Hornets head home with hollow feeling
DAYTON, Ohio -- Long after his basketball career ends, at least Alabama State forward Wesley Jones can say he played in the NCAA tournament.
Well, he could say that and be entirely accurate. But that's not the way he'll remember it.
Jones and his teammates lost to Morehead State 58-43 in the NCAA's opening-round game at University of Dayton Arena. They thus became uniquely qualified to answer a twist on the old conundrum: If a team falls on a Tuesday in the bracket, did it ever really make a round?
"Nah, I'm not going to say we played in the tournament," Jones said. "This just felt like a regular game.
"If we hadn't been in the opening game, I think we would have played a lot harder. We would have been way more motivated."
The NCAA has worked hard to give this game legitimacy since beginning it in 2001 as a way to keep the number of at-large bids at 34 despite having added an automatic bid for the Mountain West Conference. Officials shun the term "play-in game" and provide all the same trappings as the weekend matchups, including the ubiquitous blue curtains and the familiar news conference formats.
Dayton has been an enthusiastic host, and Tuesday's crowd of 11,346 set an opening-round record even though it was St. Patrick's Day. Tournament selection committee chairman Mike Slive watched from a courtside seat. And unlike in years past, Dayton will serve as a first- and second-round site this week, as well, so both teams came packed for a full seven days instead of making a Bracketville pit stop here.
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Alabama State hadn't played in front of a larger crowd all year or had a game nationally broadcast. Yet the Hornets couldn't shake the feeling that they were on the undercard. The school had made two previous NCAA trips, losing by 34 points to Michigan State in 2001 and by 35 to Duke in 2004 -- as a No. 16 seed in both games. The team would have been similarly outclassed this year against, say, North Carolina or Pitt. But the players sure wish they had had a chance to be an actual Cinderella.
"In our minds, we weren't expecting to come here," leading scorer Andrew Hayles said. "We thought we were going to play someone big right away, and we were up for the challenge.
"When we found out we were going to play Morehead, we didn't know what to expect, and we had one day to figure out what we were doing. We thought we were going to play Louisville, the No. 1 team. I don't know, expectations were just different."
Nah, I'm not going to say we played in the tournament. This just felt like a regular game.” -- Alabama State F Wesley Jones
Alabama State went 16-2 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular season before winning the league tournament. But historically black colleges and universities have become unintended victims of the opening-round concept. This was the fourth time a SWAC team got stuck playing on the Tuesday before the first round. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which also is composed of HBCUs, has appeared in this game four times, too. Those conferences usually have the lowest RPIs, which is how the NCAA chooses opening-round participants.
"It's tough, but then you see how Mississippi Valley State played against UCLA last year," Hornets guard Brandon Brooks said, referring to the SWAC champion's 70-29 loss as a No. 16 seed in last year's first round. "That's up to the committee. That's not up to me."
Morehead State provides the flip side of the argument. The Eagles hold a fondness for play-in games; their last NCAA tournament started with one in 1984, the year before the field expanded to 64. Coincidentally, they won that game against North Carolina A&T in Dayton before losing to Louisville -- the same opponent they'll see Friday.
The Cardinals hammered Morehead State by 38 points at Freedom Hall in November, and the tournament's No. 1 overall seed likely will deliver another throttling in the first round. But that chance for an upset, however slim, still exists.
"We all sat around the table as young kids, talking about how we want to play in the NCAA tournament and go play against Duke or North Carolina," senior guard Leon Buchanan said. "It feels great."
If the season ends Friday in a blowout loss, this still qualifies as a storybook season for Morehead State, which sits an hour due east of Lexington and toils in the University of Kentucky's massive shadow.
Coach Donnie Tyndall, a Morehead State alumnus, inherited a program that had gone 4-23 under Kyle Macy three years ago. He found his best player, energetic sophomore post man Kenneth Faried, in Newark, N.J., and stayed on him when schools such as Rutgers and Seton Hall backed off over academic concerns.
Faried, the Ohio Valley Conference's defensive player of the year who punished Alabama State for 14 points and 21 rebounds Tuesday, repaid that commitment even though he initially had never heard of Morehead.
"I just thought it was a funny name," he said.
The Eagles lost their first six games this season and dropped their final four regular-season games, but they nipped Austin Peay in double overtime in the OVC tournament final. Now they have a chance for a real shock-the-world and stun-their-own-state moment.
"We'll try to play our hearts out," Faried said. "But in the long run, we're just happy to be on the same court as them."
That's something Alabama State's players only wish they could say.
Brian Bennett covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com.
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