First Four experiment continues and succeeds

Albany guard D.J. Evans estimated he probably hit his bed at around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning as his team completed a 950-mile trip from Dayton, Ohio to Orlando, Florida. Yet, Evans could not sleep.

His Great Danes, jerseys and all, completed a 71-64 win over the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers to advance to the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament and a date with top overall seed, the Florida Gators. In all likelihood, Albany’s Tournament dreams end on the parquet floor in Orlando.

The feeling of winning and the excitement of living to fight another day?

That might be what the Tournament is all about. Even if it can be a bit exhausting.

“Yeah, it’s been a long few days,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “We played our championship game on Saturday, Selection Sunday, you find out about 6:15 you’re going to Dayton. Yet get there on Monday, you play on Tuesday, you’re told if you win, right around midnight you’re jumping on a plane and coming down here.

“We had a very difficult game against a talented Mount St. Mary’s team, and we only played seven guys. So the biggest thing from the time that game ended until tip-off [Thursday] is we’re doing a lot of mental preparation. We’ve got to try to keep our legs fresh, make sure our team is energized, as we have a tremendous task to try and beat the No. 1 overall team in the tournament and the best team in the country.”

There was more than a fair share of skepticism when the NCAA decided to expand the tournament field to 68 teams. Some call the four games played in Dayton the Tuesday and Wednesday before the traditional bracket begins as “play-in games.” That is certainly meant to demean the four games.

Some may never consider it to be part of the NCAA Tournament. Your office pool certainly will not.

Yet the fact remains, at least one of the four winners each season has won their second round matchup and in two of the three seasons, a team that played in the First Four reached the Sweet Sixteen — VCU most famously went from the original First Four round to the Final Four.

These are not play-in games and one of the four teams (OK, just the two between NC State and Tennessee) that played early in the week will be playing later on this weekend.

“I really like our team,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “That’s one thing about it. I like our spirit every day. Even afte rthe tough games we had and losses we had that were really emotionally tough, our guys seemed to always bounce back and have a good spirit about themselves. That’s made it a lot of fun. Hopefully we can keep on going with this for a while.”

Gottfried admitted he had to pull star forward T.J. Warren at one point in Tuesday’s game to give him a breather after playing four games in the past seven days. There has not been much time to allow his team to regain its legs and its stamina.

It has been a whirlwind for his team and his players. A coach has to be able to manage it all — from the emotions to the mental focus of the next game.

That is generally life in the Tournament anyway, but this provides a special challenge. One that historically (brief as it may be) teams have been able to overcome.

Playing in the First Four has not quite been a disadvantage despite the late travel and hurried schedule before the next game.

“Everyone just wants to play,” Albany guard Peter Hooley said. “It’s the NCAA Tournament, so I think getting that game out of the way first, everybody’s nerves probably have settled down a little bit, everybody is just ready to go now knowing we have a big task ahead of us, and we have to do everything we can to get a win.”

That is ultimately what this whole thing is about though. Playing in the NCAA Tournament and being part of the experience. Anything can happen once the ball is tipped.

Even in the brief history of the First Four, the teams that come out are not ones that should be taken lightly. They might have been the last teams in by theory, but they play the games the same as anyone.

Having the tough early tournament schedule certainly beats the alternative.

“[Playing in the First Four] does make it hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Gottfried said. “I told our guys, we could be back at Reynolds Coliseum playing in the NIT, so we’re not going to scribble about travel or how hard it may be or quick turnaround. We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play, and that’s the bottom line.

“We’ll be ready.”

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily