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Robert Morris

Rossi: RMU deserves real NCAA experience

| Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 11:21 p.m.
The Robert Morris men's basketball team celebrates after defeating North Florida, 81-77, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 18, 2015, at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio.
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The Robert Morris men's basketball team celebrates after defeating North Florida, 81-77, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 18, 2015, at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio.
Robert Morris' Aaron Tate drives past North Florida's Romelo Banks during their first-round NCAA Tournament game Wednesday, March 18, 2015, at UD Arena.
Getty Images
Robert Morris' Aaron Tate drives past North Florida's Romelo Banks during their first-round NCAA Tournament game Wednesday, March 18, 2015, at UD Arena.

DAYTON, Ohio

Thankfully, Robert Morris won.

Now this wonderful basketball team — lucky enough to finally have Lucky (Jones) as the leader the Colonials envisioned — gets to truly experience the NCAA Tournament.

Now “RMU Madness” can really take over Pittsburgh, a pro sports town that would benefit from falling in love (even briefly) with a college team.

Why not Bobby Mo?

But why couldn't this magical moment have come in the actual Big Dance?

“This was our opening game,” coach Andy Toole said after an 81-77 victory over justifiably favored North Florida at UD Arena on Wednesday night.

“You can't tell me this wasn't our opening game.”

I will, though.

I'll respectfully do it despite having thoroughly enjoyed a game that was stupendous, sensational and worthy of the Sweet Sixteen, in an environment that won't be bested by the Final Four.

But this was the First Four, and it wasn't played on the opening weekend upon which most college basketball fans focus, on which almost everybody bets.

So this wasn't really the tournament.

The NCAA needs to do something to fix the start of its celebrated March Madness. If the host university, Dayton, hadn't been involved, the First Four would have felt played out in only Year 5 of the multiple play-in games.

Bellevue's Matthew Driscoll, who has coached basketball for more than half of his 50 years, deserved to live out his actual dream. I don't believe he dreamed of finally coaching a tourney game in the First Four.

“It felt like an NCAA game to me,” Driscoll said.

Not to me, though.

I'll respectfully dispute that Dayton, with its college hoops adoring citizens, was where the NCAA Tournament started.

It starts Thursday. Those are opening-round games at Consol Energy Center.

For Robert Morris, it starts Friday in Charlotte.

Perception is reality in the modern world, and nobody perceives the First Four as the first round. That is true even of the NCAA. Starting next year, the Round of 64 will officially be known as the first round.

The First Four will become what … the prequel round?

The tournament selection committee forced a lousy and unjust situation upon conference tournament winners Robert Morris and North Florida. One was destined to become a Never Was before the opening tipoff. The other was headed for an anticipated drubbing from top-seeded Duke.

Four No. 16 seeds were among the eight teams sent to Dayton for play-in games. That was convenient.

The first rule of First Four should be no conference tournament winners allowed. Participants should be the last teams to secure at-large bids.

Only the NCAA, with its pathetic record when it comes to punishments, would conceive of granting conference tournament winners assured access to the Big Dance, then go all Cinderella's evil stepmother on the less glamorous teams set to go dancing.

Maybe the NCAA could just trap the small conference tournament winners on a court encapsulated by a barbed-wire cage, plant some bats and sledgehammers inside, and leave those student athletes to duke it out for one golden ticket. Then everybody can turn their attention to where the NCAA and its corporate/television partners want the focus come tournament time.

Duke.

Or Kentucky.

The student-athletes at Robert Morris, North Florida, Manhattan and Hampton authored compelling college basketball stories that each deserved at least a mention in this March of Kentucky. Players on all of those teams should have gone to bed Wednesday night with butterflies in their stomachs.

Instead, some of those players had to sleep with defeats, undeservedly feeling they had been stone cold played.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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