DAYTON, Ohio — With 2.9 seconds left and Mount St. Mary’s clinging to a one-point lead over New Orleans in the NCAA tournament’s First Four on Tuesday night, coach Jamion Christian gathered his team in the huddle. He knew exactly what was coming.
Christian’s assistants had so thoroughly scouted New Orleans in the 48 hours since Selection Sunday that Christian told his team the Privateers were going to run a play The Mount calls “Valpo.” (And, let’s be honest, doesn’t every team call its go-to full-court inbounds play Valpo?)
Still, knowing what’s coming and defending what’s coming are not always the same thing. On the backline of Mount St. Mary’s defense, 6' 8" forward Chris Wray sprinted to midcourt, knocked the ball down and corralled it to seal the Mountaineers' second-ever NCAA tournament victory, 67–66. “Get it down,” he later recalled thinking to himself. “Get it down.”
An obscure No. 16 seed beating another may not resonate far beyond a quick check of the bracket for the casual fan. But the second biggest celebration of the night came on press row, where Northeast Conference commissioner Noreen Morris hugged a conga line of Mount St. Mary’s officials. For a tiny conference like the NEC, with a budget of just over $3 million annually, the bounty from the extra NCAA tournament unit is a complete game changer. Every trip to the NCAAs gives a league like the NEC a $264,859 rolling payout every year for six years. Every victory adds an extra unit, meaning an extra set of payouts—$1.6 million—over the same six-year span. “For the NEC, it’s a significant impact because we don’t have the big media deals that the other leagues have,” Morris said. “So this is really a revenue generator for us.”
Consider that the NEC is as much like the SEC as, say, John Candy is like eye candy. When Morris says the NEC doesn’t have media deals, she means that the league pays $400,000 annually to have its games broadcast. The NEC already has an extra set of units coming in thanks to Robert Morris winning in the 2015 First Four. (Colonials coach Andy Toole was home rooting hard for Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday: “In the league like the NEC, it makes a huge difference,” he said.)
How big? Morris said on Tuesday night that the league doesn’t distribute the money. In the past, it has been used for league-wide projects like a digital network and buying video boards for all of the schools in the league. To say Morris was nervous at the game would be an understatement, as she alternated her hands being clasped over her mouth and her thumbs pressed against her temples. During the final tense minute as Mount St. Mary’s clung to a lead, she leaned up against the press table on the edge of her seat. Finally, when the buzzer expired, she doled out hug after hug.
So how did we get here? Every year when the First Four kicks off in Dayton, there’s grumbling about its validity. Basically, the games that the NCAA doesn’t want called the play-in games began because the big conferences didn’t want to give up an at-large bid when the WAC and Mountain West broke up. So they shuttled two No. 16 seeds to Dayton in 2001 to protect the big leagues. (Northwestern State beat Winthrop in that first game, with a plucky young coach named Gregg Marshall taking the loss.)
What started as a classic maneuver for the NCAA to favor big schools—the game began without even offering units to the winner—ended up as a catalyst for the tournament to eventually expand from 64 to 68. (And, in turn, allow in more schools like Wake Forest, Kansas State, USC and Providence; the Wildcats beat the Demon Deacons 95–88 on Tuesday, while the Trojans and Friars play Wednesday.)
The game between The Mount and UNO ended up being taut and tense, just like March games are supposed to be. And if the First Four isn’t going anywhere, at least the winner of No. 16 North Carolina Central and No. 16 UC-Davis on Wednesday can haul in a financial windfall for a league that needs it—just like The Mount did on Tuesday night. “I take pride in trying to be that person who is there for those who need it, and I know our league needs it,” Christian said.
Once Christian and Wray knew “Valpo” was coming, so were the payouts. Just imagine what the celebration will be if The Mount can upset top-seeded Villanova on Thursday?