At 4:27 p.m. today, Fresno State will play Utah at the Pepsi Center in Denver in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It’ll seem like the old Western Athletic Conference, circa 1992, again.
Five years ago, Utah moved on to bigger and better things. It joined the Pac-12 Conference. Four years ago, Fresno State joined the Mountain West.
There’s nothing bigger and better about the Mountain West, at least not in basketball this season. The Bulldogs are the only Mountain West team in this year’s Big Dance. That’s right: the Mountain West has become a one-bid league in basketball, just like the Atlantic Sun and the Patriot League and the MEAC, whatever that stands for.
So Fresno State’s are the only Mountain West fingerprints on the bracket — unless you count these play-in games, the First Four as the NCAA now calls them. That’s because everything about March Madness must have a catchy name that can be copyrighted, and a logo that can be put on a T-shirt and sold for $30.
Were it not for the Mountain West, there wouldn’t be play-in games and a First Four.
When the MWC was formed in 1999, it left Karl Benson, the affable WAC commissioner at the time, holding the bag. It eventually would create a headache for the NCAA selection committee, too.
The Mountain West was granted an automatic tournament bid in 2001. That meant to keep a tidy 64-team bracket, one of the small-fry conferences had to lose their automatic in, or one of the at-large bids would have to be sacrificed, which would mean that somebody such as Michigan or Syracuse might have to play in the National Invitation Tournament.
Normally this wouldn’t be an issue for the NCAA, which can be rather heartless when it comes to matters such as these — and when it comes to matters of allowing players to transfer schools, for which there are strict rules, after the coaches who recruited them transfer schools, for which there are no rules.
But instead of penalizing the Southwestern Athletic Conference or one of the other lesser conferences — or Michigan or Syracuse — a play-in game was created. It would be in Dayton, Ohio. And the good people of Dayton, like Mikey and Life cereal, liked it.
So the Mountain West is to blame for the play-in-game, and now play-in games, plural, as there are four. Or, if you had money on Florida Gulf Coast — FGCU it said on the front of its jerseys — against Fairleigh Dickinson — FDU — on Tuesday night, then you can thank the Mountain West instead of blame it.
For whatever reason, these play-in games have developed a cult following in Dayton, or even way more than a cult following, because the Dayton University Arena holds 13,455 spectators, and most of the seats appeared filled Tuesday night.
Why Dayton, you might ask.
The best that anybody can deduce is that Dayton is sort of centrally located, and there are enough hotel rooms in Dayton, and enough Bob Evans restaurants there where you can get something to eat after the game, provided it doesn’t go into overtime.
Under the current agreement, Dayton will host the First Four through 2018. Nobody has said much about moving it, but what if somebody were to make the NCAA an offer it couldn’t refuse/offer a boatload of cash?
You see what happened when CBS offered a boatload of cash. Charles Barkley became a college basketball analyst.
One of the Internet bloggers said that were the NCAA to open the First Four to bid, these are cities that might be interested: Nashville, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio.
Matt Brown of SB Nation may only have been thinking out loud, because he also mentioned Atlanta and Las Vegas as possible First Four sites. But sources have suggested the NCAA is getting closer to evolving on archaic views regarding the hosting of basketball tournaments in cities where betting is legal.
Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, said he was intrigued by the Tuesday-Wednesday night setup from a tourism standpoint. It would be a nice lead-in to opening weekend of March Madness in our local betting parlors.
“If we get the (gambling) issue behind us, and there was an opportunity, I don’t see why we wouldn’t” pursue the First Four, Christenson said.
But it might be hard to steal it away from Dayton, provided that’s what somebody wanted to do.
“When you think about Dayton’s track record in hosting the First Four and the community and how they’ve embraced this event since its inception, really, it’s just been remarkable,” an NCAA committee chair named Scott Barnes said after the extension to keep the play-in games in Dayton was signed.
Apparently, this is something in which the people of Dayton take great pride, which also could have been said about the Mountain West and basketball until recently.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski