NCAA Tournament 2001 - This play-in concept has potential


This play-in concept has potential

DAYTON, Ohio – OK, so we were wrong.

We expected Winthrop and Northwestern State to whine about not playing on the first regular day of the NCAA Tournament. We thought they would feel cheated. We expected a sham of a game Tuesday night.

The only thing that really bothered the players was the CBS Selection Show putting them on a line that said "64 vs. 65" instead of simply "No. 16 seed Northwestern State/Winthrop", indicating Illinois' first-round opponent.

"You should have seen the faces of our guys when that 64-65 went on the board," Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall said. "It was a slap in the face. It should have said 16A or 16B. But all I know is that we had a chance to win this game and we felt that going in. Now Northwestern State is the first 16 seed to win a game in the tournament."

Not against a No. 1 seed, but no one will know that when it says Northwestern State is 1-0 in the NCAA Tournament after its 71-67 victory over Winthrop.

Instead of an empty arena, the NCAA guessed right by placing this game in Dayton. These fans are hoop junkies, even if the Flyers aren't on the floor.

There were 6,800 fans in the arena, the majority non-partisan, and they didn't seem to mind that these weren't nationally recognizable names. The crowd was into it and the game actually had more pulse than a 16 vs. 1 game at noon Thursday.

While the game might have been on seldom-watched TNN for college basketball, CBS did the right thing by sticking Rick Pitino and Tim Brando on the broadcast.

"I went over and shook his hand before the game," Northwestern State freshman D'or Fischer said of Pitino. "I really wanted to meet him."

Anyone who tuned in or will read about this game got a chance to see a potential hidden gem in the 6-foot-11 Fischer. Play the game on Thursday and no one might have ever heard or cared about this raw, potential professional talent. Upsets for a 12 over a 5 seed would, and probably will, dominate the coverage instead of a 16 getting pounded by a 1, regardless of the talent in the game.

Fischer scored 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked nine shots against the Eagles. He ran the floor like a gazelle and his upside seems limitless.

This is a player who was considered never to be a D-I talent out of Philadelphia. But he grew three inches after the Demons signed him and his game sprouted just as fast. He can time blocks, he doesn't commit silly fouls and he's got some decent low-post moves, although he's got to work on his range and free-throw shooting. Not bad after Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy found Fischer at a junior college tryout in Mississippi while Fischer was staying with his sister for the summer.

"He had 13 blocks against Southwest Texas State, but who knew?" McConathy said. "He had 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in his first game as a college player against TCU. But no one knew it. We got a chance to get exposure that Northwestern State never gets."

So did Fischer.

"The exposure was great but I wasn't thinking about it," Fischer said.

"This felt like an NCAA Tournament game. We won it and the most we played in front of was 2,000."

At first the Demons and the Eagles were disappointed and perplexed that they were put in this game. But they readjusted when they saw they had a chance to win. Now, believe it or not, the Demons actually feel confident going up against Illinois here Friday.

"We would have preferred the game to be in New Orleans (at the South Regional) so our fans could have gone," McConathy said. "But we got a game in and we won and our guys feel comfortable."

Marshall wasn't losing as much sleep prior to this game as he did a year ago when the Eagles opened the tournament with Oklahoma. He was disappointed that his team lost Tuesday, but wouldn't trade the experience for being left out of the field. He understood that Winthrop would probably be in the game. If Northwestern State hadn't upset McNeese State in the Southland Conference title game then Winthrop's opponent might have been UNC Greensboro instead. Winthrop used the "64-65" tag as a motivator. It nearly worked. If Marshall isn't the head coach at South Carolina next season – he's a top and deserving candidate – then he promises that Winthrop will be back in the field, just not in the play-in game.

Regardless, he would like to see the game moved to Wednesday night and bring in a few bubble teams, too. UNC Greensboro's Fran McCaffrey concurred earlier Tuesday. Do you think Alabama's Mark Gottfried wouldn't take a play-in game against Xavier for a right to be in the field?

No question.

There was merit to this first opening-round game. It can be better, but it wasn't bad. Two teams feel like they've accomplished something, even if one is going home before most people fill out their brackets.

We were wrong. This wasn't a bad idea. Maybe the NCAA was lucky Tuesday. But so far the 2001 Tournament is off to a good start.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at

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