NCAA Daily Diaries: First Four – TuesdayPosted by rtmsf on March 16th, 2011
RTC will be covering the NCAA Tournament from cover to cover this year, with correspondents at each of the fourteen sites over the next three weeks. These diaries are intended to give you insights to the games, coaches, players, fans media and everything else that you wouldn’t otherwise have known simply from watching on television. As always, feel free to offer suggestions for feedback in future versions that we can pass along to our correspondents. Here’s Tuesday’s Diary from Dayton…
The First Four, Tuesday – by John Stevens
What a privilege to be in attendance for history. Assuming the First Four sticks and they bring it back every year, we can say we were at the first First Four. It took a while for UD Arena to fill, but not only was the 6:30 PM ET start time a tad early for a Tuesday night game, but the interstate highways near the arena are undergoing construction, resulting in several bottlenecks and resultant standstills. If you were hoping to slide in just a few minutes before tipoff of either game, there’s no way you made it. By the late second half of UALR vs UNCA, the place was about 80% full.
Here’s how cruel fate can be: when UAB (and VCU, for that matter) were announced as having made the Tournament, you probably heard what ESPN’s Jay Bilas thought of it. That soundbite, by now, is famous; you know, the one where he slams the committee for letting those two teams in ahead of Colorado and Virginia Tech, even wondering if the committee was aware that basketballs were, in fact, round. On the drive up here today, I was listening to ESPN radio play a clip with the response by UAB’s senior guard Aaron Johnson, the Conference USA Player of the Year. In it, Johnson said, “Nothing stopped me from dancing in my room when they announced us, and even when Jay Bilas was talking down about us and everything, we’re just happy to get to play.” That’s a great response, a kid sticking up for his team and his school. There is no other response. Late in the game against Clemson, the matter all but decided, Johnson hustled back to defend what turned out to be a run-out layup with an and-one opportunity for Clemson. Johnson fell awkwardly, but the play happened right in front of me and it looked like a simple cramp. Wrong. Johnson broke his tibia on the play. The replay showed a left limb that simply should not move the way a foot and leg should. When he was taken off the floor, he tried to restrain his tears. He failed. He and his trainers went right by me en route back to the locker room. The look on Johnson’s eyes was not just one of immense pain. It was one of soul-consuming fear, a look of a kid who wondered if he’d ever walk normally again, let alone ever play basketball for money, as he was poised to do someday. A broken tibia entails an arduous recovery and a long rehab. We hope he makes it all the way back, and fulfills his dreams. The most evil aspect of this was noted in a tweet by Mid-Majority’s Kyle Whelliston — and that’s the fact that if UAB wasn’t selected for the Tournament, Johnson doesn’t play in this game.
What strange statistics at halftime of UAB/Clemson. At the break, UAB was 2-12 from inside the two-point arc, but 7-15 outside of it. Clemson, by contrast, couldn’t hit from three-point range, shooting 1-7. Inside the arc, they fared much better in the first half, hitting a blistering 14 of 20 shots! In the second half, the Tigers fared slightly better from range, hitting 3-6, but a couple of those were late-minute bombs from subs. With just about three minutes remaining, Clemson had shot only two treys, hitting one of them. It’s not something Clemson does well to begin with, and this is the time of year where one of the best things you can do is know yourself. By now, teams should know their strengths and weaknesses, what to avoid, and the best way to play up what they do best. If you don’t have long range shooters, hey, don’t shoot a lot of threes. Not that seven three-point attempts is a lot for a half, but you know this was a point emphasized by Clemson head coach Brad Brownell at halftime. His team followed through, and put the Blazers away easily in the second half on the strength of good shot selection — and, of course, multiple turnovers by UAB.
As good as this all looks on paper, when you look at your watch, you have to wonder…is there a better way? Clemson played an ACC Tournament game against North Carolina on Saturday, a game in which they held a late double-digit lead, but still lost. After that disappointment, they traveled to Dayton yesterday, practiced, and played their First Four game today. Brad Brownell took the mic at his post-game presser at 12:14 AM ET on Wednesday morning. His team plays West Virginia in Tampa in 36 hours. Forget having a fighting chance against a darn good WVU team that’s had a week to rest. We hope every Tigers’ grades are in good shape, because this can’t be good for the “student” part of being a student-athlete. We’re not passing judgment. But wow, what a schedule. If Clemson gets by the Mountaineers, even if the Tigers lost their next game, that campus still ought to step up with a welcome home bash for these guys. Brownell said everything he was supposed to say regarding being in this event as opposed to the so-called main draw. All the coaches did, in fact. But as he got up from his press conference, Brownell put up his hand to the gathered media — and I think I’m well within the bounds of reason to say this was done with the thickest of irony — “I’ll see you all in Tampa! I’m sure you’ll all be right down there with us!”
I was looking forward to seeing what would win out in the first game — UNC Asheville’s ability to induce turnovers, or UALR’s considerable ability at stroking the three. UALR was relatively immune to turnovers in the first half, at least compared to what the Bulldogs usually get from their opponents. UALR only coughed it up six times, and they had averaged 17 per game on the season. The Trojans didn’t quite live up to their statistical reputation from range, hitting 5-13 in the first half. The second half was more characteristic of a game dictated by Asheville. They forced ten UALR gaffes, held the Trojans to 4-16 from the arc, and hit 4-9 of their own three-point attempts, as well. Despite superb performances from J.P. Primm (22/4/5 asst) and John Williams (15 pts on 7-10), our game ball in that game went to Matt Dickey, who played 43 of 45 minutes, and check out his stat lines: at the end of the first half, he was 1-2 from the field, did not attempt a three, and hit his only free throw attempt. He had three points, two assists, and a rebound in all 20 minutes. Then, he got silly, and asserted his will on this affair. He finished with 22 points on 7-10 shooting, including 2-3 from the arc. He pulled down five boards, dished out another assists, and only turned the ball over twice. He is now part of First Four history. What a great way to light this candle, though, you know? The first of the First Four needed an extra five, and it was worth it.
A final note for today: I sensed a glimmer of pride from the fellow who moderated the post-game press conferences as he announced that, as of the end of the UALR vs UNCA game, Dayton Arena has now hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other venue. The first game today was game #84, and it surpassed Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium on the all-time list. And hey, we’re not done yet. They’ll just add to the margin tomorrow with two more. In the meantime…let’s get some sleep!