Some fans drove through the night. One man flew in from Germany. A group of University of Virginia students took a 20-hour charter bus ride, describing the atmosphere on the long haul as "electric."
They converged in Minneapolis, a swarm of Final Four fans clad in blue, orange, green and red, filling Nicollet Mall on a gray, rainy Saturday. As the day progressed, the excitement shifted to U.S. Bank Stadium where thousands of people slowly moved past security for the first game — Virginia and Auburn, with tipoff shortly after 5 p.m. Michigan State takes on Texas Tech at 7:49 p.m.
Chris Baum waved an orange streamer at fellow Virginia fans as they entered the stadium, smiling and shouting "Go Hoos!" Last year's March Madness was rough, when her No. 1 seed team became the first ever to lose to a 16-seed.
"We've waited a long time for this," she said, feeling a little nervous. "You never know what's gonna happen."
Inside the stadium, fans waved pom-poms and school bands jammed as players took the court. The first round of opponents have roughly the same school colors, and it was a sea of orange and blue in the stands.
Two hours before the first game, fans walked into the stadium, mostly through the main entrances at street and skyway levels on the west side of the building,
The stadium was expected to accommodate 72,000 fans, more than it has for a single event since it opened in August 2016. Before the game, security lines both on skyways and on the ground were busy but moving steadily without long waits.
As is often the case for big events — especially when first-timers visit the building — the northwestern portion of the main concourse was sweaty, jammed and generating some sniping in the tight pack trying to maneuver.
One place that wasn't crowded: the Auburn and Virginia student sections under each of the baskets. Each school in the Final Four got 600 tickets for students. The schools chose how to distribute them and the students paid $40. The tickets are good for both games Saturday and the championship game Monday. Both sections of folding chairs were about one-third empty and yet they were ear-piercingly loud as the games began.
John Stolle and Jack Fulkerson drove 19 hours straight with two other students. But they said the logistics were tough as other friends wavered on whether they could afford the time or the money to travel. The two said they rolled out of Auburn, Ala., at 8 p.m. Thursday and arrived in Minneapolis at 3 p.m. Friday.
The long drive was all for the chance to see "history, baby," Stolle said.
Fulkerson said, "When is Auburn every going to be in the Final Four again?"
The two are also holding down costs by staying free at the University of Minnesota chapter of their fraternity, Farm House in St. Paul.
A few rows back, 14 girlfriends reported having driven in a three-car caravan to get to Minneapolis, stopping for a three-hour nap at a hotel just south of Chicago and arriving about 90 minutes before game time. One of the woman has family in the Twin Cities welcoming them.
Ann Price's Auburn shirt said, "Ballin' since 1906." But this is her school's first trip to the Final Four and she was in Minneapolis with the blessing of her parents. "This is the first time we've been to the Final Four," she said. "My parents were telling me it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing and they didn't get the chance to do this."
The students had their plastic orange and blue Auburn shakers raised as they sang the school fight song when their team took the floor. From the elevated court, Coach Bruce Pearl faced the students, encouraging them to raise their voices and cheer. They responded with, "Bruuuuuuuuuce."
The stadium's new $5 million curtains hung on the ceiling above the action, but there was plenty of light inside with the ribbon-boards flashing the school names and images of the players on the giant NCAA octagon hanging at center court.
The only boards that weren't lit up were two giant screens above each end zone that the Vikings use. Those scoreboards were off limits for this weekend's basketball games because they were visible through the backboards and would affect with the players' perception of the basket.
Throughout downtown, hope and school swag were in high supply. Fans donned classic baseball caps with college logos, Spartan helmets and, for Zyler Buchanan and his friends from Texas Tech, cowboy hats.
Buchanan was hopeful the Red Raiders would take the national championship, even if it was the first time in the team's history that they had made the Final Four.
In the North Loop, a mass of Michigan State fans packed into the Office Pub & Grill for the last game of the night. The energy was electric at the bar, a local hangout for Spartan alumni.
In the patio with friends and family was Martha Albertson, 61, who got her masters degree from Michigan State in 1982 and grew up blocks away from the school campus.
"It's just fun to be with other people that have the same wishes that I do," said Albertson, who now lives in Arden Hills. "It's just a great sense of camaraderie."
Another Texas fan, Jonathan Bailey, CEO of a county hospital north of Amarillo, Texas, drove 14 hours to Minneapolis with three fellow Texas Tech grads squished in the back of his Ford F-150.
"I'm not ashamed to say I cried when we won the Elite Eight," he said, while doublefisting beers at a nearby restaurant. "I bought tickets to the Final Four within an hour."
Jovial fans sloshed beers along the route to U.S. Bank Stadium, taking turns yelling cheers for their respective schools. Strangers always answered the call.
The tailgating started early in the afternoon along Nicollet Mall, which was packed from the Mary Tyler Moore statue clear to Brit's Pub. A snaking line of people waited to get on the Ferris wheel that had been erected in the street.
Despite the number of fans descending on Minneapolis, Police Spokesman John Elder said for law enforcement things were "exceedingly quiet" Saturday, with the damp weather contributing to that.
In the morning the Minneapolis Convention Center was the place to be to escape the rain, with crowds lining up for autographs, games and other activities. Several thousand fans from seemingly every corner of the country, as well as many Minnesotans, circled through the Final Four Fan Fest there.
Families took pictures with wall-sized posters of brackets, pointing to their teams if they were still in the tournament or posing with their fingers in the air like mock pistols if they were from Texas.
In the center of it all, at the confluence of the two thickest streams of people heading in both directions, was an 85-year old superfan who sat parked in his wheelchair with an oxygen tank on his lap.
"My name is Squeaky and on this rainy old day I just want to say, 'Hey, hey, hey,' " he shouted, holding out his hands for fist bumps and high-fives.
This weekend is Alvin "Squeaky" Marquart's 30th straight Final Four. The Missouri Tigers fan, who was inducted into that state's sports hall of fame after not missing a home game since 1986, used to travel to every Final Four with his wife. Since she died, he now goes with his sons. He said he's at his best when he's around the most people.
"You've heard the Donna Fargo song 'The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA'? Well, right now I'm the happiest boy," he said.
Matt Brokenshire, from Lansing, showed up at Fan Fest dressed in a full Michigan State suit — from his green jacket to white pants with the Michigan State 'S' logo to his green and white Nikes. This is the ninth Final Four he has attended, but he missed his team's championship win in 2000 and is hoping for a repeat.
"We're in Big Ten country, so I'm expecting a little more support here than anywhere else," Brokenshire said.
Both he and Joey Longwerth, who flew in from Stuttgart, Germany for the event, were waiting in line to meet University of Oregon coach Dana Altman and University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams.
Longwerth one-upped Brokenshire, notching his 10th Final Four tournament. He said he likes Minneapolis' compact layout and the ability to walk through the skyways to different events. So with the wisdom of attending 10 consecutive Final Four tournaments under his belt, what is his prediction this time around?
"Not Auburn. Michigan State, probably," Longwerth said.
Codell Selvy, from Memphis, was also in line and waited an hour and 45 minutes to get an autograph from Williams, his favorite team's coach. Auburn knocked out his team, North Carolina, in the Sweet Sixteen. He plans to root for University of Virginia, since they're in the same conference as the Tar Heels, and is already looking ahead to next year.
Selvy called Williams' autograph a highlight, and said he is enjoying Minneapolis.
"It's a different vibe, it's a different city," he said. "It's cold, but it's really cool."
The Convention Center wasn't the only place where fans were spotting their heroes. In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency on Saturday morning, a group of Michigan State supporters sat out the rain sipping coffee, planning the day ahead or waiting in line to buy green and white Final Four gear.
That's when legend Charles Barkley, sporting a warmup jacket from his alma mater Auburn University, sneaked through.
"Mr. Barkley, Mr. Barkley," some Spartan fans tried, but he rushed out the door and into a black SUV. No matter their colors, everyone in the lobby was a Barkley fan.
At the Final Four Tip-Off Tailgate Party on Nicollet Mall, close to a hundred people stopped by a stage where University of Wisconsin coach Greg Gard discussed the night the Badgers beat then-undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four and what the teams are going through in the hours before the game.
"You have to normalize it," Gard said. "It's nerve-racking. Your eyes are glazed over from all the tape you've watched. But you've played 40-some games leading up to this point, you're not gonna reinvent the wheel."
The Tailgate Party also included rallies for each of the teams. Carrie Blair and Michael Nguyen, freshmen at Michigan State, jumped up and down while the Michigan State band performed on the Nicollet Mall stage.
"I've been saying we're making the Final Four since back in November," Blair, a third-generation Spartan, said. "We've been making these plans for a long time."
When the team finally reached the Final Four, they decided to make the ten-hour drive over to Minneapolis for the first time. They came with a few lucky charms, too.
Blair had on her fuzzy green-and-white socks, which she has worn for all the tournament games. Nguyen had on a T-shirt signed by Spartan players Matt McQuaid and Cassius Winston.
"I love basketball," Nguyen said. "It was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I said, 'Why not? Let's go do it.'"
Staff writers Greg Stanley, Miguel Otárola, Liz Sawyer, Rochelle Olson and University of Minnesota student David Mullen, who is on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report. Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044