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Hopes Run High For Underdogs At Start Of NCAA Tournament


There are 67 basketball games in March Madness, and the First Four wrap up today. The First Four are four games played in Dayton, Ohio. The winner of each game moves into the main draw of the men's Division I college basketball tournament. A lot of fans consider these two days in Dayton to be a prelude to the real action which starts tomorrow. But as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, some of the teams at the First Four cherish it as if it's the Final Four.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Prelude actually is putting it mildly. Some fans consider the First Four, A, just an extra money grab by the NCAA or, B, pointless since history shows the low-seeded teams in Dayton have no chance at a deep tournament run.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Tonight's first game of the NCAA First Four features the Mount St. Mary's University Mountaineers versus the University of New Orleans' Privateers.


GOLDMAN: Even the doubters probably felt a tingle as Mount St. Mary's and New Orleans tipped off yesterday. It was the official start to March Madness, but both teams were 16 seeds, the lowest, the last picked to play in the tournament. And the winner would face overall No. 1 seed and defending champion Villanova in the first round. In the 78-year history of the tournament, no 16 seed has beaten a one. This was New Orleans broadcaster Jude Young before yesterday's game.


JUDE YOUNG: Sixteen is 0-for against number one, and, hey, why not us? It's plain and simple. That's the thought of everybody on this trip right now.

GOLDMAN: Note to NCAA T-shirt designers. Why not us would be a great slogan for 16th seeded teams. The four that came to Dayton certainly exuded a world-beating attitude, and why not? It's easier to do when for a very short time the basketball world is yours. The games in Dayton are March Madness - no other games anywhere yesterday or today. New Orleans players certainly seemed to embrace the spotlight.

GEORGE: What's up, man? What's your name?

DOMINIC: Dominic.

GEORGE: Nice to meet you, man. I'm George.

GOLDMAN: After practice Monday, they fanned out in the University of Dayton Arena for some very engaged autograph signing. Senior guard Nate Frye took a bunch of selfies with kids' phones. As the kids got ready to leave, Frye actually stopped them.

NATE FRYE: Hold on. Hold on - one more for my phone if you don't mind - one more for my phone if you don't mind. Y'all ready - one, two, three.




GOLDMAN: Gregarious, selfie-taking Nate Frye was stone-cold baller Nate Frye last night. He scored a team high 18 points in an intense 67-66 loss to Mount St. Mary's. How intense was this game that supposedly didn't matter? Two of Frye's teammates almost fought each other in the second half after a botched play. Mark Slessinger is the New Orleans head coach.

MARK SLESSINGER: They just got sideways with each other. They - one thought he should have zigged, and the other one thought he should have zagged.

GOLDMAN: Slessinger benched one of them, a starter for the rest of the game. Afterwards, Mount St. Mary's sophomore guard Elijah Long considered the grim 16-versus-1 history facing his Mountaineers when they play Villanova tomorrow.

ELIJAH LONG: At the end of the day, we all play basketball, you know? It's the same sized ball, same sized net.

GOLDMAN: And he said if they can match Villanova's heart...

LONG: You know, we'll see if we can break a bracket.

GOLDMAN: Odds of that happening of course are zero with Mount St. Mary's or any of the other remaining 16 seeds, meaning most likely why not us goes back in storage. Until next year, Tom Goldman, NPR News, Dayton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUTURE SONG, "NO BASIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.