The Georgia Dome experience can’t be started inside the gates. Or even inside the property line. When you are in Atlanta, it has to start when your commute begins. Mine started in earnest when I set foot on the MARTA. It has been a number of years since I darkened the doors of Hotlanta’s version of rapid transit. MARTA, as locals know, stands for Mobile Aggravation, Plundering and Torturing Aparatus. They’ve made several upgrades to the ride over the years, but it still clings to its classic form: as dirty as the New York subway, but without the access or character.
But the important thing to note is that when we pulled into the Georgia Dome station and the doors opened, a troika of Kentucky fans shouted in unison, “Go Cats!” It was the first time I took notice that the tram car was about half-full of ‘Cat fans. It was a subdued rally cry and it got no reaction from the rest of the large Kentucky blue-clad passengers. It was a clear sign of the times. This is a ‘Cat Nation here to show their support, but they are not primed for the big time. It was not a fever pitch giddiness you would expect to see from an elite program’s fan base in a tournament setting. You need confidence to be at that level of giddiness, and it is clear the Wildcat fans are not feeling a championship run here.
Or maybe it was just some people on a train.
The next part of the commute involved touring the bowels of the Georgia Dome to find the media gate. It is immediately clear that the city has done nothing to beautify or make the sub-surface thoroughfares of the downtown sports complexes, shall we say, human-friendly. It is a great atmosphere for pigeons, cockroaches and of course the local rodent population (Calipari would have had a great time making his strides into the Dome by this route). The random mystery liquids covering every square inch of otherwise unadorned concrete provided a kaleidoscopic show.
But this is not to poor mouth Atlanta. This is one of America’s great cities. There are countless things that Atlanta does well and very well. Mass transit and downtown are not two of them. This is merely to point out a clear similarity that stood out to me this night. The media and fan route to the Georgia Dome is an excellent symbolic mirror for the route that the Gator basketball players took. The year-round blood and sweat and pain and grit that these young men have put into this program – four of them having done it for four straight years – has been grueling, dirty, rough and usually not very pretty. But they had to travel through all that muck and mire to get to the Georgia Dome this weekend ranked #1 in the nation, ready to play for two consecutive tournament titles. This is when the glamour – the end of the season. When they cut down the nets for going 18-0 in conference. Where they aim to cut down the nets for winning the league tournament. Where they plan to cut down the nets for winning an NCAA regional. And where they have their sights set on cutting down the nets for winning the national crown.
Their journey to get there was symbolically not too unlike the journey to get to the Georgia Dome. You just hope that the end of the trek pays off.
Then of course, you enter the venue. And the world changes like Dorothy stepping out of her black and white cyclone world and into a sparkling Technicolor Oz. This is a great venue for tournament basketball. Having watched SEC Championship games in this building in the past, I can attest to it being a great venue for college football as well, at least as great as an indoor facility can be. But with basketball you are so much closer and so much more intimate with the players and coaches just inches away from the courtside seats. Obligations prevented me from taking in the Gators’ tourney opener in person, but that actually allowed me to take a more objective look at the Georgia Dome experience as a somewhat disinterested observer.
Watching from up close at ground level two teams like Kentucky (a tournament team) and LSU (a tournament bubble team) makes you really appreciate the strategy, discipline, precision and team basketball that is at work whenever the Florida Gators are on the court. Kentucky and LSU are playing hard. And they’ve got some great athletes. Some are going to be NBA stars. But they were playing pickup basketball for most of the night compared to the Gators’ tactical machine.
And it is so easy to see why we swept Kentucky this year and dominated them so completely in Gainesville. Everything they do is predicated upon individual athletes physically bullying their way to the basket. The refs are letting them brutalize LSU in the paint, but also they are getting away with shoves and hip checks and several other no-no’s outside the paint as well. And LSU does not have the bulk or strength inside to battle through the muggings, and they don’t have the speed and athleticism to stand up to the shoving outside the paint. Florida does. They can absorb the Lexington street crime and go about playing their game. Another thing that aids Florida is that their spacing, ball screens and ball movement make it much more difficult for Kentucky to put their bodies to work on them. LSU has none of those things, and if any of the Tiger players were carrying lunch money, it would have been stolen by Kentucky long ago. And yet the Wildcats could not until very late turn this game into the blowout it should have been because they simply don’t have the discipline and are not playing team basketball.
When you are up close, you can also see so much more clearly how terrible college basketball officials are. The brutality and obviousness of the ignored fouls committed by Kentucky, and the inequitable ticky-tack calls going against LSU, are egregious. The professional muggers I passed on the way into the Dome had nothing on the Kentucky bigs. The Wildcats are permitted to play by tackle football rules and LSU are forced to play by flag football rules. The biggest reveal here is that if you are watching on TV or up in the stands and you see some serious fouls being ignored, you don’t know the half of it. It was 5-on-8 basketball for the LSU Tigers – and you can bet those will be the same odds for any team facing Kentucky this weekend in what the officials revere religiously as ‘Catlanta. Even though they have only won a single SEC tournament title here since 2004.
‘Cat Nation will be a force in the stands if Florida faces Kentucky Sunday. The LSU faithful were impressive pound-for-pound, but there just weren’t many of them in attendance. When Kentucky made moves in the game, the arena filled with uniform booming noise like you would expect a home court to do. It will be very interesting to see what the crowd split is if the Gators and Wildcats face off in the finals. While Kentucky always turns out for their hoopsters, it was not so long ago that this venue was forcibly dubbed The Florida Dome. Over a five-year stretch, the Gators owned the Georgia Dome. They racked up five SEC titles and a national championship in this building in just half a decade. The football team went to three SEC Championship Games, winning two of them on the way to national titles, while the men’s basketball team won three-straight SEC tournament titles and raced to victory in a Final Four and a national title game.
If the orange and blue face Kentucky blue on Sunday, we’ll find out if this truly is ‘Catlanta, or if we can start calling this building The Florida Dome once again.