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By Greg Johnson
Dayton, Ohio – In its second year of existence, the First Four is finding its niche amidst March Madness.
This year’s version received a boost from two remarkable comebacks on opening night, with Brigham Young rallying from a 25-point deficit to defeat Iona and Western Kentucky making a 22-5 run over the last five minutes to stun Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday night.
Throw in a visit from President Barack Obama and his guest, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the event certainly had a lively atmosphere.
This year's First Four was highlighted by a visit from President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
When the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee decided to expand the tournament field to 68 teams and have the last four at-large selections, along with four 16-seeds, play the first four games in Dayton Arena, it was the kind of night the committee envisioned.
“The fact that the top announcers from Turner/CBS (Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr) called the games helps validates that this is the start of the tournament,” said committee chair Jeff Hathaway. “The guys who played in the first game will be telling their grandkids 40 years from now that they played in front of the President of the United States.”
Dayton has long embraced being the opening act to the championship. When the tournament expanded to 65 teams in 2001, the opening-round game featuring two No. 16 seeds was played there.
This year the city added a festival at an entertainment district near downtown on Sunday. An estimated crowd of 15,000 took part in interactive games and saw an Air Force flyover. Fans also played hot shot contests and participated in a four-mile run to commemorate the First Four. Big-screen televisions were all around where the fans could view the Selection Show on CBS.
“This is a basketball city,” Hathaway said. “They’ve turned out for this event year in and year out.”
Hathaway added that the committee has also learned how to better handle the logistics of moving eight teams to Dayton after the Selecting Show ends at 7 p.m. Eastern time.
“There is more coordination with the travel staff having lived through this last year,” Hathaway said. “You have to get the two advancing teams to a next site quickly. The other thing that helps this year is we have sites that are closer to Dayton.”
Three of the four winning teams advanced to second-round sites in Louisville and Nashville, which are within the NCAA’s 350-mile bus travel policy. Vermont, the winner of the first game Wednesday night advanced to the site in Greensboro, N.C.
The teams aren’t the only ones traveling this time of year. Hathaway left for Atlanta, where he will monitor the next four days of the tournament along with NCAA staff members at Turner Sports.
After that, he will visit all four regional sites in Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis and Phoenix on March 22-25. Then it is on to New Orleans for the Men’s Final Four.
“A lot of people would love to be in this situation,” Hathaway said. “What a great way to do this for your work and be able to be part of a sport that you love. It is a wonderful way to serve the student-athletes and provide them a great championship experience.”