DAYTON, Ohio -- Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It just realized "First Four" refers to the first four games of the tournament, while "Final Four" means the remaining four teams. Asymmetry, man. Whoa.
No. 16 LIU Brooklyn vs. No. 16 James Madison, 6:40 p.m. ET, TruTV
It didn't take long into my first First Four experience to figure out why the NCAA is "obsessed" with the mid-size industrial burg of Dayton, Ohio: People show up.
There will be half-empty NCAA tournament sites this weekend. It happens every year: Different geographical matchups lead to a lack of fans, or people don't want to stick around to see the No. 1 seed crush a hapless No. 16, or whatever, and the environment -- NCAA tournament! March Madness! -- suffers for it in turn. In Dayton, this is never a problem. On Tuesday night, midway through a game between Liberty and North Carolina A&T, the entirety of the University of Dayton Arena was full. And bless its fans, but trust me: Liberty doesn't travel that well.
Which is why, if you're going to do this silly eight-team play-in thing two days before the real NCAA tournament starts -- and try to call it the "first round," and really blow it out -- I'm glad teams like Long Island and James Madison get to participate. You could see it as not being invited to the "real" tournament, and there is some of that at work, but it is also an opportunity to play in front of a big crowd that loves its basketball and is willing to cheer for anyone, provided they're playing hard. For all of the obvious criticisms of the First Four -- and there are many, believe me -- that part is pretty cool.
In the meantime, LIU Brooklyn is a nice NEC team, and James Madison suspended leading scorer Rayshawn Goins for the first half of tonight's game after an arrest last weekend on charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing justice. And now you know.
No. 13 La Salle vs. No. 13 Boise State, 9:10 p.m. ET, TruTV
And now for the other side of the First Four. La Salle is making its first NCAA tournament appearance after 21 tortured years. On Sunday, Boise State earned its first at-large bid in school history. Even if we expected these specific teams to get in the tournament through the final month of the season, this is a monumental occasion. And one of them will be going home before they have a chance to upset the No. 4. I know the counterpoint is obvious -- without the expanded field, they wouldn't have gotten in at all -- but that's not really the point. The point is, how do you want to break your decades-long tournament drought? What should that catharsis be like?
Alas, the First Four's format aside, the fact is neither of these teams will be eager to go home 12 hours before Thursday's real chaos begins. I don't know that either team is quite good enough (or consistent enough) to knock off No. 4 seed Kansas State on Friday, but I do know that both have that one factor that can make NCAA tournament games great: guards. Indeed, Boise is almost all guards: Leading scorer Derrick Marks, Anthony Drmic, standstill shooter Jeff Elorriaga, Igor Hadziomerovic, Mikey Thompson, none of them taller than 6-foot-6. At their best, the Broncos stretch defenses and open avenues for Marks to get into the lane and finish, and clean up their rebounds on the defensive end. La Salle actually has these crazy things called "tall basketball players" (Jerrell Wright is 6-8), but with 6-11 center Steve Zack out with a foot injury, the Explorers end up looking a lot like Boise. Ramon Galloway leads the way on the perimeter, and shoots almost as well from beyond the arc (40.0 percent) as he does inside it (42.2).
Neither of these teams is super-fast, but neither of them is intentionally slow, either. All of which adds up to what should be at the very least an entertaining nightcap in the First Four in Dayton. When you're a neutral fan from the middle of Ohio and you just want to see some good hoops, that's really all you can ask for.