Days in Dayton show Madness will always be magnificent

by | CBSSports.com
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DAYTON -- The appetizers are over, it is now time for the main course. After sitting through four games in Dayton, including Wednesday night's brutal 70-61 Texas-San Antonio victory over Alabama State, I am still ready to call the First Four a qualified success.

The city of Dayton loves this event and packs the arena with more than 10,000 people for every session, an amazing accomplishment when you consider the quality of games being played. The participants are genuinely excited and when the games get rolling, they do have a big-game feel that is worthy of the NCAA tournament.

But it still isn't quite a full-fledged NCAA tournament event. In the same way that eating a salad at a top-tier steakhouse is still technically eating at the restaurant, the First Four is technically part of the tournament, but not why it is the greatest sporting event in the United States. Still, it has features of March's appeal and spending two nights in Dayton helped remind me of at least eight things that will make these next three weeks great:

With one step-back 3, Asheville's Matt Dickey introduced himself to the nation. (US Presswire)  
With one step-back 3, Asheville's Matt Dickey introduced himself to the nation. (US Presswire)  
Random players: No one in America -- except for his family and Gary Parrish -- had ever heard of UNC-Asheville's Matt Dickey until he hit a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to send the game with Arkansas-Little Rock to overtime on Tuesday night. And Texas-San Antonio's Melvin Johnson III was only the third most famous Melvin Johnson until he went for a spectacular 25 points in the first half vs. Alabama State on Wednesday. The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that it turns a random name like Harold "The Show" Arceneaux into an answer to a trivia question for a lifetime. It is only a matter of time before this tournament gives us our next entrant.

Villain coaches: College basketball is not about the players and it is only secondarily about the teams. The sport truly revolves around the personalities of the coaches. And when there are coaches to hate, everything is a bit more fun. Here in Dayton, I was reminded about just how unlikeable USC's Kevin O'Neill can really be. Whether he is being terse with the media, consistently yelling at everyone around him or telling the media to not worry about his private life because he "works hard and plays hard," disliking O'Neill is amazingly easy. Once you have established which coaches have all the personal likeability of say, Bill Belichick (and there are many in this tournament), rooting against them becomes half of the fun of March.

Ridiculous referees: There are certain referees (I am looking at you, Tim Higgins) who need to retire due to biological reasons, such as age or weight. But then there are those who make the game a spectacle and believe that part of the game we are watching is to see their polyester pant theatrics. Ed Hightower is a top five, Hall of Fame "me" referee and fortunately for me, he was assigned a game in Dayton. After picking the wrong player to shoot a free throw, he made a scene as the player politely tried to correct him. Hightower became very angry, told the player to stop talking, only to sheepishly change the call after looking at the big screens showcasing the truth overhead. It was an A++ effort in the time-honored tradition of referee incompetence combined with overconfidence, the worst mix for a referee and a March tradition unlike any other.

Instant experts: Sit next to any journalist on press row or random guy you meet in a bar and you will get a level of expertise and certainty that only the NCAA tournament can bring. Are you a random writer that has only seen two college games in person all year? Doesn't matter. You will have a strong opinion on whether Clemson should be in the tournament and the faults of the Alabama State offensive gameplan. College basketball is the great democracy, giving us all an equal voice, no matter how ignorant.

The bands: If you go to an NCAA tournament game, see a band jam on the level of Alabama State and somehow not get enjoyment out of your life, well then you are an old curmudgeon (or a sportswriter). Usually the worse the team, the better the band, and these two days in Dayton showcased the glory of the 16th-seeded Hornets marching band from Alabama State. Their team down 25, the band was still dancing and playing music that had the fans in the arena bobbing their heads, despite the atrocious game on the court. That my friends, is March #winning.

Gus Johnson: Gus could narrate an episode of Piers Morgan Tonight and still find a way to make it compelling. The mere sound of his voice expresses excitement and immediately turns whatever game he is calling into an event. The doings in Dayton might not have been the equivalent of "Batista with the catch!" but Gus Johnson still had people tuning in, likely because his time with the Knicks made him used to trying to make the boring worth watching. He is becoming the voice of the people in college basketball and we need to be quickly moving to make him the voice of the Final Four.

Cheerleaders: The USC song girls were in Dayton ... in person. Let's just say that for most of the first half of the USC-VCU game, I barely knew basketball was being played. College sports, please never change.

Twitter revolution: Twitter was in existence the last two tournaments and it was used by many during last year's field of 65. But the social media site has now become a phenomenon and is poised to make this NCAA tournament unlike any other in history. Everyone is now their own color commentator, making points or jokes about the game, the announcers or anything shown on their television screen. Over these two days, topics such as truTV, Gus Johnson and Mike Davis became national talking points, getting commentary from anyone and everyone. The NCAA games will be a running national conversation, changing the way we watch the games and making them much more entertaining in the process. What people say will become as important to some as the games on television and in the process, make more and more people follow the tournament intently.

The next four days are going to be great. While the tournament field is mediocre and the bracket seems to have been put together by a group of 6th graders, when the first ball is tipped, none of that will matter. As these two days in Dayton showcased, no matter how badly people try, this is an event you cannot ruin. It can, and should be improved. But as we will be reminded over the next three weeks, it is still pretty darn great.

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