First First Four proves to be a flop
DAYTON, Ohio -- Thankfully, at 12:15 p.m. EDT on Thursday, we get to hit reset.
When West Virginia and Clemson tip off in what is now called the "second round" of the NCAA tournament, it will still feel like the first round to 99 percent of the country. The other 1 percent will try to purge itself the memory of having sat through the First Four.
Starting this year, NCAA tournament organizers decided to devote two extra nights to "showcasing" what was already the most riveting sporting event on the calendar. Unfortunately, by showcasing some of the worst teams in the bracket, the event proved more of a buzzkill than an opening toast.
Judging by the reaction -- or lack thereof -- from fans around the country, the first-ever First Four caused a collective snore.
"These play-in games have managed to lessen my interest in [the] NCAA Tournament," Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel tweeted late Wednesday night. "What a terrible idea."
Among those that might vehemently disagree with that sentiment are the good people of Dayton, more than 10,000 of whom showed up here both nights despite the absence of any local team. School and city officials went out of their way to make the visitors welcome and give the arena a tourney feel.
And of course, the VCU Rams, which made mid-majors everywhere proud Wednesday by advancing to the round of 64 with a tedious 59-46 victory over the Pac-10's USC Trojans, a 19-14 at-large team that never should have been here in the first place.
In what ultimately amounted to a one-sided free-throw shooting contest, one in which nearly every key player for both teams spent the second half in foul trouble as the officials blew their whistles more frequently than a traffic cop, VCU (24-11) got to shove one in the face of the critics that questioned their surprising tourney invite. They'll get another chance Friday night in Chicago against No. 6 seed Georgetown.
"I'm excited with what [my players] did, but I'm not surprised with what they did," said the Rams' second-year coach Shaka Smart. "I think we can go to Chicago and compete and have a chance to win again."
It's entirely possible. Much like Clemson the night before, VCU won with smothering defense, holding the Trojans to 39.5 percent shooting and outrebounding them 40-31 (including 17 to 5 on the offensive glass). The game's seemingly glacial pace wasn't entirely the Rams' fault. Smart's team prefers to press and run, but it proved hard to do when the clock seemed to stop every 27 seconds -- and then often for three-and-half minutes at a time.
"It may have been the reason we couldn't push the tempo the way we usually do," said freshman guard Rob Brandenburg. "It seemed like there were longer media timeouts [there were], and the halftime was longer."
It also didn't help that they couldn't hit shots. They made just 33.9 percent on the night.
The score was tied 22-22 at intermission. By comparison, in the night's earlier game, UT-San Antonio guard Melvin Johnson scored 25 first-half points himself. VCU had shot just 28.1 percent from the field, and senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, the team's undisputed engine, had missed all five of his shots.
Shortly into the second half, however, Rodriguez, a modest 34 percent three-point shooter, drained one from behind the arc to put VCU up 28-24, then hit another to make it 31-27. On USC's ensuing trip down the floor, the Rams' assist leader picked Maurice Jones' pocket, raced up court and returned to his specialty -- dishing to teammate Brandon Rozzell for his own trey from the wing to give the Rams a seven-point lead and cause Rodriguez to smile and pump his chest as Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill called timeout.
VCU clung to a close lead most of the rest of the way, but as it got to crunch time, and seemingly every other possession for both teams ended with someone fouling (there were a staggering 44 combined fouls called), USC at one point missed six of seven free-throw attempts. VCU pulled to what was essentially an insurmountable 53-44 lead with 4:10 remaining when Rodriguez found Juvonte Reddic streaking to the basket and dished another assist.
"They came out and they performed like they wanted it more," said USC guard Jio Fontain.
Rodriguez was a high school senior in Merritt Island, Fla., the last time VCU won an NCAA tournament game, in 2007. That one was a bit more captivating, what with Rams star Eric Maynor hitting a game-winning jumper to knock out Duke in the first round. Two years later, Rodriguez was on the floor when Maynor nearly pulled off another stunner against UCLA, but that time VCU lost by a point. Last year he got to taste a championship -- in the CBI.
It looked like he and his teammates might be relegated to postseason obscurity again after falling to Old Dominion in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. Many pundits were surprised to hear VCU's name called on Selection Sunday -- and so, too, were some of the Rams' themselves. Center Jamie Skeen was eating at Great Wrap when he heard the news.
Given the opportunity, however, "We showed them a little glimpse of VCU basketball," said guard Ed Nixon. "But there's more to come."
For his sake, hopefully more will be watching Friday, because only the die-hards could have still been tuned to truTV by night's end Wednesday. After a promising start a night earlier, when UNC-Asheville rallied to beat Arkansas-Little Rock in overtime, the First Four deteriorated into what many expected: A series of forgettable games between largely irrelevant teams.
That may seem harsh to at-large victors Clemson and VCU. The truth is, had this been a year ago, and had the Rams beaten USC on, say, Thursday afternoon, no one would have given the quality of play a second thought. There would presumably be a more compelling game on somewhere else at the same time.
But the NCAA set itself up for such scrutiny when it chose to tinker with a perfectly good event. It added three more teams to an already increasingly mediocre at-large pool. And then it opted to put four of them alone in prime time and try to sell it as the new "first round." The good people of Dayton bought it. Judging by the reams of criticism streaming on Twitter throughout the games, most of the general public did not.
So it's fortunate, then, that just more than 12 hours after the First Four ended, March Madness the way we've always known it will return. Fans across the country will find excuses to skip work. Brackets will be busted. And a team like VCU will get to truly showcase itself against a more worthy opponent.
"I'm not really going to dwell on this game. I might not even going to watch the tape," said Smart, the charismatic VCU coach whose name will assuredly start popping up for high-profile openings very soon. "We're going to shift all of our focus, 1,000 percent, onto Georgetown.
Those that watched the first-ever First Four will happily do the same.