Crowns, chest bumps and swagger: In March Madness, the handshake isn't just for high fives anymore

PITTSBURGH — Amani Bartlett doesn’t know exactly how she got the job as LSU’s hype woman. She didn’t apply for it. No one asked her to do it. It just kind of happened.

So when the lights go down and the music comes up right before the Tigers’ starting lineup is introduced, the junior forward runs onto the floor and runs through a quick mental checklist, trying to remember who’s coming when and — more importantly — who’s got what handshake.

Sounds simple. It’s not.

As the Tigers make their way to Bartlett one by one, they offer a glimpse into their wildly varying personalities.

Angel Reese’s ends with Bartlett placing a “crown” on the star’s head since, as Bartlett put it, her electric All-American teammate is “the queen.”

Flau’Jae Johnson and Bartlett count to four with their fingers and seal it with a chest bump. Aneesah Morrow and Bartlett clasp their hands together up high before swinging them down and dancing.

The whole production takes a minute, maybe less. Still, the ritual plays a small but essential role in getting the Tigers in the right frame of mind ahead of the highly pressurized test that awaits.

“Like it’s kind of that amp,” Barlett said. “‘Let’s get you hype for a second, then it’s time to get into it.’”

In a perfect world, Bartlett would be receiving the handshake, not giving it. That would mean she’s starting. That’s not happening at the moment and that’s fine. Bartlett understands she offers the Tigers a very particular set of skills she is only too happy to share.

So when third-seeded LSU faces second-seeded UCLA in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 on Saturday in Albany, New York, Bartlett will jog out to her post to provide the five women taking the court a few seconds to cut loose before the ball is tipped and things turn decidedly more serious.

Bartlett is hardly alone. Nearly every team across the sport — from middle school to the pros and everywhere in between — seems to have at least one player (sometimes more than one) who greets the starters during introductions and provides a dash of energy and a splash of swagger.

“It’s part of the culture of basketball,” Louisville guard Merissah Russell said. “I don’t think I’ve ever watched a game where there was no handshake or anything like that.”

North Carolina State sophomore guard KJ Keatts — who figures he got the gig with the ACC champion Wolfpack because his role is to “make guys laugh, make guys smile” — keeps it simple. The starters all get dapped up the same.

“We’ve been going 30-something games strong with it,” Keatts said.

Considering the run N.C. State has been on over the last two weeks to reach the South region semifinals, hard to blame them.

Kentucky’s Kareem Watkins takes a different approach. The senior came up with a unique handshake for every teammate and most of the Wildcats’ support staff.

“It’s just like a brotherhood thing,” Watkins said.

And a chance to stay engaged during a game even when you know your number isn’t going to be called, whether you’re the one dishing out the handshakes or serving as your team’s comic relief.

Creighton’s Sterling Knox is redshirting this season. The freshman guard sat near the end of the bench in a light blue long-sleeved shirt last weekend as the third-seeded Bluejays reached the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years.

Knox believes his day will soon come when he’s out on the floor. Until then, he’s happy to serve as Creighton’s lead choreographer/hoops historian.

“I’ll find a TikTok or something, just like old college basketball players and I’ll find a dance to bring it back,” said Knox, whose personal social media accounts are a mix of basketball highlights and only semi-serious attempts at dancing.

When the Bluejays faced Providence in the Big East tournament, Knox unearthed Toronto Raptors star Scottie Barnes’ pregame routine when he was in high school and brought it back during introductions. It’s not the first — and won’t be the last — time Knox will dig into the vault in search of a way to mix it up.

“It could become a brand,” Knox said with a laugh.

Even if the brand might require a bit of cultural translation. Creighton senior guard Francisco Farabello is from Argentina, where whatever you want to call what Knox does for the Bluejays is decidedly not a “Thing.”

“That’s not something we do overseas, but I respect it,” Farabello said. “The season gets really long and it’s good to have guys like that, just the simple fact by dancing they can lift your energy up and bring good energy.”

Energy that extends beyond a mere gesture.

Oregon guard Gabe Reichel is a senior walk-on who inherited the role before this season and made it a point to take requests from teammates, one of the reasons his handshakes ranged from what he called “subtle” to John Cena’s “You Can’t See Me” face wave.

“I just kind of go with the flow, whatever they want to do,” said Reichel, who was also noticeably the first one off the bench during timeouts to greet the guys coming off the floor during Oregon’s gritty double-overtime loss to Creighton in the second round. “I’ve just got to help them get ready for the game.”

And how they get them ready can evolve on a whim.

Iowa junior forward AJ Edinger greeted superstar teammate Caitlin Clark with a fake jump and then a handshake earlier this season.

They’ve since ditched the jump for something that Edinger described as something more akin to a formal “business deal,” fitting perhaps for a player currently serving as the face of her sport.

Edinger, Bartlett, Keatts and every other player in their hiding-in-plain-sight role wouldn’t mind being the one running out onto the court with the spotlight focused, however briefly, on them.

Maybe it’ll happen one day. Maybe it won’t. For now, they’re only too happy to fill a very specific need, one that adds a hard-to-quantify but vital ingredient to the kind of team chemistry necessary to thrive in March.

“I love it (doing it) every time,” Oregon State’s Susana Yepes said. “I get the chills every time.”


AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Anne M. Peterson and Teresa M. Walker, and AP freelancers John Bohnenkamp and Mark Rosner contributed to this report.


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