First Four falls flat
DAYTON, Ohio – With his team trailing 59-46 with about 20 seconds remaining, USC guard Maurice Jones closed the inaugural “First Four” round of the NCAA tournament in appropriate fashion.
He stood at midcourt and let the clock run out.
The end couldn’t have come fast enough Wednesday at the University of Dayton Arena. Not just for the USC Trojans, who were eliminated by a vengeful Virginia Commonwealth squad determined to silence its doubters. But for anyone who managed to sit through a woeful round of games that spoiled the opening of one of the greatest events in sports.
How about First Bore? Perhaps we should just pretend as if this never happened and move on.
“We obviously didn’t play well,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill, whose Trojans weren’t the only team to turn in a clunker.
Alabama-Birmingham was outmatched in both talent and effort in an 18-point loss to Clemson on Tuesday. Twenty-four hours later, Alabama State watched helplessly as Texas-San Antonio stormed out to a 48-21 lead at intermission.
Of the four games played in Dayton, the only one that evoked any excitement was UNC-Asheville’s overtime victory against Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday. With no other bullet points on its resume, the First Four can officially be deemed a failure.
The format isn’t the problem. There are plenty of college basketball loyalists and NCAA tournament junkies who will gladly tune in earlier than usual to watch an extra round of games. And I can’t imagine a better place to stage the event than the University of Dayton Arena, which has hosted more NCAA tournament contests (87) than any venue in history.
More than 10,000 fans – most of whom know nothing about Virginia Commonwealth or USC – showed up for Wednesday’s game. Interest isn’t the issue. The problem was with the participants.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has taken a lot of criticism the last few days for some of its decisions regarding seeds and teams. On Tuesday and Wednesday, all of the barbs seemed justified.
Clemson looked impressive in Tuesday’s win, but it was tough to feel too good about the Tigers considering their horrendous opponent. With only one victory against a school in this year’s 68-team field, Alabama-Birmingham had done absolutely nothing to warrant inclusion in this tournament, and it couldn’t have been more evident against a mid-tier team from an average Atlantic Coast Conference.
Virginia Commonwealth finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association and ended the season with losses in five of its final eight games. On Wednesday the Rams defeated a USC squad with 14 losses – which ties for the most of any tournament team – and a No. 67 RPI, which is the lowest of any school in the field.
At his postgame press conference, VCU coach Shaka Smart was asked if the First Four felt like the “real” NCAA tournament.
“I think that’s a silly question, to be honest with you,” Smart said. “We’re sitting up here, and the NCAA logo is behind me. The game was on TV. I don’t know what else it would’ve been other than an NCAA tournament game. It’s not the NIT. The regular season is over and ther’s a huge NCAA logo on the middle of the floor.
“Our guys feel really good about being here and winning this game.”
Everything may have seemed dandy to Smart, but Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith – the chairman of the selection committee – had to be doing some second-guessing as he watched Wednesday’s games from courtside.
Perhaps Smith was wondering if people with more basketball knowledge should be added to the committee, which relies way too heavily on formulas and statistics when deciding who is in and who is out. Or maybe Smith and NCAA Vice President Greg Shaheen, who was also in attendance, were considering potential changes in the selection criteria that would help prevent these types of snafus in the future.
Hopefully, at the very least, Smith and Shaheen were able to see that the committee needs to be more careful. This year’s combination of peculiar selections and strange seedings – and Smith’s inability to explain them in a conference call – have dominated the NCAA tournament discussion thus far. And they ruined what could’ve been an exciting introduction to the First Four.
While there’s certainly no way to guarantee that different teams would’ve produced more exciting games, I feel pretty confident that Colorado vs. Virginia Tech would’ve done more for the excite-o-meter than USC-VCU. And a tilt between Alabama and Clemson (OK, they got one right) would’ve held viewers’ attention better than the Tigers’ annihilation of UAB.
“This first year is going to be studied and evaluated in more ways than we can even describe,” Smith said last month. “We’re going in eyes wide open. This is new. If we do some things that might not be good for the future, we’ll change them.”
We’ll hold you to that, Gene.
Now … on to the real tournament.