DAYTON, Ohio – You don’t have to be North Carolina or Villanova to cherish March. The man at the microphone Monday was Mark Slessinger, who coaches for the school and program that were nearly washed away by Hurricane Katrina, and he was struggling to explain what this week means.
Slessinger is here at the First Four with the New Orleans Privateers. When he took the job in 2011, he had no assistants, three recruits who stayed with the team, and a school that was still trying to recover from Katrina. It had been knocked groggy, from top to bottom and the basketball program in between. The process was in motion to drop the Privateers from Division I. Another casualty of the storm.
But he stayed the course because he loved New Orleans, and found enough players — none of them particularly highly-recruited — who felt the same way, and the school changed its thinking about Division I. And now they are here, as 20-11 champions of the Southland Conference, to open the NCAA Tournament Tuesday night against Mount St. Mary’s.
Anyone who wants to know what that means to them, all you need do is listen. Twelve years after it blew through, Katrina has still not fully gone away, not from where they live. So to beat the odds in anything — New Orleans’ last NCAA Tournament was 21 years ago, back when the city was whole — will always feel special.
Senior guard Christavious Gill: “It’s for the city, the program, the university, it’s for everybody in New Orleans who has been in New Orleans since the devastation of Katrina. Even the people that left, it’s for them, too.
“Some people may have cried, even alumni from our school. I’ve seen people cry.”
Senior guard Nate Frye: “There’s a lot of areas of New Orleans that haven’t come back. My father, he’s from the ninth ward, and he went to see his neighborhood, and it’s not even there.
“We’re playing for things bigger than just us. We’re playing for things bigger than just a trophy. We’re playing for the regrowth of our school.
Slessinger: “I’ve got five empty lots still on my block alone. So things are never going to be what they were in some ways.
“I never wanted to be the guy that walked out just because it wasn’t comfortable. There’s a lot of people in our community and in our city that have lived very uncomfortably for a lot of years, but they believe in the bigger picture of our city and what we’re doing, and I think sometimes when you’re uncomfortable a little bit, you grow and you get a little better."
How much do the Privateers appreciate being here, having strangers curious about them? After their Monday press session, the players walked the aisles of the conference room, shaking hands with reporters, thanking them for being there. It's doubtful that players do that at any of the press conferences held elsewhere for teams used to being on this stage.
The First Four is considered by some as something of an appendage to the NCAA tournament bracket, but it’s real enough, and has many appeals.
For one, it gives the No. 16 seeds a chance to know the feeling of winning an NCAA tournament game, before they head off to bang their heads against the No. 1 seeds, where their record is 0-128.
For another, it has clearly served as a springboard for at-large winners here. The First Four has been around for six seasons, and without exception, one of the at-large victors each year has advanced to pull off an upset two days later. No. 11 seed Tennessee and No. 13 seed La Salle turned it into Sweet 16 trips. And the signature team of this event is VCU in 2011, when the Rams went from No. 11 seed at the First Four to the Final Four.
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For another, this is no college basketball backwater. The University of Dayton Arena teems with March history. It was here Austin Carr scored 61 points for Notre Dame in a game in 1970, a tournament record that still stands. It was here that Adolph Rupp coached his last game at Kentucky. And No. 1 DePaul was upset by a St. Joseph’s buzzer-beater, leaving Mark Aguirre so brokenhearted, he walked straight up the ramp, out of the building and back to the hotel, never stopping at the locker room.
It was here President Obama brought his buddy, the British prime minister, to sample March Madness together. So David Cameron could go back to Parliament and tell them how he watched Western Kentucky come from 16 points behind in the last five minutes to beat Mississippi Valley State.
Villanova started its 1985 magic carpet ride from here. Magic Johnson, as a Michigan State freshman, lost his only NCAA Tournament game here. Indiana, in the prime of the Bob Knight era, lost its only game in two years here.
The love of the game burns brightly here. Dayton is a hit at the gate every season, and when the NCAA was playing its one-game opening round here, bringing a Siena or Alcorn State or Alabama A&M to Dayton, the locals still poured in to watch 8,000 strong.
“It’s a fantastic place to coach, it’s a fantastic place to play, it’s a fantastic place to watch a basketball game,” said Archie Miller, Dayton’s coach. “And they’ve been doing it for 30 or 40 years, that’s not just today. Name the day or the time, and they’ll be here.”
On Tuesday night, they’ll be here for the New Orleans Privateers, among others. There are better teams in the NCAA Tournament, but none more appreciative of the chance, and what it means to the once-battered school they love.
And they do love it. That little girl sitting in the seats behind one of the baskets at Monday’s practice? Nola Ann Slessinger. The coach named his daughter Nola, as in New Orleans, LA., and they’re here together, in Dayton.
The NCAA Tournament can start now.