After more than 26 years of telling sports stories I still enjoy my job.
The week just completed had travel aspects that challenged that affection. Between airport security, baggage claim and other adventures in flight I found that reasons I do still enjoy my job.
The Razorbacks were also in Jacksonville for their NCAA experience, and I had a conversation with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Wally Hall.
He asked me about the issues involved in getting from Dayton to Jacksonville on short notice. I painted an accurate picture and said, “but you know Wally, this is still fun. It’s fun to cover a team on a run. It’s fun to cover a team in the tournament and be a small part of something big.”
Ole Miss shot like it had the runs against Xavier.
Because the Rebels shot under 40 percent frequently the last three weeks of the season — when in a half of play or for the game — it was hard to tell exactly how much affect the quick turn had on their play.
When I mentioned lack of legs during the game a Twitter reader responded by calling that the most over-used excuse in sports or something to that effect.
Well, it can be overused. That’s why Ole Miss players and coaches all denied fatigue as an issue in their 76-57 loss. I doubt fatigue was an issue in the first half when Xavier took control. There’s no doubt, though, that it was one more hurdle the Rebels didn’t need when they were trying to rally from a 12-point halftime deficit. It was something they didn’t have when they rallied from 17 back against BYU in the First Four in Dayton.
Players talked about the price of tournament seeding, how they could have missed the Dayton experience with one more win along the way and been placed in the traditional 64-team bracket at the beginning — instead of the play-in games the NCAA calls the “First Four.”
I knew on Selection Sunday the potential for travel issues for teams, media and fans alike when the Rebels’ heard their name called for Dayton.
That said, I was kind of glad to see the First Four. I’d covered the Ole Miss women in Dayton in the Sweet 16 in 2007 and knew the area’s passion for basketball. I knew the building was old but had aged well, been well kept and would be full for the games. That part didn’t disappoint. There was an excitement and an NCAA tournament feel at the beginning.
The NCAA believes it has done the play-in teams a travel favor by placing the event in Dayton somewhat centrally located in the United States.
The favor, though, stops there, and it shouldn’t. The favor needs to extend to where those four winners play next.
Hampton, which played the game before Ole Miss, traveled to Louisville, 2 hours and 17 minutes away. Robert Morris, which played the first game on Wednesday, traveled to Charlotte, less than seven hours away. The University of Dayton traveled to nearby Columbus.
Ole Miss traveled almost twice the distance of the three other teams.
The Rebels didn’t even have the benefit of playing the earlier game on Tuesday because Ole Miss and BYU were a better TV draw. So the Rebels left the gym around 12:30, rushed back to the hotel, maybe took a quick shower, grabbed bags and checked into a Jacksonville hotel around 4:30 in the morning.
All this after a high-paced, emotional game.
You don’t go immediately to sleep after that.
For me personally, I didn’t sleep at all Tuesday night.
This tournament is about the players, however, and the First Four players should be treated better in this regard.
I thought the Ole Miss matchup against Xavier was fairly favorable for the Rebels. Had they managed to slow down 6-10, 270-pound center Matt Stainbrook they’d have had a good chance to win. They did not, and it wasn’t all about fatigue.
It’s true the Rebels played their way into the First Four. They could have avoided that mess.
There’s penalty enough in the extra game, and First Four players, who are used to illustrate the exciting start to the NCAA’s premiere event, shouldn’t be further penalized by travel conditions.
I know there are challenges in getting teams seeded and sent to various regions. There are challenges throughout the seeding of a 72-team event.
Just consider this one more.
And fix it.