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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)



GREENVILLE - The manual that NCAA Tournament host sites are given before March Madness begins is 280 pages long. It details everything from how many inches certain tables should be to which drinking cups are permitted on the floor to exactly how certain graphics are supposed to look.

More often than he would like to admit, Furman athletic director Mike Buddie has jolted awake at 3 a.m., his mind racing through the night as he makes sure all of his bases are covered.

"It's waking up thinking, 'Oh my gosh, do we have 204 seats for the media or 210?' The little things," Buddie said. "Just making sure that we don't drop the ball on something that's important."

In any other year under most any other circumstances, Buddie would have had 2½ to 3 years to prepare. Cities bid well in advance for the opportunity to host a men's basketball NCAA Tournament regional, and are accepted or declined years before the actual event.

Furman and the Southern Conference - serving as co-hosts for this weekend's Greenville Regional - had less than five months.

In September, the NCAA decided to pull all tournament games out of the state of North Carolina in a stance against the so-called bathroom bill (HB2 law), which requires transgender individuals to use the restroom that matches their sex on their birth certificate. With first- and second-round games scheduled to be played in Greensboro, N.C., the NCAA reopened the bidding for host cities a month later. Greenville placed a bid.

Banned for more than a decade from hosting major NCAA championship events because of the Confederate battle flag's presence on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, the men's basketball tournament returned to the Palmetto State this year for the first time since 2002. South Carolina became eligible to place a bid after the flag was officially removed from the Statehouse in July 2015, just weeks after the shooting deaths of nine black people by a self-avowed white supremacist at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.

"I just think it's huge after 15 years of not even being eligible to bid on an event like this," Buddie said of the opportunity to host an NCAA regional. "South Carolina has always been a destination state. It's a state that's inclusive and welcoming to visitors, so for the upstate it's just fantastic.

"We often call Greenville one of the best-kept secrets, and it's an opportunity for fans and employees of eight universities - from Marquette to Texas Southern to Troy - to have an opportunity hopefully to step foot in our town for the first time and come away really impressed. It's just kind of an opportunity to showcase what I think is a pretty special community on a national stage."

Indeed, all eyes turned to Greenville this weekend both from a political standpoint and from a position of pure competition. With the ACC's Duke and North Carolina playing at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, along with SEC members South Carolina and Arkansas, a ticket to the Greenville Regional was the hottest and most expensive among all of its counterparts.

If a South Carolina city was going to earn the right to host, Columbia would have almost definitively been the natural choice after the games were yanked from North Carolina, but the city did not put in a bid for two reasons:

When a city hosts a regional, its hotels are required to have three private meeting rooms of at least 1,200 square feet each for all eight teams participating - so 24 meeting rooms total. One of the largest hotels in Columbia - so big that it could have hosted two of those eight teams - was completely full and the city did not want to ask guests to reschedule their plans on such short notice. Additionally, the South Carolina women's basketball team has been so dominant that it was almost a certainty that Dawn Staley's team would earn the right to open NCAA play at home - also this weekend.

Columbia has already submitted a bid to host a regional in 2019, 2020, 2021 or 2022 at Colonial Life Arena, which holds 18,000 people. Greenville has done the same to hold it at Bon Secours Wellness Arena again, which holds 15,951. The NCAA will announce future sites on April 18.

"The most exciting day was when we found we had the opportunity to even bid on events," said Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports, who officially put in the bids. "All the communities throughout the state that do what I do, bring sporting events in, are pretty close. We're all a part of the South Carolina Sports Alliance and we all have some of the similar issues and difficulties, and obviously one of those was not being able to bid on NCAA events. That really was probably the most exciting day I've had since I've been here. I took this job knowing that we couldn't bid on events 12-and-a-half years ago."

From a legislative perspective, most state representatives agreed the tournament was a positive thing for South Carolina. But the way in which the state got it - in part because of the flag removal - was a more polarizing subject.

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said having the South Carolina men's basketball team get a de-facto home game is the direct outcome of a plan put in motion when the Confederate battle flag was removed from the Statehouse grounds.

"Who could have imagined that it would be so easy to see the benefits of doing the right thing as watching the Gamecocks play in Greenville?" said Rutherford, who received his law degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law. "It was only made possible because South Carolina did the right thing and North Carolina did not. And because of that we've benefited."

But Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, was upset that the line between politics and sports was blurred.

"I have a problem with the NCAA trying to dictate politics in any sport at any level," said Pitts, who voted against removing the Confederate flag. "If you want to look at the flag debate, there was good and bad that came. There were tensions that came out of the flag debate that took us in a wrong direction.

"Positives? The economic boom coming from this is definitely one of them that you can't argue with."

More than 42,000 tickets were expected to be sold over all three sessions of the regional, and VisitGreenvilleSC projected 6,300 hotel rooms would be purchased between teams, coaches, media and fans. The city of Greenville is expected to bring in more than $3.6 million for the weekend.

For his part, Buddie is optimistic this weekend's event will convince the NCAA that Greenville deserves to host tournaments in the future.

"I was hopeful and I remain hopeful that when they announce the future dates, that South Carolina will get some," Buddie said. "I would have never guessed that we would have been hosting in the spring of 2017. Of course it took unusual circumstances for that to happen, but we're excited nonetheless."

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March 19, 2017


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