Excitement is Bruin in Indianapolis as the Den prepares for UCLA’s Final Four game
While No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball has continued to advance in March Madness, three loyal fans have attended every game in Indianapolis and plan to until the Bruins are knocked out of the tournament. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Sam Connon
April 2, 2021 12:16 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Bruins were able to get a full season under their belt this year, but it came at a cost.
The Den wasn’t there to see it.
At least, not until March Madness.
“It’s insane,” said fourth-year political science student Jake Gibbons. “We’ve only seen wins this entire season.”
Gibbons, fourth-year computer science student Brendon Ng and fourth-year psychology student Maddy Perdue booked their trip to Indianapolis the night No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball (22-9, 13-6 Pac-12) got picked to play in the First Four back on Selection Sunday. For the first time all year, they would get to see the Bruins take the court in person.
Each member of the trio is on the board for the Den Operations Club – Ng is president, Gibbons is the internal affairs director and Perdue is the social media director. The club that runs UCLA’s student section has nearly 60 members, but only four made the flight out East to watch the initial games after a season of virtual watch parties.
One member of the group had to leave for another vacation they had planned, leaving Ng, Gibbons and Perdue as the last remnants of Den Operations left to cheer on the Bruins.
They’ve done just that, and now their team is headed to the Final Four.
“All of us, of course, were bummed that we couldn’t go to any of the games this year, but I think this beats it out,” Ng said. “Honestly, it’s been amazing. Wouldn’t trade it.”
They watched UCLA take down No. 11 seed Michigan State, No. 6 seed BYU, No. 14 seed Abilene Christian, No. 2 seed Alabama and No. 1 seed Michigan, following the team all over the state of Indiana to see it happen live.
As is the case with any spring break trip, there was at least a little planning to be done, and theirs didn’t exactly show a lot of faith in the Bruins.
“We really didn’t know what to expect because it’s March, you can’t predict anything,” Perdue said. “If we lost (in) the First Four, we were scheming to train up to Chicago and spend the weekend there. We kind of had a backup plan because we really weren’t sure.”
The Den members initially booked a flight back to Los Angeles for March 23, and they’ve since had to change their flights twice in order to accommodate for the upset victories. The extended stay has also led to the three fans hopping from one hotel to another, eventually ending up at an Airbnb to try and save a little cash.
Even though the travel plans showed otherwise, Gibbons said he set some hard ground rules for himself to try and will some wins into existence.
“My whole thing was I wasn’t buying any merch until we made it to the Final Four,” Gibbons said. “I was ready for us to go all the way.”
Ng, Gibbons and Perdue will have been in Indianapolis for 17 days by the time Saturday’s Final Four game tips off, which means they’ve had plenty of time to get comfortable in their new environment.
The first week of the NCAA tournament took place during UCLA’s winter quarter finals week, and all of the students in Indianapolis had to juggle exams and term papers with the games they came to town to see. Gibbons even said their room had started to feel like home – a cramped Westwood apartment stuffed with students trying to balance academics and intense fandom.
After two weeks spent exploring the city on shareable bikes and hitting up the District Tap for postgame celebrations all while surrounded by Final Four paraphernalia, Ng said a one-site tournament should become the new normal.
“I think they should do the entire March Madness in one city every year,” Ng said. “It’s awesome for the city. It’s awesome for the fans. Especially non-COVID, it would be absolutely popping.”
In terms of the actual games being played, the Bruins are a perfect 5-0 with the downsized Den cheering them on from the bleachers.
They brought all of the classics with them on their trip: 8-claps, the roll call and more. But this team was different, they said, and the bench celebrations by walk-ons junior guard Russell Stong and freshman forward Logan Cremonesi and constant dancing by redshirt sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba helped bring these Bruins to life in a new way.
“The culture is just infectious,” Perdue said. “We’re all so into it because they’re so into it.”
Roughly 20 more members of Den Operations are scheduled to arrive before game time Saturday, just a small share of the UCLA fans coming from far and wide to see it take on No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the program’s first Final Four since 2008. Three dedicated fans will be in Indianapolis to show them the ropes and welcome them with open arms – from a distance, of course.
“We’re just the luckiest people in the world to get to be here,” Gibbons said. “I’ll be 100 years old and I won’t forget a second of it.”