that same amount back inside, 40 minutes isn’t much time,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but these are the rules we are given. It’s a tight turnaround.”
As the Shockers’ lead grew on Friday, so did its fan section. With 14 minutes left in the first half, Scottrade was filled with a sea of yellow and black and the lines outside were gone. This time, unlike at the MVC tournament two weeks ago, Shocker fans filled not only the lower bowl but also much of the upper bowl.
Mike Meitzner was among the fans stuck outside until after the game had started. He resorted to watching the game on a feed on his cellphone and announced score updates to other fans around him. Compassionate Kansas State and Kentucky fans who also were in line allowed him to cut in front of them.
By the time he got in, he said, he had missed the first four minutes.
“I was perturbed,” he said. “And you can quote me on that.”
Longtime season ticket holders Ann and John McCarty also were perturbed. They assumed that tip-off would be delayed until the fans all entered the building and were surprised to walk in and find the Shockers had already scored six points.
Arena and tournament organizers should be better prepared, Ann said.
“It’s not fair for Shockers to have bought tickets to the game and come in to find it’s already started,” she said. “The NCAA needs to re-evaluate things. They’ve played enough tournaments here that they should know how long it takes to move 18,000 people.”
By halftime, many fans reported that their anger had grown. One was typing a letter of complaint to the NCAA on his cellphone.
But Verbeckmoes, who was watching his team destroy its first NCAA Tournament opponent, said the Shockers were helping him get over it.
“I’m here now,” he said. “And the Shockers are looking great. It’s almost like a home game.”
Contributing: Tony Adame of The Eagle