Years later, starting the NCAA Tournament on a Tuesday still just doesn’t feel right.
Officially, the NCAA Tournament begins Tuesday night with a pair of games, part of the “First Four” as it is known. Manhattan and Hampton square off first in a tussle between two 16 seeds, followed by Mississippi and BYU in a tilt of 11 seeds. Unofficially, these are still the games that a lot of brackets are going to let you slide on picking, in order to have a little more time to get your picks ready for your office pool or friendly competition with friends.
Tuesday around dinner time will never come close to generating the excitement that there was (and still is for many of us) for Thursday at about 11 a.m. Central time, when we knew the first games were just minutes from tipping. Brewing upsets early in the day always set a perfect tone for the tournament that a pair of 16 seeds going at it never will match.
In all fairness, the NCAA has worked hard to make the opening few games of the tourney feel like real tourney games. Dayton has always been as gracious of a host as can be. Whether one agrees with the number of teams or not (and we’ll happily go on record saying the field should only be 64), the First Four concept was a bright one, and at least now with eight teams participating instead of just two, there is not the lonesomeness there once was when teams 64 and 65 were forced to play one game on Tuesday night with minimal fanfare.
The fact is, the games will always be referred to informally as “play-in” games, because that’s what they are. The main bracket is 64 teams. The eight teams in the First Four are still on an island away from the other 60 teams. The average fan is always going to notice the chasm, and all the marketing in the world will never change that. All that said, at least with four games the participants aren’t wearing quite as obvious of a scarlet letter. We just don’t need any more than four.
Scouting tonight’s games, Manhattan over Hampton is an easy pick. The Jaspers frankly are far better in quality than their seed (which was justified), a 14 seed in a play-in game that played a harsh non-conference schedule, is physical and deep and has tourney experience. In fact, it wouldn’t be a shock if they gave Kentucky a tough time if the Wildcats aren’t ready to play. The Pirates were more talented than their MEAC performance this year, but it would be a surprise if they win this one.
The second game seems to cry out for BYU as a favorite. The teams are similar inside with mostly serviceable-at-best bodies, but the Cougars are better from outside, and the Rebels have surrendered a lot of three-pointers this year. How BYU matches up with Stefan Moody will be interesting to watch, though, and it’s also hard to trust a team that has just one top 50 win in five tries. It seems like the Cougars should be the slightly better team and we’ll pick them, but Ole Miss has surprised on numerous occasions before this year.
- One game was played Monday night in the CIT, and it wasn’t an insignificant one. New Jersey Tech defeated New Hampshire 84-77 in what was both teams’ first-ever postseason tournament game at the Division I level. (Yet again: no shot clock shrinking needed here, as nine players scored in double figures and NJIT scored 52 points in the second half). The Wildcats out of nowhere had one of the finest years in school history, finishing 19-13 and tying the school record for wins, while NJIT was able to receive a much-deserved bid to the CIT and now moves to the second round.
- The coaching changes continue: George Mason let go of Paul Hewitt after four years and a 66-67 record. Not surprising at all, as Hewitt never really got things going there, and the school may have jumped into too deep of waters when it left the CAA for the Atlantic 10.
- San Diego also has parted ways with Bill Grier, who was there eight years and posted a 117-144 record. Grier was a former Gonzaga assistant and early on appeared to have the program on the right track when it defeated Connecticut in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, but a point-shaving scandal involving former player Brandon Johnson set the program back, and USD never could get back to the top of the WCC.
- Also, Dave Bezold will not return as the coach at Northern Kentucky. Bezold led the school through a transition from NCAA Division II to Division I and was 194-133 in 11 years at the school. If you’re scoring at home, that’s now 15 D-I coaches leaving jobs since the end of the season. Thirteen of them were essentially firings or resignations under pressure, with the other two being retirements.
- We have our first opening filled, as Pennsylvania has hired Steve Donahue to replace Jerome Allen. With his previous success at fellow Ivy rival Cornell and his connections as a former assistant at Penn to Fran Dunphy, this hire makes perfect sense. Good for Donahue to get a solid position after not receiving a lot of time at Boston College and doing a very nice job as an analyst this past year.
- Alabama has appointed John Brannen as its interim head coach for the Crimson Tide in the upcoming NIT, in place of the fired Anthony Grant. He will guide the team against Illinois in its NIT opener on Tuesday.
- The U.S. Basketball Writers Association released its All-American selections on Monday. First team members were Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky, Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant, Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein, Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor and Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell. The second team consisted of Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, Bobby Portis from Arkansas, Northern Iowa forward Seth Tuttle, forward Kyle Wiltjer from Gonzaga and Utah guard Delon Wright.
- Also opening tonight is the NIT, secretly called the “Kid’s Table” by those on the NCAA selection committee (just eight of the 32 teams in it this year come from BCS conferences). Among the most intriguing matchups are Central Michigan at Louisiana Tech, UTEP at Murray State, Iona at Rhode Island and UC Davis at Stanford.
- The CBI opens with one game, with Rider traveling to face Loyola (Ill.). Could be a nice springboard tournament for the Ramblers, who have not been to any postseason since advancing to the Sweet 16 in the 1985 NCAA Tournament.
- Five more games happen in the CIT. Eastern Illinois is at Oakland, James Madison travels to South Carolina Upstate, Bowling Green is at St. Francis (Pa.), Norfolk State plays at Eastern Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette goes to Incarnate Word, which makes its first D-I tourney appearance.
- Finally, as one who formerly worked at an NAIA school, will also selfishly note that the NAIA Division II men’s and women’s championship games are tonight. Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.) faces Cornerstone (Mich.) in the men’s title game in Point Lookout, Mo., while Concordia (Neb.) goes against host school Morningside in the women’s final in Sioux City, Iowa. There are no tougher tournaments to win and no better tourneys to watch for the basketball junkie than those in the NAIA: the winners will have completed a run of winning five games in seven days.
Have a great Tuesday, and don’t forget to finish your brackets.