Workflow is down, Dick Vitale’s blood pressure is up and just about everybody is filling out brackets this week in preparation for the NCAA tournament, which kicks off with the infamous play-in game between Winthrop and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
ARPB is making their first ever tournament appearance this year and therein lies the problem. The selection committee never should have put them in the play-in game out of respect for the tournament and giving this school their first true experience at The Big Dance.
Tonight’s game will be played in Dayton, Ohio at the University of Dayton Arena, not at an NCAA tournament site. The winner will advance to have the distinct pleasure of losing to Duke University in Jacksonville, Florida on Thursday.
Winthrop has a deep tournament history, shocking college basketball two years ago as an 11-seed when they defeated sixth seeded Notre Dame in a 74-64 upset.
Now, both these teams are fairly even and ARPB certainly has as good a chance as any to take down the Eagles of Winthrop and move on to actual tournament play in Jacksonville, but putting them in a situation where they would be denied that opportunity is something the selection committee should be ashamed of.
For their first time in the dance, the Golden Lions should be at an actual tournament site, getting schmoozed and treated like NCAA darlings, the cinderella of the South region and the Jacksonville site. They should be exalted as the team that gets first shot at mighty Duke and be asked “what if” questions for the day leading up to the tournament.
“What if the #16 seed can take out a #1 for the first time?”
“What if Duke really is the weakest #1 seed and maybe the Golden Lions will be in the right place at the right time?”
“What exactly is a Golden Lion? Aren’t all lions kind of golden?”
The ARPB story is actually a fantastic and inspirational one. The Lions started the season by losing eleven straight games. They finally broke into the win column on January 4th, their first game of the new year. On that day, they squeaked by Mississippi Valley State University in a 69-68 overtime win. Two days later, they beat Alabama A&M before losing their 12th game out of 14 on January 11th to Alabama State.
But the most significant thing about the first 14 games on the Golden Lions’ schedule was not the 12 losses. It was the fact that all fourteen were played on the road, away from the cozy confines of H.O. Clemmons Arena in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where the team plays its home games.
Imagine having a basketball team on campus that begins a season in earlier November, but never plays at home until three and a half months later in mid-January? Talk about road warriors.
After starting 0-12, ARPB won five of six and then finished season by winning 11 of 12, including the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in the final against Texas Southern last Saturday.
Their story as road warriors takes on new meaning when considering the schedule they played, traveling to NCAA tournament teams Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, UTEP and Georgia Tech. ARPB also played big time programs like Michigan, Oregon, Arizona State and Colorado. Why was everyone so afraid to play at Clemmons Arena? Is ARPB really that big of a giant killer, having never played in the NCAA tournament?
The Golden Lions finished the season having played a whopping 20 of their 29 games on the road. Having just nine home dates would have to be debilitating to any fledgling program. Too bad for the people of Pine Bluff. They were denied plenty of good basketball from a NCAA tournament qualifier.
Nothing against Winthrop or any other team in the tournament, but why couldn’t the other three 16-seeds be in the play-in game over first time dancer ARPB? East Tennessee State (8 appearances), Lehigh (3) and Vermont (3) surely wouldn’t mind giving the Golden Lions a true NCAA tournament experience.
The real problem with this unfortunate situation lies with the decision the NCAA made a few years ago to go to 65 teams just to get in one last bubble team. The bi-product ended up being that team 65, the loser of the play-in game, doesn’t really go to the tournament at all.
The SWAC should proud to cheer on their representative tonight and hopefully the rest of America is behind those Golden Lions. I know I will be.