By: Steve Miller – Sports Editor
America, long a land of opportunity, loves an underdog. In sports, no setting is more hospitable to underdogs than March Madness. And in March Madness, the city of Dayton provides the first glimmer of hope for eight men’s basketball teams who narrowly sneak into the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team field.
Since 2011, UD Arena has hosted the First Four, where eight teams square off to determine advancement to the round of 64. On March 14 and 15, four 16-seeds (Mount Saint Mary’s, New Orleans, North Carolina Central and the University of California, Davis) and four 11-seeds (Kansas State, Wake Forest, Southern California and Providence) competed in the First Four.
Each year, at least one First Four participant has gone on to win a second round game and advance to the round of 32.
Beyond that, the First Four is virtually the only chance for a 16-seed to ever win an NCAA Tournament game. No 16-seed has ever advanced past the round of 64.
“Just can’t say how enthusiastic, how happy we are to be here in Dayton,” Mount Saint Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian said in a press conference prior to his team’s game. “One of the best venues for college basketball, the way they celebrate our game each year is really special.”
UD Arena, in fact, has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other venue in college basketball. After this week’s games, it has hosted 117 tournament games since 1970. Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri, has hosted the next most with 83 between 1940-64.
In those 117 games, UD Arena has played host to some of the most memorable moments in college basketball.
Notre Dame’s Austin Carr scored an NCAA Tournament-record 61 points in a 1970 game against Ohio. Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp ended his college coaching career with a loss to Florida State in 1972. And George Mason began it’s 2006 Final Four run with victories over Michigan State and North Carolina in Dayton.
This year, Mount Saint Mary’s and UC Davis enjoyed their first ever NCAA Tournament victories on UD Arena’s floor. MSMU defeated New Orleans 67-66 in a thrilling first game of the tournament. A day later, UC Davis knocked off NC Central to advance to the next round.
“It’s special,” UC Davis head coach Jim Les said after his team’s First Four victory. “Our guys grew up as little hoopers dreaming about playing here and having this opportunity. And it’s so special to be here. And we’re just going to continue to fight, to keep this story going.”
A victory in Dayton means a lowly 16-seed gains momentum before facing a one-seed in the second round. Although one-seeds have never lost to their 16-seed counterparts, the First Four boosts what confidence there is for the underdogs.
“When that ball goes up on Friday, I’m not going to be thinking about what seeds,” Les said about the game they ended up losing to Kansas. “We’re going to be playing basketball, competing at basketball. And, like I said, the chips will fall where they may. But we’re glad to be here, but we’re not satisfied by any means.”
“That was a great team that we just played. Obviously, they won the championship for their conference and they deserve to be here…That gives us a lot of confidence,” Mount Saint Mary’s guard Elijah Long said after his team’s victory over New Orleans. “It doesn’t matter who’s playing good and who’s playing bad, people step up, people play their roles.”
For the 11-seeds, the First Four provides an opportunity to jumpstart a team that was doubted. These are among the last at-large teams to be selected for the bracket, who were “on the bubble” for the last part of the season.
One First Four winner each year has won in the round of 64, including the Dayton Flyers in 2015. Additionally, three have advanced to the Sweet 16 and one–VCU in 2011–made it all the way to the Final Four.
This season, USC continued the trend. They came from behind to defeat Providence in Dayton on Wednesday and then knocked off Southern Methodist in the round of 64 on Friday.
USC was largely considered a bubble team and undeserving of a tournament bid last week. Yet, they proved their doubters incorrect.
“Our coaches, they have confidence in us, we have confidence in ourselves,” guard Jordan McLaughlin said after USC defeated Providence. “And we know when we’re playing like we did in the second half that we’re able to compete with anybody. And it’s just a matter of us just bringing the energy and knocking down shots and just competing all the way to the end.”
“I think we’re not too worried about what other people say about us. We know who we are as a unit.” USC forward Bennie Boatwright said. “We’re not too worried about proving anything to anybody, because we know who we are.”
USC fell to three-seed Oregon in the round of 32 by a score of 82-78, but they played the Ducks tough. They led late in the second half, only to fall behind in the closing minutes. Head coach Andy Enfield and the Trojans won 26 games–a school record–in the 2016-17 season, enjoying Dayton as a venue for victory.
Although Mount Saint Mary’s and UC Davis inevitably lost in the round of 64, their players and coaches will forever remember the March Madness wins they earned in Dayton.
And just like VCU in 2011, the next Cinderella may be lurking, ready to use UD Arena as square one for a tournament run.
Photo by Christian Cubacub – Multimedia Editor