Commentary

Behind-the-scenes look at First Four

Originally Published: March 15, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The washing machines were going full force late Monday, spinning out the dirt in a mad rush to get clean clothes ready for repacking.

Whether the First Four is a hit with basketball folks remains to be seen. The people at GE, though, are thrilled.

"My biggest worry is whether or not I have enough clean underwear,'' VCU coach Shaka Smart said with a laugh.

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Geoff Burke/US PresswireShaka Smart and VCU have little time to prep for USC.

The real madness of March lives this week in Birmingham, Ala., Montgomery, Ala., Clemson, S.C., Asheville, N.C., Little Rock, Ark., Richmond, Va., San Antonio and Los Angeles.

That's where eight schools are trying to mobilize the masses on short notice, and eight coaches are frantically gathering game film for the round of games that begins Tuesday night with UNC-Asheville/Arkansas-Little Rock and Clemson/UAB and continues Wednesday with Alabama State/Texas-San Antonio and USC/VCU.

Renegade soldiers have more time to plot hostile coups.

"It's been an absolute crazy time,''said Mike Money, Clemson's director of marketing. "We found out where we were going [Sunday] night and we left for Dayton at 9 a.m. [Monday].''

Of all the teams headed for Ohio, Clemson and UAB were handed the most grueling draw.

The two play at 9 ET on Tuesday night. The winner will jet out immediately following the game for Tampa, where a second-round date with West Virginia awaits at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday.

For those keeping score, that's Birmingham/Clemson to Dayton to Tampa (about 1,500 miles for each) in four days, with two games in 39 hours.

Except you won't hear anyone complaining in these parts about logistical headaches.

Without an expanded field, they would be planning on ways to get to an NIT game.

"To us, it was just about being in, not about First Four,'' said UAB assistant coach Donnie Marsh. "Our name was called. It was on the big screen. The guys jumped up and down and celebrated. They don't care. We're in.''

But the behind-the-scenes scurrying has been busier than squirrels gathering nuts before winter, as coaches scramble to study film and administrators figure out how to get everyone else -- band members, dance teams, cheerleaders -- on the road.

Rumors that those tabbed for the Tuesday and Wednesday games might get an early heads-up from the selection committee proved untrue.

"If people knew, it didn't come to me or any of our coaches,'' Marsh said.

Instead, the UAB coaches, players and staff found out with the rest of America that they were in the NCAA tournament, getting wind of their first-round game against Clemson at around 5:30 p.m. local time Sunday.

By 11:30 Monday morning, the Blazers were wheels-up, their chartered plane headed to Dayton.

Their opponent, Clemson, beat them by a couple of hours.

The Tigers actually hoped to get out of South Carolina on Sunday night, but when that didn't prove feasible, they accepted an early Monday departure. The Clemson team and travel party were in the air by 9 a.m. Monday.

"Our director of operations and band director came in late on Sunday night, and we started planning and contacting everyone,'' Money said.

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Mark Dolejs/US PresswireLast-minute hiccups go with the First Four territory for Clemson coach Brad Brownell.

Most of the big stuff was easy. The NCAA arranged charter flights for all of the teams and their travel parties, lined up bus transportation in Dayton and secured the hotel accommodations.

"They were very ready,'' UAB athletic director Brian Mackin said. "Even though it's a quick turnaround, they made it as easy as possible.''

But there were little things, last-minute hiccups that needed to be taken care of. Somewhere late Sunday night, Money realized his players and band members would need their per diem money.

A staff member from the athletics department came in late on Sunday to write the checks.

Only problem: No banks were open at 7 in the morning when the bus pulled away from campus.

Money was able to reach out to his Dayton travel host, who hooked Clemson up with a credit union to cash the checks.

"It was those little things that you kind of forgot about until the last second,'' said Money, who got back home at around 1 a.m.

For fans, it was the little things and the big things. Anyone who travels knows that reasonably priced tickets on short notice are downright impossible. Mackin said many of UAB's donors and fans were turned off by the fares.

They were contemplating making the eight-hour car ride to Dayton, or gambling that the Blazers' would make it to Tampa and then heading there.

Of course, the only logistics the central figures in all this drama care about is the intricacies of what will happen on the court.

NCAA tournament prep is never easy. Unfamiliar opponents and quick turnarounds make for long nights for coaches.

The other 60 teams in the field at least have a minimum of four days to prep.

For these eight, film study is a 48-hour crash course.

As a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, VCU hasn't spent a lot of time pondering the tendencies of USC, and vice versa for the Trojans.

By Wednesday, the two will know each other quite well.

Smart was tucked in his office late Monday night and didn't have a plan to leave anytime soon. When his wife, Maya, poked her head in and asked if he'd be late, Smart went to a line he used all the time when he was a young assistant scrapping to get noticed.

"I just smiled and said, 'I'll stay up all night for a win,''' he said.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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