- Laurel Pfahler Contributing Writer
The NCAA never has to worry about filling seats for its First Four men’s basketball games as long as Dayton is the host.
The community’s support for college basketball — Flyers or otherwise — is a big reason the road to the Final Four has started at UD Arena for the past 15 years and will continue to do so for at least the next three.
Dayton will host the First Four games Tuesday and Wednesday for the sixth straight year. UD is the only home the games have known since their inception in 2011. Before that, UD Arena hosted play-in games for 10 consecutive years.
“The University of Dayton, as well as the community, has supported the First Four since its inception in 2011,” NCAA spokesperson David Worlock said. “Prior to that, they supported the opening-round game. For a decade and a half, their cooperation and enthusiasm has made for a terrific start to the NCAA tournament.”
UD Arena has hosted 109 NCAA tournament games — more than any other facility — and a total of 29 tournaments since opening in 1969. Most have been opening-round or play-in games, but regional games also took place there in 1972, 1975 and 1978.
The school’s contract for the First Four runs through 2018, and UD plans to submit another bid for 2019-22 when the process opens this spring, according to senior associate director of athletics and University of Dayton Arena director Scott DeBolt.
“This is a basketball arena, it’s a basketball city, it’s a basketball region, and we’ve proven ourselves over the years with the crowds, not only for UD games but for the NCAA tournament,” DeBolt said.
“It’s just the community here as a whole gets behind this event, and the NCAA has a comfort level in bringing the event here year after year. We’re right down the road from them in Indianapolis, so again, they can come over here quickly after the selection show. The community involvement has been tremendous.”
UD Arena has been among the top 35 in national attendance since it opened, according to the First Four Local Organizing Committee’s website, DaytonHoopla.com. Flyers games regularly attract crowds equal to nearly a tenth of the city’s 141,000 population, and national media have widely considered UD Arena among the top college basketball atmospheres.
Stadiumjourney.com, for example, listed UD Arena No. 28 in its rankings of arena experiences for all 351 Division I college basketball teams in 2014.
Over the past two years, NCAA tournament games at UD Arena have seen 96 percent capacity crowds, and 12 of the past 18 games were sold out. Last year’s crowds were helped by the Flyers’ inclusion in the eight-team field, which is made up of the tournament’s Nos. 65-68 seeds, as well as the last four at-large teams to get bids.
Capacity for First Four games is about 12,400.
“Obviously, the driving force behind what makes this event the epicenter of college basketball is the fans and to have fans come support this, regardless of what teams are playing here,” said Eric Farrell of the First Four Local Organizing Committee (The Big Hoopla).
“Not knowing the teams makes it a little more fun because now you’re going to go watch two, four teams you’ve maybe never even heard of, but those games are going to be one-point games and they are going to come down to the last possession, and it’s going to be really exciting.”
Last year, Dayton edged Boise State 56-55 in a thriller, and Ole Miss scored 62 points in the second half to rally from a 17-point deficit to beat BYU 94-90. Robert Morris topped a strong-shooting North Florida squad 81-77, and the biggest margin of victory came in Hampton’s 74-64 win over Manhattan.
Dayton was the only one of those teams to win another game in the tournament, but the First Four has been a launching pad for a few teams that made big runs. In 2011, the inaugural year of the event, VCU went from First Four to Final Four as an 11th seed.
La Salle went from Dayton to the Sweet 16 in 2013.
“This is truly where the road to the Final Four starts,” Farrell said. “These teams are getting NCAA tournament game experience right here at UD Arena, and that really builds a lot of momentum for the next round, and anything can happen. That part is exciting.”