March Madness: First Four games provide early heroes, comebacks and lessons
DAYTON, Ohio – If the idea was to give the NCAA Tournament a proper start, look at what this First Four provided:
A UC Davis victory in its first-ever tournament game, which means the Kansas Jayhawks will now have to contend with Nwachukwu Ikeukwumere Chima Moneke.
The Aggie fans know him just as Chima Moneke, a junior college transfer who has lived on five continents with his Nigerian diplomat parents, once emailed by his count “at least 300 schools” and got two answers, and hasn’t seen his mother and father in eight years.
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USC rallying from 17 points down to beat Providence 75-71. USC, of course, short for Usually Stirring Comebacks. Nearly half of the Trojans’ wins this season – 12 of 25 – have included deficits of at least 10 points.
“I’m not sure why we do it,” freshman Nick Rakocevic was saying. “Give coach a heart attack or something.”
The smallest Division I player in America. Mount St. Mary’s Junior Robinson might be 5-5, but he has a big idea in mind: Bring on Villanova.
One of the toughest decisions any coach will face all March, from New Orleans’ Mark Slessinger.
Maybe you’ve seen the replays. After teammates Travin Thibodeaux and Christavious Gill got into a tiff during a timeout in their game against Mount St. Mary’s – and Thibodeaux’s hands ended up in the vicinity of Gill’s neck—Slessinger decided it was time for Thibodeaux to sit down. For the rest of the game.
Never mind that it was crunch time, with New Orleans down 58-55 and 6:36 left. Or that Thibodeaux had scored 10 points in the second half. Or that the Privateers ended up losing 67-66, and he might have made up that one point. Slessinger considered something larger to be at stake.
“I thought it was in the best interests of our team moving forward for that half,” he said. “Unfortunately for him, it gives an uncharacteristic impression of how great a kid he is. He’s an honor student who is extremely passionate and cares about his team.”
This question. Who gets the axe in the first round, Cincinnati or SMU? If history means anything, one of them is a goner.
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Each is paired with a survivor from here – Cincinnati against Kansas State, SMU against USC, both Friday – and the past has been pretty definitive. In every season of the six-year existence of the First Four, one of the at-large winners has kept on going with an upset victory in the first round. Winning here has been a magic elixir for lower seeds. Every. Single. Year.
No. 11 VCU went through Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to make the First Four-to-Final Four leap in 2011.
No. 12 South Florida advanced from here to upset Temple in 2012.
No. 13 La Salle and No. 11 Tennessee parlayed First Four wins into Sweet 16 trips in 2013 and ’14.
No. 11 Dayton, given the enormous lollypop of getting a First Four game at home, advanced and then promptly knocked off Providence in 2015.
No. 11 Wichita State went from here last March to take out Arizona.
“I’m telling them it’s an advantage,” Bruce Weber said of his No. 11 seed Kansas State Wildcats, who beat Wake Forest, then jetted out for Sacramento and a date with No. 6. Cincinnati. “I told them the VCU story. If I remember right, VCU didn’t even meet for the Selection Sunday. And then they got in and won here, and they kept going all the way to the Final Four. I brought that up several weeks ago.”
Weber coached Kansas State to a share of the Big 12 season title in 2013, and the Wildcats had the good fortunate of being kept in their backyard, at Kansas City, for the first round.
“You would think everything was on our side,” Weber said.
Then La Salle showed up after getting past Boise State in Dayton, and suddenly Kansas State was behind by 18 points in the first half. The Wildcats rallied, but lost 63-61.
“They shot lights out. They played very loose and free,” Weber said.
So Kansas State might have been one of the early teams to be First Four-ed. The La Salle coach thinks so, anyway.
“It was extremely valuable,” John Giannini said over the phone Wednesday. “Having an NCAA Tournament game under your belt and a quality win makes a big difference psychologically. It put us at ease a little bit. If your players haven’t been to the tournament, they’re understandably going to have an extreme level of excitement. They could probably be too excited. So if you’re able to get through that first game, you’re going into that next matchup with a higher level of confidence than your opponent, unless your opponent is a perennial NCAA Tournament team.”
So the First Four can be a door. Here’s what else it does well: Gives someone like Moneke a night such as Wednesday.
“It’s everything I’ve dreamed of,” he said in the locker room. “This is why I tried to so hard to come to America. Here I am.”
His parents’ travels took him from Africa to Europe, Asia, Australia. Somewhere along the way he fell in love with basketball, showed some ability, and looked for any road to the U.S. He ended up at a junior college in Nebraska, until he found his chance at UC Davis.
Friday, he’ll play against Kansas. Some journey.
“It’s helped me grow up because I haven’t seen my parents since 2009, so I’ve had to do a lot of things on my own,” he said. “I’ve had to grow up much quicker than a lot of people my age normally do.”
His parents back in Nigeria watch when they can. If the game’s not available, they follow his stats online. So do his brothers in Australia. Moneke has a global audience, who no doubt noticed he had 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game in the NCAA Tournament. But they aren’t here.
“It’s the toughest thing ever,” he said of being away from family for so long. “I tend not to think about it a lot, but when I do I do get emotional. It gets overwhelming. It’s not something I recommend for anybody. But at the same time, if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I love the person I am today.”
That includes the goggles. He plays with them, so imagine some of the comments from opposing student sections.
“All the time,” he said. “Whenever you play these kind of games you’re going to get flak for whatever reason. The goggles are an obvious reason.”
And the full name that could take up most of a driver’s license? “Chima is obviously not my first name, but it’s the easiest way to go,” he said. ”Whenever I’m doing any documentation like visas, I have to write the whole thing. It takes a while, but I’m used to it now.”
He smiled at that. He smiles a lot, especially this week.
“To do this right now, my first year of playing Division I basketball, I couldn’t have believed that,” he said. “I’m still soaking in. Let’s keep it going.”
Kansas is waiting. But the First Four did what the First Four should do – gave passage, and hope.