Location, crowds help Dayton keep a grip on the NCAA First Four

19 Mar 2019

DAYTON, Ohio — When Texas Southern and North Carolina Central tipped off on the second night of last year’s First Four, the University of Dayton Arena next to Interstate 75 was still filling up with 12,732 spectators, the largest crowd in the eight-year history of the NCAA Tournament play-in affair.

The arena had “March Madness” logos on the polished court, national TV, blaring pep bands and a giant American flag unfurled by members of the military stationed at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for an undercard of teams from small, historically black colleges — one of them with a losing record — that rarely see this kind of hoopla. The place crackled with the energy of an important event.

“First class,” was how Mike Davis put it. Davis took Texas Southern to the First Four in 2014 and 2018 before moving on to coach at Detroit Mercy.

“At Texas Southern, instead of being a 16th seed, I’d rather be in the First Four every year,” he said. “You get there and they meet you at the hotel, they have a band playing, they have refreshments for you. Even when you leave, they treat you great.”

The event, which takes place Tuesday and Wednesday, assures the city and the university a slice of the NCAA Tournament pie every year, at least through 2022 when the current contract expires.

Dayton is the only city to host play-in games since the NCAA introduced the concept in 2001. And with growing competition around the country to host lucrative NCAA events, the university and community want to hang onto the First Four. The private school is finishing $72 million of upgrades at the 50-year-old arena this year, just in time for the beginning of the bid process for the next four-year contract. Last time, Dayton was chosen over Detroit and Evansville, Indiana.

“It’s going to be hard to beat them,” acknowledged the NCAA’s David Worlock. “They are very good at it.”

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