Taking a second look at the First Four

Posted: February 09, 2011

So what exactly is the First Four?

Remember that is the name the NCAA came up with when it announced in April that the NCAA Tournament would be expanded from 65 to 68 teams, that there would be 37 at-large teams instead of 34, that Turner Sports would partner with CBS on a $10.8 billion, 14-year deal that would televise every game live on CBS, TNT, TBS or truTV.

The first four games in the tournament will be in Dayton, doubleheaders on Tuesday, March 15 and Wednesday, March 16. The field of 64 then will assemble as normal on March 17 and 18. By Sunday night, the field will be down to the Sweet 16.

It was announced in July that the "First Four" would include two games between what the tournament committee determines are the final four at-large teams and two games matching teams on the 16-seed line, essentially the weakest four teams in the field. All four games will be on truTV.

The final at-large teams likely will be on the 11- or 12-seed lines. So the two winners will move into the main draw to play a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. The winners of the other games will play No. 1 seeds. The Wednesday winners will not play until Friday. The Tuesday winners could play Thursday or Friday.

This time last year, a field of 96 seemed like a real possibility. Nobody, except coaches, liked it. The field of 68 was a palatable compromise for what the NCAA's Greg Shaheen called "the most valuable property in sports." It does add three at-large teams, which will make at least three coaches happy. Yes, those teams will have little time to prepare and now will have to win a game to get into the main draw. Last year, of course, they would have been in the NIT.

The winners in the Dayton games will have to win three games in a week to get to the Sweet 16; not easy, but again, better than the NIT. No 16-seed has ever won a game. But the at-large survivors are going to be good teams, which should make for good matchups in Dayton. How the winners do in quick turnarounds also will be interesting to follow.

The original bracket might look a bit more crowded, but everybody will get used to it. The tournament has evolved through the years from eight teams (1939) to 16 (1951) to between 22 and 25 from 1953 to 1974 to 32 (1975, when one team other than the champion from a conference could get into the field) to 40 (1979), 48 (1980), 64 (1985), 65 (2001) and now 68.

First-round games are in Washington, Charlotte, Cleveland, Chicago, Tampa, Denver, Tulsa and Tucson. The regionals are Newark, N.J., Anaheim, Calif., New Orleans and San Antonio. The Final Four will be held in Houston at Reliant Stadium.

The assistants

As promised, here is a rundown of how assistants who worked in the Big 5 and now have head coaching jobs are doing this season (not well for the vast majority). I am not including Jerome Allen, Phil Martelli, Jay Wright or Fran Dunphy on my list. By conference and school as well as school when they were in town, here they are.

America East

Pat Chambers (Villanova) is in his second season at Boston University. BU played in the championship game last season. This season, the Terriers are 12-13, 7-4 in the conference.

Mark Macon (Temple) is the full-time coach at Binghamton (6-18, 3-8) after serving as the interim coach last season.

Randy Monroe (La Salle) had UMBC (5-19, 4-7) as league champions a few years ago.

John Gallagher (La Salle, Penn) had Hartford (7-16, 4-6) competitive in almost every non-conference game, but suffered some wacky losses that looked like wins most of the game.


Steve Donahue (Penn) is 15-9, 5-5 in his first season at Boston College after one of the more impressive turnaround jobs in recent history at Cornell.

Paul Hewitt (Villanova) has had a few solid teams since getting Georgia Tech to the 2004 national championship game, but this season (10-12, 3-6) is not one of them.

Big East

Mike Rice (Saint Joseph's) is doing a very nice job at Rutgers (12-11, 3-8) after doing a great job at Robert Morris.

Big Ten

Fran McCaffery (Penn) did an amazing job at Siena and was looking at a complete rebuild when he took the job at Iowa (10-13, 3-8) last spring. His team is getting better.


Matt Brady (St. Joe's) has James Madison (17-8, 7-6) a factor in a very difficult league.

Monte Ross (St. Joe's) was confronted with a difficult situation at Delaware (11-12, 6-7), but this team has been very competitive.


Paul Cormier (Villanova) is back for his second stint at Dartmouth (5-15, 1-5) after a recent NBA run.

Metro Atlantic

Joe Mihalich (La Salle) has had a long and very successful run at Niagara (5-20, 2-11). When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, he was on the road looking for junior college players who will help next season.

Mitch Buonaguro (Villanova) was Fran McCaffery's assistant at Siena (10-13, 7-6) and is now in charge.


Fran O'Hanlon (Penn) is one of the best basketball minds and best people in the sport. Lafayette (9-14, 4-4) does not have great talent, but no team is better coached.

Bill Lange (Villanova) was making a run at the top of the league with Navy (8-16, 3-5) a few years ago, but is looking up a bit this season.

One more favorite

A few years ago, I listed my three favorite players to cover over the years. Ability mattered, but was not paramount. It was more about how they were to deal with, the insights they usually went out of their way to provide and just character in general.

I have a statute of limitations before I add a player, just to make sure he was really as good as I thought. My list then was Doug Overton (La Salle), Malik Allen (Villanova) and Rap Curry (Saint Joseph's).

Add Jameer Nelson (St. Joe's) to the list. And it wasn't just that Nelson and La Salle's Lionel Simmons (another first-rate person) were the two best players I have covered. From the moment he set foot on campus from Chester High, Nelson was somebody who didn't just see life through his eyes; he saw it through the eyes of anybody he came into contact with. He was always gracious, and even in 2004, when he had no time, he had time.

That Nelson and Allen are now teammates with the Magic and here tonight to play the Sixers was not entirely coincidental to the new addition. But it was time.

This and That

-- If you saw my lead item last week about the edge teams that charter to away games have, here is an anecdote that explains it perfectly. On Jan. 11, the Saint Joseph's commercial plane to Dayton was canceled because of a snowstorm. The Hawks decided to bus through the snow to Ohio. As they were leaving Hagan Arena, the Xavier women's team was arriving for practice. They had flown from Cincinnati by charter.

-- Chuck Martin was a Bruiser Flint assistant at Drexel. Not the Big 5, but surely part of city hoops. He is the head coach at Marist (4-21, 3-10 MAAC).

-- They are not on the assistants' list, but they are out there as head coaches:

Jeff Neubauer was never an assistant here, but was an integral part of the last La Salle postseason team (1992 NCAA). He is 13-11, 7-6 in the Ohio Valley Conference at Eastern Kentucky.

Andy Toole played at Penn and worked under Mike Rice at Robert Morris. He is now in charge at Robert Morris (10-13, 6-6 Northeast Conference).

Former Drexel head coach Bill Herrion was never an assistant in the city, but, for those who would like to know about the most successful Dragons coach in history, he is 11-13, 5-7 in the America East at New Hampshire.

-- With five home games and Drexel at Delaware on Saturday, 39,524 fans appeared at six venues (Wells Fargo Center, Liacouras Center, Gola Arena, Hagan Arena, Palestra, Carpenter Center), with games from noon to 10 p.m., no game from only 4-6 p.m. Hard to make all of them, but I am sure there were some who made a few.

-- Penn's men and women each lost to Harvard Saturday. And both went double overtime. That is cruel and unusual. And probably some kind of record.

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