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National Columnist

First Four: A play-in game, and insult

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DAYTON, Ohio -- For Mount St. Mary's, the NCAA Tournament started in a half-empty gym and ended in a completely empty locker room. While 60 other teams will start the NCAA Tournament on Thursday or Friday in energy-filled venues featuring big-name schools and their frenzied fans, Mount St. Mary's was one of eight teams sent to the play-in tournament, also known as the First Four, where everything is smaller: the arena, the crowd, the energy, the television network, the media throng.

Eight minutes after Mount St. Mary's season ended Tuesday night, a 71-64 loss to Albany, the media throng was standing outside the Mountaineers' locker room. And the media throng was one person. Me. Three tournament officials were standing outside the door with me. Why?

"Crowd control," said one of them, a nice man named Chris. He was smiling, and then he was playfully spinning like a rebounder, blocking me out.

After the NCAA-mandated 10 minutes to cool off, the locker room was opened to the media. To me. The players inside had no idea what they were missing, but they were missing a flood of TV cameras and microphones. They were missing a locker room so full of reporters that there's no room for the players, so they break away to the steamy shower just to breathe. They were missing what will await the other No. 16 seeds in the real NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA prefers that we don't call what happened Tuesday night a play-in game, and I prefer you don't call me bald. It's possible I am bald, but do me the courtesy of not noticing.

Even Albany's coach and players have been calling this thing a play-in game since Sunday night, when they gathered to watch the selection show and watched their name come up for ... this. The team wasn't clapping or hooting. The team was stunned, and trying to recover.

"We're looking at the bright side," Albany junior forward Sam Rowley told the Albany Times-Union that night. "The silver linings, if you will."

Sounds like a slogan: "The First Four -- look at the bright side!"

Sophomore guard Peter Hooley, the Danes' leading scorer at 15.7 ppg, was less diplomatic.

"If you play well enough to win your league," he said, "you shouldn't have to play a play-in-game."

All of which had Will Brown saying this on Sunday night:

"The one thing I have to make sure they understand, before I leave this building tonight," Brown said, "is that being in a play-in game is not an insult."

Another slogan: "The First Four -- a play-in game, not an insult."

It sure looked like an insult in the Mount St. Mary's locker room after the game, where players were crying and no outsiders cared enough to watch them weep. I lingered for three or four minutes to talk to a few of them, because it felt rude to leave them completely alone. Hey, guys, this game mattered. No matter how it looked at tipoff, when an entire section in the lower bowl -- with some of the best seats in the house -- looked like something from a junior high event.

The problem here is not the city of Dayton, either. Dayton is one of the only good things about this stupid series of play-in games. The people here love college basketball so much, they (eventually) fill up the UD Arena to watch players whose names they don't know, coached by men whose faces they don't recognize.

Dayton and the NCAA do the best they can to make this feel like the big deal it's not. Teams are flown to Dayton by charter. Signs welcoming the teams were hanging at the airport hangar, where a bus was waiting to take each team to its hotel and orange traffic cones marked walking lanes. A basketball had been placed on top of some of those cones.

Mount St. Mary's was put up at the Marriott. That's nice. Texas Southern, another No. 16 seed that will play Cal Poly on Wednesday night, was put in the Marriott too -- and when the team arrived from the airport on Monday night, fans were cheering in the lobby. And not Texas Southern fans, but Dayton locals who were there to be supportive and to make Texas Southern feel like it was somewhere important.

But there's only so much lipstick anyone can put on this pig, this blatant money grab by the power conferences for a few more slices of this $10.8 billion pie. The power and greed waters down the bracket, but that's not my problem. Look, I'd love to see the field grow to 128. Or 256. The size of the field isn't the problem. What happened Tuesday night to Mount St. Mary's -- and what will happen Wednesday night to Cal Poly or Texas Southern -- is the problem.

But this is nearly a victimless crime. Who weeps for Mount St. Mary's? Almost nobody. This is me, shouting down an empty well. Hello-o-o-o-o. Can you hear me-e-e-e-e?

Of course you can't. You don't know where Mount St. Mary's is located (Emmitsburg, Md.), so why would you care how badly this team got screwed? And understand this: Mount St. Mary's got screwed out of the NCAA Tournament experience -- the NCAA Tournament -- it earned by winning the NEC tournament. Used to be, every school in America started the season with the same premise, and promise: Win your conference tournament, and you're in The Dance. Even the smallest of the small schools were guaranteed a spot in the field if they won their league.

Imagine being Florida International University in 1995, entering the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament with an 8-18 record and winning one game, then two, then three, and a week later you're in Boise playing the No. 1 team in the country, UCLA. I was there with FIU, covering the team for the Miami Herald, and I remember seeing FIU star James Mazyck around Boise and poking him in the arm as he poked me back, as we marveled at our lives. Can you believe this? Boise? Us?

The game was close for about five minutes, tied at 7-7 before becoming a 92-56 beatdown, but FIU earned the right to play that game, dream that dream, experience that beatdown and come home with a story to tell the grandkids.

What are the players at Mount St. Mary's going to tell their grandkids? About the time they played Albany in Dayton on March 18, 2014, the day they lost the chance to play in the actual NCAA Tournament?

Yeah, actually, that is the story they'll tell. And they can mention the slogan:

The First Four -- a play-in game, and an insult.

 
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