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NCAA tournament kicks off with new twist: First Four in Dayton

DAYTON, Ohio -- About five years ago, NCAA executive vice president Greg Shaheen registered the trademark "First Four" and told colleagues to "put it in our hip pocket," in the event they one day decided to re-brand the NIT Season Tip-Off or create some other preseason event.

Those ideas never took off. But last summer, as the NCAA Division I Basketball Committee met in Chicago to decide how to incorporate three new teams into its recently expanded bracket, Shaheen realized the opportunity had finally arose to put his moniker to use.

The NCAA tournament's First Four will be staged here Tuesday and Wednesday nights with a pair of doubleheaders: UNC-Asheville vs. Arkansas-Little Rock followed by at-large teams UAB vs. Clemson tonight, and Alabama State vs. Texas-San Antonio followed by USC vs. VCU tomorrow. All four games will be televised on truTV.

Technically, the tournament has started in Dayton since 2001, the first year organizers added a 65th team and created the so-called play-in game. But one matchup between sure-to-be short-lived No. 16 seeds caused little more than casual channel flipping for most fans. Certainly no one bothered picking them on their brackets, what with the teams destined for 20-point blowouts to Duke or Kentucky two days later.

But this year marks the beginning of a whole new era for the NCAA tournament. The NCAA signed a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal between the NCAA, CBS and Turner Sports (Editor's note: Turner Sports is in partnership with SI.com and runs the site's business operations) for an expanded, 68-team field. The committee awarded Dayton three more games, created a new, branded event, and included four at-large teams that, as No. 11 or 12 seeds, have the potential to advance beyond the round of 64. The NCAA declared Monday "National Bracket Day" to urge fans to fill in their brackets earlier this year. CBS and Turner have even deployed their No. 1 broadcast crew (Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr) to call Tuesday night's games.

All of it is part of an overriding goal.

"We wanted to show that this really was the official beginning of the tournament, and these games really do have meaning," said CBS Sports President Sean McManus. "Having Jim, Clark and Steve do the first game and the last game [of the NCAA tournament] was a nice bookend."

The question is whether hoops fans will follow the company line and adjust their office pools and viewing habits accordingly, or will they treat the First Four as a blip before the real deal commences Thursday?

Entries for the NCAA's official online bracket are due Tuesday at 7 p.m. However, most major sports sites (including SI.com) are still keeping their games open until Thursday at noon, essentially ignoring the First Four. Players can pick the USC/VCU and Clemson/UAB pairings as one entity in the round of 64 (which is now known officially as the second round) or wait until after the winners are decided to turn in their entry.

"People will understand over time that the games of the First Four are highly relevant," said Shaheen, who oversees the NCAA tournament. "We're using it as an opportunity to show the public what [the new television deal] is going to look like over the next three weeks, and it allows us to showcase six days of tournament games in a row."

When the NCAA originally announced its deal with CBS and Turner last April, the only certainty about the new format was that it would include 68 -- thankfully, not 96 -- teams. No decision had yet been made about the format for extra games.

Options included using play-in games for all four No. 16 seeds, but advocates for the smaller conferences that produce such teams considered it unfair. Others felt the often-suspect bubble teams at the bottom of the at-large pool should fight for the last four sports. And certainly television interests played a role in the resulting "hybrid" model, as Shaheen called it, in which two games involve No. 16 seeds and two pit at-large teams.

"The committee were the ones that voted on it, but we certainly wanted these four games to include some at-large teams," said Turner Sports president David Levy. "These are not play-in games. One of these at-large teams might make the Sweet 16."

Indeed, since 1985, No. 11 seeds such as USC and VCU have won 33 first-round (now second-round) games. Twelve reached the Sweet 16, four the Elite Eight and two (LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006) the Final Four. And No. 12 seeds such as UAB and VCU have actually fared better in the early rounds, producing 18 Sweet 16 teams, most recently Cornell last year.

But those teams didn't have to play an extra game beforehand. The biggest challenge facing both organizers and participants is the logistics of such a quick turnaround for eight teams. Invitees didn't learn until after 6 p.m. ET Sunday they'd be playing again as soon as 6:30 on Tuesday. Shaheen said the NCAA dedicated specific travel agents to work with the First Four participants, reserving charter flights almost as soon as the bracket was announced, and the teams were dispatched as quickly as possible.

After practice Monday, USC flew roughly 2,200 miles to Dayton for Wednesday night's game against VCU. Should they prevail, the Trojans head to Chicago to face Georgetown on Friday night. That would be three different time zones for USC over four days.

But that's nothing compared to the itineraries for Clemson and UAB. The teams flew to Dayton on Monday morning, held practices and attended press conferences Monday afternoon and will play Tuesday at 9 p.m. Some time around midnight the winner will leave the arena and immediately fly to Tampa, where there will be more news conferences Wednesday, then a noon ET tipoff Thursday against West Virginia.

"This is an unbelievably quick turnaround," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Sunday night. "The hardest part of being in a Tuesday game is we just got back [from the ACC tournament] and now you are turning right back around. You forget these guys are students and they have to think about some academic things and what we have to do to plan for the week. And for us to turn around with a quick prep and get to where we need to get to, and all the logistical things you need to do, you just don't get to take a breath. You don't get to take a step back and enjoy it."

Event organizers in Dayton hope to change Brownwell's tune. The hoops-crazed city has a long history with the NCAA (UD Arena this week will break the record for men's NCAA tourney games hosted, currently at 83) and is going all out to treat the First Four like a regular tourney experience. NCAA banners welcoming teams and fans appear alongside the exit road from Dayton International Airport and the street (Edwin C. Moses Boulevard) bordering UD Arena. Staff at the nearby Courtyard by Marriott on Monday donned NCAA apparel and handed out key cards with the First Four logo. Brackets were available at the front desk.

As of late Monday afternoon, fans had bought more than 10,000 of the available 12,000 tickets for Tuesday's games, up from 8,205 for last year's opening round.

"Our intent here is to do such a good job, make it such a great experience for the fans and the student-athletes, knock it out of the park operationally, in such a way the NCAA feels Dayton should have this annually," said Dayton athletic director Tim Wabler.

This summer, the Basketball Committee will review all aspects of the expanded tournament, including the First Four, before determining its future. Executives at the NCAA and the networks seem fired up about their new creation, though they are expectedly nervous to see how many fans watch the games, and how well the participants manage the travel. There will be a curiosity factor at the start, but will fans care about four lower-seeded teams that will have little or no effect on their brackets?

"In May and in June when we have our meetings to look back at the tournament, the First Four will go under its first scrutiny with the committee," said NCAA committee chair Gene Smith. "Anything that we feel we need to modify based on that experience, we'll modify."

All agree it might take a year, or more, for fans to embrace such a radical change to the face of March Madness.

"We've all got to get used to it, that these are not play-in games, that this is the first round," said Turner's Levy. "We have a 14-year deal. Hopefully in 14 years it won't be an issue."

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