DAYTON, Ohio — In the last few days, the NCAA’s opening acts enjoyed a key to a city, roomy charter flights, more national attention than ever and a deluge of calls and text messages that kept them awake.
Complaints? Absolutely none.
North Carolina-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock arrived Monday a little sleep-starved and taken aback by their chance to become a footnote to NCAA tournament history. They open the expanded 68-team tournament on Tuesday night, the first of four games over two days at the University of Dayton Arena.
To them, it felt more like a privilege than a play-in.
“If anybody’s critical of this, they’re probably spoiled,” UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said.
A lot has changed since the Bulldogs opened the 2003 tournament in Dayton and became the first Big South team to win an NCAA tournament game.
Over the years, players and coaches groused about getting consigned to what was officially known as the Opening Round but commonly called the play-in for a 65-team field. With the expanded field and eight teams in Dayton this time, it felt more like a first round — its new, official title.
And the Bulldogs (19-13) and Trojans (19-16) felt privileged to get it started.
“We talked amongst ourselves, and it’s exciting to be the first one to be in the tournament and to play the first game,” UNC Asheville guard J.P. Primm said. “Our guys are pretty stoked about it.”
Half the fun was getting there.
UNC Asheville ran off six consecutive wins to get to Dayton. Leading up to the tournament draw, the Bulldogs reveled in their first NCAA appearance since that 2003 win. Biedenbach and his players attended a City Council meeting in Asheville last Tuesday and received gifts — blue caps embossed with the city’s name and a gold, 6-inch key to the city.
“I tried it in every door I wanted to get in, and it didn’t work in any of them,” Biedenbach said. “I thought they were giving it to the team, which I think they did, and I just happened to be the representative there. But that’s never happened to me before.”
The NCAA made sure teams could charter flights to the first round in Dayton, another first for many of the players.
“It was definitely something new for us — a big charter flight,” Arkansas-Little Rock guard Solomon Bozeman said. “It was great.”
Same for the Bulldogs.
“We felt presidential,” Primm said.
The Trojans didn’t get a key to their city, but they’ve gotten attention in other ways. Bozeman, the Sun Belt’s player of the year, hit a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left to win the conference tournament, a moment that has been replayed countless times on television.
His shot put the Trojans in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 21 years.
“I’ve probably seen it about 50 times now,” Bozeman said. “I watch SportsCenter a lot. I went to my mom’s house the next day after the game, and she rewound it and showed it like 25 times. I had to leave her house and get away for a minute because I got tired of seeing it. But it was a great moment.”
Both teams had trouble getting rest after learning they had to pack to go open the tournament in Dayton.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Primm said. “I was so amped about it. Tonight I need to get some sleep.”