DAYTON, Ohio -- Just the word "playoffs" tightens heart muscles, bates breaths, causes sleepless and nervous palpitations. Fans can't wait for the fun to begin. In the professional ranks of American-Style Football, "wild card weekend" is the start of a month of lost weekends. ALDS and NLCS and conference quarterfinals... this is the terminology of anticipation.
At the NCAA Tournament, not so much. Because of the airport handshakes that split the Mountain West from the WAC a decade ago, the first day of the Big Dance is not Thursday but Tuesday. There's an extra game necessary to break 65 down to 64, and this is the true first day of the playoffs. This Play-In Game, this P.I.G., is supposed to be an explosion of excitement, the first day of March Madness, the kickoff of the fourth and final chapter of our beautiful season.
"Be honest with me," I said to University of Dayton SID Doug Hauschild, who oversees media at the 10-year-old event. "Other than the locals, and the folks from Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, how many out-of-town journalists are here today?"
"There's an AP radio guy from Cincinnati, I don't know if you'd count him," Doug replied. "But really, you're it."
So I feel a strong obligation to share the story of Arkansas-Pine Bluff's historic and groundbreaking NCAA win over Winthrop, because, apparently, no other faraway media felt this game was important enough to make the trip to watch it.
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This is the 10th NCAA Play-In Game. (There is no commemorative logo merchandise to celebrate this fact.) This was my fifth. And it was the second Mid-Majority P.I.G. Party, held at the South Park Tavern in Dayton. This is where people come and enjoy Dayton-style pizza, beverages, and put all their Ballys together for a big orange reunion.
The owner of the SPT is Bill Daniels, who was immortalized in this ESPN.com column three years ago as the pioneer of the Opening Round movement. He first brought 20 friends to the P.I.G. in 2004. This year, he had a block of over 1,000 seats reserved, and boxes of his famous "DAYTON FANS SAY: GO [64/65] SEED" signs. The posters had a slightly different message this time, because he was able to get them to the printer and back before Tuesday. On each side, Go Arkansas-Pine Bluff! Or Go Winthrop!
"I picked yellow because it's a team color of both schools," Bill would tell me later.
When I'd arrived at the Tavern at 5:30 pm, the P.I.G. Party was in full swing. Bill pulled me aside. I knew what he was going to say, I was ready for it.
I could tell that he was hurt. I tried to explain that I was just calling it as I saw it, and that I wanted to say something larger about Dayton as a place, not send his restaurant into bankruptcy with a bad review.
"No, I got it," said Bill. "It was a weird night, two days before Christmas, and there was a lot of stuff going on." Then he smiled. "I want to make sure you know we have a high batting average."
Everything about the South Park Tavern was incredible on Tuesday, there was nothing I could possibly say other than that.
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The game itself started at 7:30 pm at beautiful subterranean UD Arena. It would be the 83rd men's NCAA Tournament game ever played there, equalling Kansas City's art deco Municipal Auditorium for most ever.
This was a game between champions. Arkansas-Pine Bluff had won the SWAC tourney championship in Shreveport-Bossier, La. three days before, and was making its first-ever appearance at the Big Dance. Winthrop is more used to the bracket experience, having won nine Big South titles in 12 years. The Eagles also played in the first PIG, losing to Northwestern State of the Southland.
The P.I.G. is a real, actual NCAA Tournament game; that antiseptic feeling, all those blue curtains, make it clear that you've crossed over to the other side. There is a giant blue NCAA circle logo in the center of the court. All logos are covered, except for those on the Vitamin Water™ tanks behind the benches. And the cup rule is strongly enforced. Media members can't go out on the floor holding a can. Everything must be poured into a Vitamin Water™ logo cup, whether it's Vitamin Water™ or not. But there's a lot of Vitamin Water™ if you want it.
On the court, the two teams battled through a low-scoring first half, both fighting to stay above 25 percent shooting. But that's to be expected from two teams that used tough, bruising defense to win their leagues. Halftime came quickly enough, and Pine Bluff was up 24-23.
A few eagle eyes noticed that Pine Bluff had committed a breach of NCAA etiquette in the first half -- they did not wear their circle logos on the upper corners of their white Russell Athletic jerseys. When they came out of the locker room following a stone-quiet halftime (Red Panda, Quick Change and laser sound effect gymnastic megamixes are, sadly, gone until Season 7), they were properly circled, and they started running blue streaks around Winthrop.
With a series of 3's, the Golden Lions started to pull away. Over a seven-minute stretch, UAPB outscored the Eagles 13-3 and a realization began to set in: the SWAC was about to win an NCAA game.
No SWAC team had won an NCAA Tournament game since 1993, when Ben Jobe's Southern Jaguars shot within seven seconds, asked questions later, and left Georgia Tech with no answers. Every year since, the league's representative has been crushed by a No. 1 seed, or embarrassed in the P.I.G. The SWAC has been relegated to Dayton five times in ten years, and was zero for its first four tries.
Down the stretch, as Winthrop lost its fight, Pine Bluff rose to its destiny. The Golden Lions kept hitting long 3's and midrange 2's, and built a 17-point lead. Finally, the buzzer sounded. The team was one for one in the NCAA Tournament -- the only team in Division I with a perfect 1.000 winning percentage -- and the band delivered a happy message. This, they announced, was how they do it.
Most importantly, though, Pine Bluff's 61-44 win guarantees the SWAC a $1.2 million NCAA win share, that will be distributed around the conference. That's roughly the amount of two guarantee game checks per school. Who knows if these cash-strapped programs will use that money to stay home instead of spend winters out on the road, like Arkansas-Pine Bluff did at the beginning of the season whilst compiling a perfect 0-11 non-conference record.
"The trip to Michigan was tough," recalled Pine Bluff senior forward Lebaron Weathers, remembering a trip to face the Big Ten's Wolverines, who beat them 67-53 on Dec. 5. "The game was Saturday, we had to bus back home on Sunday and be back in school on Monday. That takes a lot out of you."
Perhaps a couple years in the future, SWAC teams will have a little something left, thanks to Arkansas-Pine Bluff's breakthrough.
For now, however, there's still a Most Honest Game In College Basketball that can serve as a canvas for these dreams, validation for these forgotten warriors. This is the last year of the contract between the NCAA and Dayton to host the P.I.G. There's still an outside chance that this was the last one ever, with the possibility of a 96-team mammoth bracket looming. There's still the chance that Arkansas-Pine Bluff will be the P.I.G. champions in perpetuity, forevermore.
But we're not even going to entertain those thoughts right now. The P.I.G. is imperfect, it was born out of greed, but we choose to see the best in it and celebrate its annual arrival. It is our tradition, our holiday, our game.