On Your Marc 2/23/16

First Four? It must be Dayton

By Marc Katz

Well, sure, the University of Dayton would take that new little first-round NCAA game planned in 2001 to start off the men’s basketball tournament.

We knew it was just going to involve a couple of obscure-named small colleges that didn’t have a chance of winning another game.

All it entailed was dusting off a few seats in the lower arena, opening a popcorn stand and selling a few tickets. Maybe the NCAA and Dayton could make some money.

Who ya got?

Northwestern State and Winthrop.

Like, uh, who was going to buy a ticket for that?

Well, 6,813 people did, and that’s why Dayton hosted every one of those “play-in” games through 2010, when they were ditched for a new format called The First Four, which Dayton also hosts, and will continue to host through 2018 when the NCAA reevaluates how much money it can make elsewhere in the same format.

Yeah, it’s a money thing, not a competition thing—the same as real life.

But back to that 2001 game. Given the 12,000 or so Dayton lures for each of its regular-season games, 6,813 isn’t going to seem like a big number. But other places, with full rounds and name teams, were drawing about that—or less—as the tournament was just establishing considerable popularity.

Please, can anybody out there tell me where Northwestern State and Winthrop are located? Can you name a player, any player, from any of their teams for the past 15 years?

A little research—OK, going on the Internet doesn’t always qualify as research—and I found Northwestern State is in Louisiana and Winthrop is in South Carolina. For a more exact location, please try the Internet yourself.

“We didn’t ask for that game,” said Doug Hauschild, then, as now, sports information director at UD. “Initially, they wanted the game in Indianapolis, at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, to give it that ‘Hoosiers’ feel.”

‘Hoosiers’ came to the big screen in 1986 and in 2001 was “selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’”

I cannot bind sports and art much tighter than that.

Aside: While the movie “Hoosiers” is based on tiny Milan winning the Indiana state basketball championship against all odds in 1954, the movie version makes the year 1952 bothersome, but legally defensible.

Aside Two: Oscar Robertson was a sophomore guard on Indianapolis Crispus Attucks that lost in a semifinal game to Milan in 1954. Yeah, that Oscar Robertson. He subsequently led his team to state championships in 1955 and ’56.

Aside Three: Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey in Milan, Indiana? Only in the movie version.

OK, back to real life. The NCAA in 2001 wanted to stage the play-in game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Milan won the 1954 state championship, except the Indiana High School Athletic Association had the place booked for the same tournament it had run there for a gazillion years.

Other NCAA first-round sites that year were given the opportunity to host the additional game, and UD enthusiastically accepted.

Because the game was listed outside the normal 64-team bracket, it was called a “play-in” game; the winner would play itself into the regular bracket. That was a misnomer since the NCAA designated the game as part of the NCAA from the start.

The only problems were finding a television network to broadcast the game (done) and finding fans wanting to see a game with no local significance.

Done again. Crowds of 8,000 or more regularly flocked to the games, even in 2008, when Mt. St. Mary’s played Coppin State. You don’t have the time to look it up. Both are from the Baltimore area. UD Arena attracted 8,464 for that one.

Then, the tournament was expanded to 68 teams for the 2010-2011 season, which meant four more games. Introducing The First Four.

With the First Four, you get eight teams. Four winners get folded into the main bracket of the tournament, and they’re not all teams you’ve never heard of (even UD made it last year, playing an NCAA game on its home court, which isn’t supposed to happen). Clemson and BYU have played in The First Four, and California and VCU.

Yeah, that VCU, which looked like a team about to be ground to bits in the second game of the tournament, then made it to the Final Four in 2011. Shaka Smart, former UD assistant, coached that team. He’s now at Texas.

In 2012, Western Kentucky played Mississippi Valley State with President Barack Obama sitting in the front row with Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron.

They said they weren’t in Dayton just for the game, but politicians lie all the time.

Needless to say, these First Four games are virtual sellouts, and now everybody wants to host them. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s playing. It’s basketball, it’s a good time and most teams bring their bands and cheerleaders.

This year, the first two First Four games will be played at UD Arena on Tuesday, March 15 and the second two the next night.

By now, you’ve got the significance. The NCAA tournament begins in Dayton.

Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at katzcopsnsports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@daytoncitypaper.com.

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Marc Katz
Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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