With a nickname like March Madness, the NCAA Tournament is sure to bring the most passionate college sports enthusiasts great lengths to support their teams.
Some of the truest fans showed up to Thursday’s open practices at Golden 1 Center, where eight men’s basketball teams took the court for 40-minute practice sessions with free admission.
More than 100 spectators rolled in for the day’s early sessions. One of the most well-traveled among them was diehard Rhode Island fan and alumnus Alan Zartarian.
“We’re looking for a repeat performance of what we did in 1998,” Zartarian said, adding a full summary of the Rams’ tournament run that year, which ended with a loss to Stanford in the Elite Eight.
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The 1969 graduate can recite Rhode Island’s past tournament fates in near-encyclopedic detail – which makes sense, given that he’s held season tickets since 1970 and attended all their tournament games.
“I’ve seen every NCAA win in their history.”
He hopes to see another one Friday. No. 11 seed Rhode Island, which practiced in an early afternoon session, will face No. 6 Creighton at 1:30 p.m. in the first round. If the Rams win, Zartarian will return to Golden 1 Center for Sunday’s game against the Iona-Oregon winner.
I’ve gotten some texts and emails from people saying, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. Who would fly to California to watch a basketball game?’ I said, ‘Me. Who else?’
Alan Zartarain, a Rhode Island fan who traveled to Sacramento for the Rams’ NCAA Tournament game
Zartarian did not come alone. He and a group of friends made the cross-country trip, traveling with the team on a chartered flight from Providence.
“One of the individuals I’m with has had season tickets the same length of time I’ve had them. We’re longtime friends, fraternity brothers and golfing partners now, and big supporters of URI.”
It’s a big game for Rhode Island, but nearly as big for Zartarian, who said he has never traveled this far to watch the Rams in almost a half-century of fandom. An active alumnus, Zartarian says he is “very friendly” with the athletic department and coaching staff, including coach Dan Hurley.
Zartarian watched closely from the fourth row as the Rams began their practice session, with no shame in his passion for his alma mater.
“I’ve gotten some texts and emails from people saying, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. Who would fly to California to watch a basketball game?’ ” Zartarian laughed. “I said, ‘Me. Who else?’ ”
Arena impressions – With Golden 1 Center having opened less than six months ago, visitors from the East Coast were complimentary of the venue.
“I can tell you just from walking into this arena, it’s beautiful,” Zartarian said. “I know it’s brand new, but it doesn’t look like there’s a bad seat anyplace ... It’s pretty impressive from the outside as well.”
Jamie Fogarty, Iona’s senior athletic director who strolled through the arena as the Gaels practiced, also seemed impressed.
“I knew we were playing in this arena, but I didn’t know just how new it was,” Fogarty said.
Golden 1 Center will host six games total (four Friday, two Sunday) in the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds.