OBSERVATIONS: Why Dayton Is ‘The Capital of College Basketball’

By Hal McCoy

UNSOLICITED OBSERVATIONS from courtside at the NCAA’s pressure-packed First Four Invitational at UD Arena.

—It was if the Dayton Flyers were on the UD Arena floor and DaRon Holmes II was at the foul line, the game tottering on his finger-tips.

A nearly full UD Arena crowd was on its feet, screaming at a decibel usually exploding from the Flyer Faithful.

This, thouugh, was not UD. This was a First Four NCAA tournament, a game between two No. 16 seeds with a combined 31 losses.

Didn’t matter. This is College Basketball Town, USA, and the game is appreciated in Dayton like flowers on Easter and candy on Valentine’s Day.

Howard University, a predominately black school out of Washington, D.C,, was down and dismal in the first half, dragging behind Waqner College by 17 points.

But Howard came back, two points down with 14 seconds left. Wagner’s Julian Brown toed the foul line with the fans on their feet and raising the rafters. Brown buried two free throws on the one-and-one and Wagner held on, 71-68.

For Wagner, after leading by 17, only to have Howard come back to within one and needing Brown’s free throws to win, well, it was the First Four version of walking through the valley of death.

The star of the show was Wagner’s Melvin Council Jr., a 6-4 junior guard as smooth as single malt Kentucky whisky. He scored 21 points, including a three with 1:17 left that gave Wagner a 69-61 lead that the Seahawks kept. Add seven assists, five rebounds and two steals and he was better than an entire city council on its best behavior.

—Talk about an appreciative coach, the first words Howard coach Kenneth Blakeney uttered to the media was to praise Dayton, then to bury Wagner. He was half right.

“First thing, it’s just great to be in Dayton,” he said. “Like it’s really, really cool to be here. Dayton’s a basketball city. And coming in to the arena on the bus, I got chills and emotion.”

Brace yourself for this one. The First Four’s first basket, the first basket of the NCAA tournament, was a three-pointer by Howard’s Seth Towns, a transfer from Ohio State and a native of Columbus.

And on his left leg was a black brace with zippers that was hip-to-toe. He ended with 16 points, the only double figure production from a Howard participant.

That was a great start for Howard, but Wagner put the finishing touches on a game involving two teams that came to town with a combined 31 losses — 15 for Wagner and 16 for Howard.

Nevertheless, Howard’s work sheet was not entirely negative. The Bison lost in overtime to Cincinnati, 86-81, lost to Georgia Tech, 88-85, lost to NCAA qualifier Yale, 86-78, in overtime and beat LaSalle of the Atlantic 10, 71-66.

Wagner was ultra-confident. On their media notes, it listed its next game as March 21 against North Carolina at 2:45. The Seakhawks made that prophecy a reality with their win over Howard.

—When Grambling takes the floor Wednesday, it willl be semi-familiar. The Tigers were on the floor in December playing the University of Dayton Flyers and took a 76-46 beating.

And it means even more to coach Donte Jackson, who led Grambling to its first NCAA tournament appearance.

Jackson played college ball at Central State in nearby Wilberforce and said, “Dayton is my second home. I met my wife here. I had my kids here. I spent 15 years here. Grew up as a man here.”

—Virginia coach Tony Bennett is not the Tony Bennett who left his heart in San Francisco. This Tony Bennett puts his heart and soul into his Cavaliers.

Bennett, too, is an appreciative coach in that Virginia was one of the last four invited to March Madness. And he know the feelling of getting left at the altar.

He played college ball at Green Bay in the Horizon League and his senior year the Phoenix were snubbed.

“If the selection committee was the way it is now, my senior year, Green Bay was a lock,” he said. “I’ll never forget, we had a couple hundred people, newspaperl guys, celebrities. We all sat there, watched the brackets come out, boom, we weren’t in it. I know that feeling.”

Maybe he can call Rick Pitino at St. John’s and tell him how to bounce back from missing the cut.

—Folks a few miles from UD Arena, over at Wright State, are familiar with Colorado State. Early in the season, the Rams dismembered Wright State,105-77.

And they Rams have tucked inside their shorts some wins over NCAA tournament teams. They spiced, sliced and diced Creighton, 69-48. They beat San Diego State, Colorad and Nevada, the University of Dayton’s first-round NCAA foe Thursday.

Colorado State was up against Virginia in the second game Tuesday, a Virginia team for which defense is not a religion, it’s a cult. And it was functioning in the first half. Virginia held Colorado State to 27 points, proving again the Cavaliers can buckle up any swash.

Good? Yes. But Virginia’s offense stayed back in Charlottesvile. The Cavaliers barely kept the scoreboard operator from a late-evening nap, scoring a paltrty 14 point in the first 20 minutes. They made five field goals, shot 17% and didn’t have a field goal in the last 10 1/2 minutes.

And Virginia’s misguided missiles continued in the second half, 3 1/2 more minutes before the bright orange Wilson basketball passed through the nets.

And the crowd facetiously roared approval for the Cavaliers ending their 14 minutes with no goals. But they trailed, 34-14, at the end of their parched parade.

But the tale of the ugliness was emphasized late in the game when a Virginia player shot an air ball on a free throw. His identity is withheld to protect his embarasssment.

Yes, Virginia, the Great Miami River didn’t flood and shrink the rims. A basketball does fit through those rims.

It was as if the entire team was attending Virginia’s School of Bricklayers. So this is an NCAA team? This was an NCAA team. No more. Colorado State 67, Virginia 42.

More action, or inaction, continues Wednesday night in UD Arena when Grambling State goes after Montanaa State and Boise State meets Colorado. Presumably, UD mainteance will remember to remove the basket lids. Well, that’s what Virginia said.

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