The First Four doesn't make sense.
I mean sure, the motivation is obvious - mo' teams, mo' games, mo' money - but analytically, the First Four doesn't make sense. The added games don't serve any real purpose outside of the one already stated, and have completely muddled the semantics of the NCAA Tournament. What the vast majority of the sports world refers to as the first round is now officially the second round, a fact which forces constant clarification through the use of terms like "round of 64" and "round of 32."
The original reason behind the "play-in-game" was that the Mountain West Conference had just been formed and granted an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, and the powers that be in college basketball determined that the world just couldn't be deprived of that final 12 seed from the Big East. So instead of decreasing the at-large pool by one, the NCAA elected to create an "opening round" in which two 16 seeds would battle it out for the right to advance to the tournament's main draw...to the real NCAA Tournament. In 2011, the opening round was expanded to four games, played by the bottom four automatic qualifiers and the bottom four at-large qualifiers.
The expanded opening round has been fun - President Obama came to a game, a team that participated in its first year wound up advancing all the way to the Final Four - but it still doesn't make any sense. The so-called "Catholic 7" splitting from the Big East and forming their own conference will give Division-I 32 conferences that own automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14. Thirty-two automatic bids and thirty-two at-large bids would seem to be the ideal scenario for an event that attempts to celebrate both conference tournament and regular season achievement, but this is a world where order has next-to-no value.
As a host site for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the city of Dayton also seems to make no sense.
Located in between Cincinnati and Columbus in the football-obsessed state of Ohio, Dayton doesn't equally conjure up images basketball hoops nailed to the side of barns or high-quality pick-up games played inside of caged parks. And yet, this is a city that (quietly) embraces and supports basketball as wholly as just about any in America. Despite its relatively modest arena, the University of Dayton has ranked in the top 25 nationally for attendance 18 times since 1972. This for a team that has never won a national championship, and which has won just one NCAA Tournament game since 1990.
Basically, it's the perfect mismatch for the only aspect of March Madness that lacks public favor.
Dayton has more than hosted the opening round since 2001, it's embraced it. The UD band has filled in for schools whose own band couldn't afford to make the trip, area fans with no allegiance to any of the teams in town will often arbitrarily pick one to root for and wear their colors to the game, the city even put together a "First Four Festival" that began in 2012 and is expected to return in 2014.
The First Four is set to stay in Dayton through 2015, but the NCAA has made it known that it plans to look at other potential host sites after that. It's news that has served as a call to action for city leaders and university officials.
"Feedback from the teams and the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee make it obvious that community support is a critical factor in awarding future NCAA sites," said Dayton atheltic director Tim Wabler in a statement last October. "It has to be clear, no matter where any visitor travels in the Dayton area that week, that Dayton is the center of the college basketball world when the NCAA comes to town. We have the chance to cement the First Four in Dayton for years to come.
It's our goal to make Dayton as synonymous with the First Four as Omaha is with the College World Series."
That goal appears to be fading.
The total attendance for Tuesday night's pair of games was 12,027. In 2011, both First Four sessions drew more than 10,000 fans. In 2012, that number dipped to 8,510 the first day and 7,218 the second day.
The fact that there isn't a big name program included in this year's crop of opening round games in an obvious blow to ticket sales, but Wabler and company are still hoping to make an even bigger statement on Wednesday night. It'd be a shame if they didn't and the First Four ultimately hit the road. Perfect mismatches ought to be celebrated.