The Return of March Madness

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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NCAA Tournament

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Judy Carnes sat on media row but did not see Mario’s Miracle. She occupied a prime seat in the Alamodome, mere feet from history, but never saw the ball arc toward the basket, the final seconds ticking down, Memphis State on the verge of celebration.

Somewhere over the rainbow, Kansas held its breath. Carnes drifted. The director of operations for the 2008 men’s Final Four began collapsing under the weight of 16-18 hour work days. “I was nodding off,” she says. “I’m not kidding. That was the first time I had sat down in probably three months. I was exhausted.”

As her eyes began to close, a three-pointer from Mario Chalmers fell through the net. “The place went wild,” Carnes says. “I just jumped up. I know you’re supposed to be calm on media row and not root for any particular team. But I started screaming.”

Chalmers’ improbable shot -- with the hand of Derrick Rose in his face -- tied the score with 2.1 seconds left in regulation. Kansas prevailed in overtime, 75-68, and provided a moment for Carnes. “That shot woke me up for the rest of the game and the after party,” she says. “That was quite an evening.”

Carnes expects more of the madness when the AT&T Center plays host to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time with the Second and Third Rounds on March 21 and 23 next year. The two-day event will bring eight teams to the AT&T Center for six games, with two teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.

“This is the most fun round of the tournament,” says Carnes, director of event operations and bids for San Antonio Sports.

The early rounds of the tournament are known for upsets, buzzer beaters, spectacular finishes. “You won’t know until selection day exactly who is going to be here,” says UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey. “But you are not taking a chance by buying a ticket. It’s going to be very entertaining.”

The AT&T Center and UTSA will co-host the return of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to San Antonio. The event is supported by San Antonio Sports and the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Hickey will serve in the familiar role of tournament director. The second and third rounds will mark the ninth time UTSA has hosted an NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship event.

The AT&T Center has held one NCAA basketball tournament -- the women’s regional final in 2006. The men’s tournament in March will bring another marquee event to a venue with a long history of hosting major attractions.

Since opening in 2002, the AT&T Center has held NBA championship games in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2013, the WNBA Finals in 2008 and the WNBA All-Star game in 2011. The arena also has been the site for the annual Stock Show & Rodeo, National Hockey League and American Hockey League games, World Wrestling & Entertainment shows and a plethora of concerts.

“We have something for everybody,” says Ron Snead, the arena’s director of building operations. “The AT&T Center always strives to bring new events to San Antonio and South Texas.”

Snead has worked events at the AT&T Center for nearly a decade. What Snead, fellow staff members and fans enjoy most is the electricity at sold-out games or concerts. “The energy in the building is just unbelievable,” Snead says. “We all get very, very excited.”

The men’s basketball tournament will bring thousands of visitors to San Antonio, provide a powerful economic boost and showcase the city on a national stage. Organizers hope the event strengthens the city’s bid to bring future Final Fours to San Antonio.

“We are in the first stage of the next Final Four bidding process on the men’s and women’s side,” Carnes says. “We go to Indianapolis in a couple of weeks and meet with NCAA staff to discuss our bid. San Antonio has submitted our intent to bid for 2018, 2019 and 2020 Final Fours for both the men and women.”

San Antonio played host to the women’s Final Four in 2002 and 2010 and the men’s Final Four in 1998, 2004 and 2008 at the Alamodome. Hickey remembers when 29,619 poured into the Alamodome to watch the women in 2002, a Final Four attendance record that remains. She remembers the electrifying three-pointer from Chalmers in 2008. She also remembers the exciting Cinderella run of Virginia Commonwealth in the 2011 Southwest Regional, the last time an NCAA men’s basketball tournament was held in San Antonio.

VCU arrived as the 11th seed, a team that needed to win an extra game in the First Four to reach the round of 64. The Rams upset Florida State in overtime at the Alamodome, then stunned top-seeded Kansas, 71-61, to reach the Final Four.

“That was huge,” Hickey says. “There were a lot of people who didn’t know who they were. How did they get here? Was it luck? But once they competed against Kansas, they really took charge of the game. It was fun and made a statement that this is a tournament. If you can get your foot in the door, anybody has a chance to go all the way. That’s why it’s called March Madness.”

In a little more than three months, the madness comes to the AT&T Center.