Sixty-eight teams learned their fate Sunday night — where they would play, against whom, and on which date.
Eight were selected for the First Four in Dayton, a mid-sized Ohio city with an outsized appreciation for college basketball. Dayton won’t be confused with Los Angeles’ glitz, Miami’s beaches, or New York’s capital-of-the-world appeal. But this Midwestern city, which has hosted more NCAA tournament games than anywhere else in America, is ingrained in March Madness.
“It’s embedded into our DNA,” University of Dayton athletic director Neil Sullivan said. “We really believe — and I know it sounds cliche — that we’re the epicenter of college basketball. We’re the No. 1 host site. It’s what UD Arena does. We think it’s one of the best places to watch college basketball in the country. It’s inextricably linked with our community. It’s deeply personal.”
WATCH: UD Arena timelapse
No. 16 seeds Radford and LIU Brooklyn play the first game of the NCAA tournament at 6:40 p.m. Tuesday, and No. 11 seeds UCLA and St. Bonaventure will follow. No. 16 seeds Texas Southern and North Carolina Central play the first game Wednesday, with No. 11 seeds Arizona State and Syracuse playing the nightcap.
Some teams have complained about being placed in Dayton, with the perception the games — often derided as the “play-in” games despite the NCAA’s efforts to brand them otherwise — don’t hold the same appeal as the 64-team bracket that starts dominating the national conversation Thursday.
Radford coach Mike Jones is not one of them.
“We’re playing in an NCAA tournament. What is there to mind?” Jones said.
After a game in February, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose Irish ended up being the first team out of the tournament, told Yahoo Sports, “We’d love to go to Dayton!”
NCAA tournament games 118, 119, 120, and 121 will take place this week at UD Arena, further distancing the venue from Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, which is second having hosted 83 tournament games. The love affair with the NCAA tournament began in 1970, when the brand-new arena hosted first-round games in the Mideast Region.
It continues every year uninhibited, just as every April the Masters is played at Augusta National. Flip on the television for the first games of the NCAA tournament, and you’ll see UD Arena year after year.
“It’s really important to us,” Dayton mayor Nan Whaley said. “Basketball is part of the culture in Dayton. We love basketball — high school basketball, college basketball, we love it. The First Four is indicative of that. It doesn’t matter who the teams are, the citizens of Dayton will go and watch basketball.”
In 1999, the Western Athletic Conference split, leading to the creation of the Mountain West Conference. The new league was granted an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament for the 2000-01 season, which eliminated an at-large spot in the field. That meant one less bubble team. To fix the problem one team was added, expanding the 64-team field to 65, and Dayton was selected as the site for the play-in game.
When the field was expanded once again in 2011 to 68 teams, the games remained at UD Arena. And they’ve never left. The NCAA announced last year the First Four would be played in Dayton through at least 2022, beating out Detroit, Evansville, Ind., and Hershey, Pa. In 2014, Dayton was selected over Sioux Falls, S.D., Des Moines, Iowa, and Wichita, Kan.
When a Blade reporter identified himself to Whaley, she asked if Toledo was interested in hosting.
“I didn’t want you to steal any intel and you go bidding on it,” Whaley joked.
There are logical reasons why Dayton hosts the First Four — a central location, airport, plenty of hotel rooms, and a 13,435-seat arena that’s considered one of the best places to watch a basketball game.
But those are just convenient talking points. The truth is this city and university eat, sleep, and breathe college basketball.
“When you think about Dayton’s track record in hosting the First Four and the community and how they’ve embraced this event since its inception really, it’s just been remarkable,” said Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes, who chaired the NCAA tournament selection committee in 2015 when he was at Utah State.
Capacity crowds create a tournament atmosphere, year-round athletic department meetings and annually hosting games creates a well-oiled machine, and greeters and bands playing the school fight songs at hotel arrivals creates a welcoming vibe.
“When you talk about the environment and the city being bought into it — any city can sell an arena out,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “But the energy is created by the people. The way the hotel people treat the teams, it’s like a celebration. I don’t think any city can do that. Dayton does an unbelievable job of buying in, appreciating it, and enjoying it. That’s what makes it special.”
Christian has been to the First Four twice with Mount St. Mary’s, losing in 2014 and winning last year. As an assistant under Shaka Smart at VCU, Christian experienced tournament games in Portland, and after winning in Dayton in 2017, Mount St. Mary’s advanced to Buffalo. Neither venue delivered like Dayton.
“Dayton does an unbelievable job,” Christian said. “Everyone in the city seems like they have so much passion in having the teams there. The experience is almost better [than the round of 64]. There’s an enormous amount of energy created there in less than 48 hours. They do it better than anyone.”
When President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron attended the First Four in 2012, the event, UD Arena, and city of Dayton garnered international recognition. When Whaley travels, she said there are two subjects she’s constantly asked about: the Wright Brothers and the First Four.
First Four tickets are donated to service members at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and a four-mile race and STEM event are all part of the week’s festivities.
The event pumps $4.5 million into the local economy, according to the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau. But the priceless source of free advertising might be more valuable. For approximately six hours on consecutive nights, an infomercial about Dayton airs on national television.
“It’s an interesting infomercial, too,” Whaley said, “because there’s basketball being played.”
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