Being the sports editor of a newspaper–even a student newspaper–has its perks. The name itself lets me throw myself out there as though I’m some sort of actual media professional. And even if they can see through the semblance of formality, real professionals have allowed me to the opportunity to witness all kinds of sporting events from a unique perspective. This year, I can add March Madness to the list.
The NCAA Tournament’s First Four is held each year at the University of Dayton Arena, and this marked the first year I was actually able to attend myself. UD Arena undergoes a significant makeover each year for the NCAA occupation, and the bowels of the building are especially revamped for the prestige of the event.
I took my seat on the third row of media tables for the opening tip of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, between Mount Saint Mary’s and the University of New Orleans, without an idea of what I’d actually be writing about the event. But I was happy to be there.
The Mount secured an entertaining 67-66 victory–the first ever March Madness win in the school’s history–and gave me the idea for my Flyer News story about UD Arena being a land of opportunity for those who squeak their way into the tournament field.
The next day, I actually pursued my story by throwing some questions out during the all-too-official-looking postgame press conferences for UC Davis and USC.
Saying, “Steve Miller, Flyer News” into a microphone beneath the throne of a moderator, a head coach, and several players of a successful basketball team seated before a backdrop dripping in the NCAA’s self-bestowed elegance felt oddly satisfying. Because even though I could almost hear the mental snickers of the actual media professionals in the room, there was nothing they could do about me asking the game winners to speak on the meaning of a victory in Dayton.
The result was what became the back page story for this week’s edition of Flyer News: First Four Provides Opportunity, Memories for Underdogs.
And much like USC’s March basketball, mine did not end at UD Arena.
The Dayton Flyers earned a seven-seed, for the second straight season, and were sent to nearby Indianapolis for a first round matchup with over-dog and under-seeded Wichita State. I followed, along with Christian, Flyer News‘ multimedia editor.
It was my first time in Indianapolis, which literally means “city of the land of the Indians,” and I was excited to go full press-mode for the fourth game in the same week.
The bowels of Bankers Life Fieldhouse were even more decked-out than those of UD Arena. The place teemed with important people playing it as cool as I tried to act. The studs of Dayton media appeared humbled by their national counterparts.
Workroom tables lined the open setting, and the familiar press conference throne loomed even higher than it had in Dayton.
I felt unworthy even approaching the buffet, but I never stop short when it comes to free food.
With a full stomach, it was time to satisfy the basketball appetite.
A broad tunnel led to the floor, opening up to a glistening, multi-tiered arena above me. The upper echelons of seats, built steeply above the lower bowl, gazed down over me.
Dayton’s fans buzzed in their allotted corner while the Flyer Pep Band played tunes from back home at UD Arena. But next to them, sections of empty seats dotted with blue Kentucky fans waiting for game two stuck out. On the other side of the Wildcats, Wichita State’s contingent brandished their wheat shocks, set for a Midwest battle between the Rust Belt and the Great Plains. And across from the Flyer fans sat Northern Kentucky’s base, who were experiencing their first ever NCAA Tournament.
The whole scene made me anxious. No longer was this about the Dayton Flyers. The story lines to come out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse would be as much about the Shockers, the Norse, and John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats as they would be about the Dayton senior class embarking on its “Last March.”
A Dayton win would be a highlight for two days. But a Dayton loss would be buried in the annals with the 32 other teams to pack their bags in this round.
My spot on the floor was on the far end of the right baseline, adjacent to UD’s cheerleaders and mascot, whose suit I could smell from my seat. And “end-of-season mascot” is not exactly a musk Yankee Candle would try to replicate.
Dayton’s four scholarship seniors comprised the winningest class in school history. Three of them–Kyle Davis, Kendall Pollard, and Scoochie Smith–were embarking on their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance–also a school record.
After winning five tournament games over their first two years, UD ran into some tough luck with a matchup against Syracuse in the 2016 round of 64. Their matchup with Wichita State, though, may have even been a worse draw.
The Flyers kept it tight, and led for much of the first half. The monitor in front of me displayed the CBS broadcast, which was being commentated not too far away by the legendary Jim Nantz. At prime time on a Friday night, the Flyers were in the spotlight.
That spotlight shines bright in March, and every play is magnified under its bright beam as teams live for 40 minutes at a time.
Dayton’s life was extended on Selection Sunday, and they looked to extend it by at least two more days on this fateful Friday. The Flyers, after an Elite Eight run in 2014, wanted to again taste the sweetness of March as a gritty mid-major program.
Likewise, Wichita State ran to the Final Four in 2013 and sought to return to Cinderella status.
In the second half, when Wichita’s shots started falling and UD’s offense sputtered, I still believed in the power of the seniors, who could seemingly will themselves to victory. Scoochie Smith was made for moments like this and frequently carried the team in the final minutes of tight games. But March basketball is different.
A team so reliant on all-around performance couldn’t mesh efficiently against a stingy Shocker defense. And that was it.
The final minutes of the game, which are normally drug out long enough to spoil produce, evaporated like water droplets in the Phoenix sun. As quickly as the Flyers had trekked to Indianapolis, their season was over.
The pep band drummed up a few final melodies to underscore the dismal end of the senior swan song. I stood next to the team’s tunnel, helpless, as the greatness of Scoochie Smith walked off not into the sunset of the NCAA’s limelight, but the depths of a now-cold, impersonal arena.
By the time Dayton’s post game press conference concluded, Kentucky and Northern Kentucky were already at halftime, characterizing how quickly sports nation moves on from stories like the gritty Dayton Flyers.
I-70 carried me out of Indiana, and out of a mad March, back to Dayton, where a fervent college basketball community will wait, patiently, until it gets another shot at the sport’s postseason road to glory.