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March Madness is back, and it looks more normal than it has in 3 years

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The men's and women's Division I college basketball tournaments are underway, and, for the first time in three years, the buzz is actually about March Madness - the upsets, the close calls, the thrills - rather than COVID-19 bubbles and restrictions. NPR's Tom Goldman took in the scene yesterday in Portland, Oregon, where first-round games were a cause for celebration, albeit tempered for some.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In 2020, March Madness was canceled. Last year, it returned, but with limited spectators, no school bands or cheerleaders. The men played all their games in Indiana, the women in Texas. Yesterday, it all came back. In arenas from Buffalo to here in Portland, there was this...

(REFERREE WHISTLING, CROWD CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: ...And this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEP BAND PLAYING)

GOLDMAN: It all made Donna Payne happy. She traveled from Butte, Mont., to see her beloved Gonzaga Bulldogs, the tournament's top-seeded team. Payne was thrilled to be part of this return to almost normal. She and three close friends wore face masks. Most fans at Portland's Moda Center didn't. Oregon's mandate ended last weekend.

DONNA PAYNE: And I'm sitting next to a stranger. I don't care. I think it's awesome because I get to talk to people.

GOLDMAN: University of Memphis tuba player Kobe Wilson (ph) reveled in bringing back the live soundtrack to March Madness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOBE WILSON: We're going to do our best and keep the fans energized, even how small we are, and we're going to keep the basketball team going.

GOLDMAN: Laser-focused basketball players did hear the music and the crowd, especially March Madness first-timers. Memphis freshman center Jalen Duren helped his team win its opening game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JALEN DUREN: Just the bright lights and just the packed house is just amazing atmosphere. I mean, that's what we play basketball for. You watch this growing up - watch March Madness - and then you just want to be in this position.

GOLDMAN: Because actually, it helps, says Drew Timme, a March Madness veteran. The star forward for Gonzaga played through all of last season's restricted tournament. His team ultimately lost in the championship game to Baylor. The atmosphere, Timme said, didn't work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DREW TIMME: Fake crowd noise through a speaker does not sound too good. So getting real interactions, real emotions - it really helps, you know, just kind of pump you up and really get into the game easier.

GOLDMAN: Gonzaga needed a pumped-up Timme yesterday. Playing against the 16th-seeded Georgia State Panthers, the Zags actually trailed with 13 minutes left in the game. Remember, 16th seeds have beaten one seeds exactly once in NCAA history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MASON: Final score this afternoon - Gonzaga Bulldogs 93, Georgia State Panthers 72.

GOLDMAN: A 21-point win sounds easy enough, but Gonzaga head coach, Mark Few, knew his team had been in a first-round tussle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK FEW: You know, I always say probably the hardest thing to do in our sport is get NCAA tournament wins. It's hard enough to - just to get to the NCAA tournament. And then, once you get here, you know you're going to play a really good team.

GOLDMAN: Across the country, in Indianapolis, No. 2 seed University of Kentucky found out the hard way - falling to the suddenly mighty 15th-seeded Saint Peter's Peacocks. It was the biggest upset of day one - a day when all seemed right again, at least in the world of college basketball.

JANIE PAYNE: Oh, I'm a news junkie, so I, you know, sit and listen and watch a lot of it.

GOLDMAN: Janie Payne (ph), another Montanan, admitted her celebration of hoops in Portland was tempered by what's happening outside America's basketball arenas. Being at the tournament, she said, was a respite from COVID and now the war in Ukraine.

PAYNE: So to be able to be here and just, like, have fun and be here with friends and family - I feel grateful that, you know, I live where I live and I am able to be here because we can all see how quickly things can turn, and all of a sudden you don't have anything.

GOLDMAN: March Madness, seemingly whole again, continues with the first and second rounds through the weekend.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF PAIN'S "JUMP AROUND [ORIGINAL MIX]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.