DAYTON, Ohio -- The NCAA opening-round game can seem a weird basketball purgatory, an odd paradox of chaos and convergence. Its existence was made necessary in part by the 1999 splintering of the old Western Athletic Conference (into the Mountain West and the modern WAC), and it now takes place every March at a place where major Midwestern roads meet. Teams seeded No. 16a and 16b enter the Dayton vortex, sometimes wondering why they're not somewhere else.
"We're just surprised and a little confused," Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich said Monday. "We don't know why we're here, but we are."
But two miles away from the University of Dayton Arena, there's perhaps the one place in the universe where the first game of the NCAA Tournament always makes perfect sense. Tucked away on Wayne Avenue, enclosed by a bracket of Oak Street and Park Drive, is the Pizza Factory -- Dayton's undisputed opening-round headquarters.
Before the start of Play-In Game VII on Tuesday, the general mood at the standing-room-only Pizza Factory was one of heightened anticipation. Steaming pies and cold pitchers shared table space with printouts of rosters and stats; diners debated the relative merits of the two teams, Metro Atlantic tournament champion Niagara and MEAC tournament titlist Florida A&M. This was one of the very few places in America where you'd find impassioned chatting like this:
"Niagara scores a lot of points ... they have five double-figure scorers."
"But it says here that Florida A&M has solid field goal defense."
"Could I have your attention, please," interrupted a man in a green T-shirt, cupping his hands to simulate a megaphone. "Just a reminder that the game tips off in half an hour at 7:30 ... so you might want to start gathering up your things and making a caravan over to the arena."
Bill Daniels, the owner and proprietor of the Pizza Factory, is the opening game's No. 1 fan.
"I went the first year [in 2001]," Daniels said. "The second year I didn't go, but I read John Feinstein's book about the Patriot League ["The Last Amateurs"], about how those kids played basketball for the love of the game, and that resparked my interest. I thought that maybe we would get a Patriot League team here someday."
Sure enough, in 2004, Patriot Leaguers Lehigh were sent to Dayton, and Daniels and 20 of his friends were there in the stands to support them in their 72-57 loss to Florida A&M. As word spread about the play-in club, 70 people met for pizza eating and sign making in 2005. The group doubled to 140 last year. This time around, the attendance more than tripled: 433 Daytonians bought in, and the pizza maker had to buy out nearly three sections of UD Arena's lower bowl to accommodate them, printing out an intricate color-coded chart to keep all the seating blocs straight.
And most of those 433 seemed to be packed into Daniels' establishment Tuesday evening, eating thin-crust pizzas cut into tiny squares ("Dayton style," said the owner) and choosing between two teams none had seen play this season. The surge in attendance necessitated higher stacks of printed green and yellow card-stock signs, those that are familiar to anyone who has watched the opening round on television: "DAYTON FANS SAY: GO 64 SEED" read half of them, the others featuring a "65."
"They have a lot of rules about signs in the arena," Daniels explained. "We got in trouble a little last year and had some of them confiscated. But I checked with the NCAA, and they told me that this was nonpartisan enough of a message."
But both teams had sent messages through the media about their displeasure in having been selected to compete Tuesday. Florida A&M coach Mike Gillespie, now a two-time play-in participant, contended that the extra round cheapened the team's MEAC championship. And after the selections were announced, Niagara guard Charron Fisher fired back at the committee, saying it had "disrespected" the Purple Eagles by sending them to Dayton.
"This hasn't happened before," Daniels said. "In the past, teams that have come here have been absolutely thrilled just to participate in the tournament. But we're adamant that negativity is not going to ruin our fun."
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When tip-off rolled around, Sections 201 through 203 were awash in waving "GO 64 SEED" and "GO 65 SEED" signs. And Niagara, fueled by its anger at the committee's perceived slight, stormed to a 22-11 lead in just 10 minutes of play.
Even though the NCAA had designated Florida A&M as the white-shirted "home" team, Niagara had gone to great lengths to ensure itself a decisive home-court advantage. In addition to bringing busloads of students from its campus 400 miles away, the school hired the University of Dayton Flyers pep band -- bandleader Dr. Willie Morris wore a Purple Eagles T-shirt instead of his usual red-and-blue flight suit. Cash-strapped FAMU, on the other hand, played for an empty end line with no musicians or cheerleaders, giving the photographers some extra elbow room.
"We had to leave around 5:30 in the morning yesterday," Gillespie said later. "We weren't able to get anything together."
The Rattlers found a host of new supporters, however, as the majority of the Pizza Factory fans took up their cause. As the first half continued, Florida A&M constructed a 10-2 run and drew itself back into the game. After the Rattlers briefly peeked ahead at 31-29 on a Leslie Robinson 3-pointer, Niagara rallied to take a slim four-point advantage at the break.
But the rest was all mulberry madness. Purple Eagles power forward Clif Brown muscled inside for basket after basket against the overwhelmed and overmatched Rattlers frontcourt. Brown had 24 in the second half, 32 total, as Niagara built an insurmountable lead.
"They're only down by 10," one new A&M fan said with eight minutes remaining.
"That's the spirit!" Daniels shouted. "Stay optimistic!"
But there would be no MEAC comeback. Niagara closed the game out strongly and won 77-69, earning the right to play the No. 1 seed in the West Region on Friday. When the contest was no longer in doubt, a man walked around the mezzanine holding a large sign engineered to inspire the winners for their next difficult task. "BURY KANSAS," it read.
"It was the most neutral sign I could come up with," sign-wielder Ed Dean said with a shrug after he completed his lap of the arena to wild applause from the Niagara faithful. "I was told there were rules about this sort of thing."
And after the game, even the Purple Eagles' coach seemed to have caught play-in madness.
"It's an NCAA Tournament win," a smiling Mihalich said. "Our first NCAA Tournament win in 37 years. It's an NCAA Tournament game. Someone corrected me and said it's the opening round, but it's a tournament win and there's no asterisk as far as I'm concerned."
As the arena emptied out, the opening game's biggest fan lingered to soak in the fading atmosphere.
"This is where March Madness starts," Daniels said. "No other place can say that. If the other towns knew that we had an NCAA Tournament game with 8-dollar tickets, where you could afford to take your kids and have a great time, they'd be green with envy. Every year, we get to host two teams full of players who love basketball and just play their hearts out."
And perhaps one day, an opening-round bracket conqueror will emerge from a city once known as the "Crossroads of America," a place from which two magical NCAA runs already have begun. The Saint Joseph's surge to the Elite 8 in 2004 started in Dayton, as did George Mason's 2006 road to the Final Four.
"One of these years, it's going to happen," Daniels said hopefully. "The team that we send from this game will be the 16 that takes down the No. 1 seed. And when that happens, we'll be proud to be the place where it all started."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.