The NCAA did all that it could. There were four fancy new big-screen monitors hanging in the arena. Banners proclaiming “First Four” were everywhere, and a freshly-painted NCAA logo adorned the floor. Even the college basketball announcing A-team of Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr were sitting courtside to give an aura of legitimacy to the first attempt at making this precursor to the start of March Madness an important event.
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But none of it really worked. Before the tip, the arena still felt like one had wandered into a regular-season game somewhere in the lower levels of Division I. Only one team had a band, the dance teams were only 6-8 deep and the spectators on hand, while impressive, seemed to be rather uninterested in what was taking place before them.
But then, as the song goes, the ball was tipped and there we were. Once the actual game got under way, UNC Asheville’s 81-77 overtime victory over Arkansas-Little Rock had all the excitement and feel of an exciting first-round NCAA tournament game. Taking an arena of mostly neutrals and converting them into partisan followers, the two teams slugged back and forth in an entertaining up-and-down affair that contained the usual prerequisites for a great tournament game.
There was the unknown hero hitting a big shot and becoming a household name for a day. In this case is was Matt Dickey, who buried a game-tying 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining in regulation, over the outstretched arm of a Little Rock defender.
Dickey has had a great career at UNC-Asheville, and will likely finish his career next season as one of the school’s all-time leading scorers. But his status on the national college basketball scene can best be summed up by his section of the official UNC-Asheville notes. Under the listing for his career highlights, it notes that last season he “scored eight points and stole the ball from Kentucky star John Wall.” Not exactly the stuff of college basketball immortality.
There was also the controversial officiating decisions that drive fans crazy and are a hallmark of any important March tournament game. In this case, the referees called an absurd 49 fouls, taking some of the pace away from the game and leaving both teams depleted at the end.
Most notably, Arkansas-Little Rock star Solomon Bozeman picked up his fifth foul toward the end of regulation, causing the Trojans’ offense to go stagnant without its key weapon in overtime.
And we also had a suddenly-alive crowd, one that nearly packed the Dayton arena by the end of the game and filled the stands with energy. With the vast majority of attendees without an obvious rooting interest, they nevertheless got swept up in the NCAA tournament fever, picking sides and turning the atmosphere electric in the game's final minutes. Whatever people may say about the format, the fans of Dayton showcased why it is the perfect city to host such an event.
Now UNC-Asheville moves on to play in what we are now apparently calling the “second round” (for the record, I think that is ridiculous) and will face Pittsburgh in Washington, D.C. (Someone should tell one UNC-Asheville cheerleader, however, who as she was walking to the locker room after the game said with excitement, “So we get to go to D.C. now? Who do we play, the University of Washington, D.C.!?”)
Some on press row and in the media hooting gallery were decrying this game a farce, and mocking the entire enterprise a failed decision. And before the game began, as I walked around the somewhat bizarre unconventional atmosphere, I may have agreed.
But after the game began, it became clear that the First Four and the notion of a play-in game for 16 seeds can still be exciting and worth watching. What makes the NCAA tournament great is that even when we know literally nothing about the teams on the floor, within moments we are wrapped up in the game, and can become emotionally attached to each play.
On Tuesday afternoon, I didn’t think I would care one iota about UNC-Asheville or Arkansas-Little Rock. But by the end of the evening, I saw the two teams square off in an entertaining, if not spectacularly played, game and I am now totally ready to see what guys like Dickey and J.P. Primm can do against Pittsburgh.
That is what the NCAA tournament is truly about.
Even now, at a small arena in Dayton, and on some television station called truTV, the First Four is still able to capture its wonderful essence.