College Basketball Nation: First Four

Since 2001, when the NCAA men's basketball committee formally included the play-in games as part of the NCAA tournament, a lot has changed. The NCAA has expanded the tournament, adding would-be No. 12-seeds to the mix. It has attempted a best-of-all-bad-options rebrand, calling the play-in games the first round despite the fact that a staggering majority of the teams in the tournament don't participate in said "first round."

(This bit of semantics wouldn't be a big deal were it not so routinely confusing. Thursday and Friday are the first round, but the NCAA wants us to call them the second round. When you have to reference these rounds 12 months a year, things get frustrating in a hurry.)

The play-ins still feel like play-ins, but the success of teams in the First Four since its inception in 2011 -- VCU went to the Final Four that March; La Salle streaked to the 2013 Sweet 16 -- have raised its profile, or at least made it a less undesirable bracket destination. And the event is still evolving, even if the tournament format is done expanding for some time.

For 12 years, one constant has remained: Dayton's role as play-in host.

And rightfully so. Not only is the event a point of pride for the city in and of itself, but it feels genuinely loved. Ticket sales are always close to sellout level -- in 2013, they surpassed it -- as Dayton residents have flocked to watch teams in which they have little or no rooting interest. That's love.

In other words, it's hard to imagine finding a place that would take to the event the way Dayton has ... but it seems the NCAA is at least going to look. From the Dayton Business Journal:
The NCAA confirmed Friday it will wait until at least next year to select sites for the event in 2016 and beyond. Local officials had been lobbying the NCAA to secure an earlier commitment for the First Four — which is being held here in 2014 and 2015 — for as much as a decade.

“Dayton is still a favorable site, and the end result could be that the First Four is played in Dayton for many years to come,” said David Worlock, an NCAA spokesperson, in a statement to the DBJ. “This is simply a byproduct of the changing landscape of college athletics and due to this ever-changing landscape, the Men’s Basketball Committee is reluctant to enter into a long-term agreement -- for any round(s) of the tournament."

That, of course, makes sense for the NCAA. As SI's Andy Glockner notes, the considerations that led to the original selection and continuation of Dayton have changed. More teams participating in play-in games means more travel issues to balance, and the NCAA continues to double-down on the importance of geographic considerations in its bracketing. Plus, with all due respect to Dayton, it is not exactly the warmest place in the world in March. Dayton might not have as much to offer as another city. Maybe not, but who knows? That's why you keep the bidding open. It's not like Dayton couldn't win the thing back.

And with all that said ... it would be a bit of a shame to see the event move. The pride Daytonians feel about the opening round is palpable. You don't even have to look that hard: Spend five minutes talking to any of the on-site volunteers at UD Arena, and not only will you get a detailed history of the city's obsession with hoops, you'll also hear local pride bubbling over. Dayton packs the play-in games not only because it loves basketball, but because the city feels ownership over the event and its own image as it is reflected nationally on the eve of one of the biggest sports competitions in the world. Residents there are invested. They're all-in.

The NCAA has to make decisions based on its own best interests, of course, and there may be another site out there with more to offer. But it will be hard, if not outright impossible, to replace what Dayton has brought to the event. Where else is the play-in -- excuse me, the "first round" -- going to sell out?
When the NCAA decided to expand the tournament in the offseason, it mercifully settled on a minor expansion to 68 teams. That meant the creation of a four-game contest in Dayton, Ohio, which begins two days before the rest of the NCAA tournament. That competition pits four low-seeded automatic qualifiers -- much like the traditional play-in format we've come to know and ignore -- and four not-as-low-seeded bubble-bound at-large teams. That's eight teams playing for four spots in Thursday and Friday's full-bracket action.

This was an excellent compromise. Dayton was an ideal location. The new format didn't job the lowly auto-bids in favor of high-major bubble teams, but it didn't ignore them either. And it gave us some interesting midweek basketball to watch featuring teams that might actually win their first-round games.

No offense to the SWAC, but when Clemson and UAB take the floor tonight, we won't just be watching teams guaranteed to lose to the No. 1 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Instead, we'll have reason to pay attention to the tourney action in Dayton for the first time since the tournament expanded to 65 teams.

And, better yet, it even got a catchy name: the "First Four." All in all, this was a fantastic idea.

I have but one complaint with the NCAA: I refuse to call this the first round of the tournament. I'm not going to do it. I just won't.

Yes, in its bracket and promotional materials, the NCAA has officially termed the First Four "the first round." Thursday and Friday's round-of-64 action is, according to the NCAA, the "second round." The round of 32 is the "third round." The good news is that the later rounds are universally referred to by their nicknames -- the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four. Fortunately, the madness stops somewhere. But make no mistake. It is madness.

The First Four is not the first round of the NCAA tournament. This year's Dayton games aren't any different from the games we're used to seeing in Dayton; what's at stake is a place in the bracket next to the other 64 teams, same as always. Nothing has changed but the nomenclature. Unfortunately, you can't call something the "first round" when only 5.89 percent of the teams in the bracket are playing. You just can't. It doesn't make sense.

Of course, the NCAA's reasons for doing this are mostly virtuous: The NCAA doesn't want teams slotted in the First Four to think of themselves as outside the NCAA tournament. They're also based in business: The NCAA doesn't want fans to think Tuesday and Wednesday games are any less worth watching than Thursday and Friday's. But it's OK, NCAA! We don't think that, and neither should the teams playing in the games tonight. They were mentioned on Selection Sunday. They're playing in a game that 281 other Division I basketball teams would happily sign up for. They're in the NCAA tournament. They should be proud.

They are not, however, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That happens Thursday and Friday, when it's always happened, when you skip out on work early -- or just don't show up at all -- and go to a sports bar and track the action with a bracket and a beer. That's the first round of the NCAA tournament. No bureaucratic decree can change that fact.

And you simply can't call something the second round when only four of the 64 teams in that round are playing their second game of the tournament. Sorry, but we're not buying the notion that 60 teams have byes into the "second round."

In that spirit, then, I ask the bracket-obsessed public to stand beside me. Join my -- our -- cause.

Our demands our not unreasonable. We hold these truths to be self-evident: On Thursday and Friday, we will be watching the NCAA tournament's first round. On Saturday and Sunday, we will pack our favorite sports bars and crowd around the TVs for the second round.

In exchange, as a token of good faith, we will henceforth happily ignore the term "play-in." Instead, we will happily adopt the NCAA's terminology for Tuesday and Wednesday's games. They are the "First Four."

We are not radicals. We do not seek massive systemic overhaul. We want only what our forefathers wanted: To call the NCAA tournament's actual first round by its true name. It doesn't insult the teams, and it doesn't make us any less likely to watch.

It does, however, make sense. And isn't that what really matters?

OK, so none of this matters. But seriously, I'm not calling the First Four the first round. End of discussion.
Here's one thing yours truly didn't consider when discussing yesterday's First Four announcement: What if Dayton -- the school, not the city -- ends up in the opening round?

As it turns out, there are no wondrous solutions or hidden contingencies. According to ESPN reports and Andy Katz, if Dayton needs to play in Dayton, they'll play in Dayton:
According to the NCAA spokesperson David Worlock, the committee also took into consideration if Dayton were to be one of the last four at-large teams and determined it would be OK in that situation for the Flyers to be at home in the first round. The committee won't adjust the seed line to move Dayton out of the game if the Flyers fall to one of the last four teams.

The NCAA has typically been loathe to seed teams in situations that would have them play at home arenas; Syracuse might deserve the No. 1 seed in the East, but that doesn't mean they'll get to play at the Carrier Dome. Dayton, on the other hand, has a potential boon on its hands: It could play one of the most important games of its season not on a neutral floor, like everyone else, but on the very floor it calls home for the rest of the season. Screaming fans included.

This year, that's a genuine possibility. Dayton was a bubble team throughout the season in 2009-10, and most predict it'll be an NCAA-level team in 2010-11. There's a strong chance Dayton could be one of the last four at-large teams in 2010-11.

That should be plenty interesting, but that doesn't make it a big deal. Sure, it's a slight advantage. But it's just one game, and an opening round/play-in/First Four game at that. Like the First Four in general, a Dayton home love-in is not going to change the outcome of the tournament.

Anyway, I do feel bad for whatever team Dayton could hypothetically meet in the First Four. Dayton fans show up for Lehigh vs. Jackson State. Imagine how manic they'll be when the home team shows up.

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