The buzzword in college basketball all season was parity — or if you prefer, mediocrity — but this is ridiculous.
Right on cue, the NCAA tournament unveiled its new and expanded field of 68 teams Tuesday with the first two of what used to be called play-in games. Officially, the extra round is being called the "First Four," though judging by the teams' precarious placement — dangling off the end of the bracket like a broken fingernail — the "Last Four" or "Worst Four" or even "Maybe Better Than the First Four in the NIT Tourney" would have been just as appropriate.
And no matter which moniker you preferred, what we got were illustrations of both the parity and mediocrity that made for plenty of close games this season and more than a few that were almost unwatchable.
UNC Asheville opened the show with a dramatic 81-77 overtime win over Arkansas-Little Rock, led by guard Matt Dickey's closing flourish and clutch free-throw shooting in the extra period by teammate J.P. Primm. After taking just two shots in the first half, Dickey scored 14 of the Bulldogs' last 18 points in regulation, including a 3 with 10.5 seconds left to force overtime.
The nightcap in Dayton, Ohio, was just the opposite. The first clue came when the people running the arena had trouble getting the full array of lights back on, even if there wasn't much worth seeing once the ball went up.
Despite sharing a No. 12 seeding, Clemson and Alabama-Birmingham both were roundly criticized as less deserving than a handful of teams exiled to the NIT, and if nothing else, UAB slipped out of town with its beleaguered reputation intact.
Coach Mike Davis said before the game if his team needed the extra motivation that came with all that criticism, then he wasn't doing his job. Apparently, he was onto something, since the Blazers never got any traction, going without a basket for an 8½-minute stretch in the opening period and quickly falling behind by 20 points. They never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
Clemson, on the other hand, departed immediately afterward for the airport and a flight to Tampa, Fla., for its second-round game Thursday afternoon against No. 5 seed West Virginia.
"Rest is going to be a big factor," said Jerai Grant, who had a career day on 10-of-15 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. "We have to prepare, watch video of them and go through their sets and we should be fine."
But only if the Tigers can get all that done in the 36 hours between the buzzer in Dayton and tipoff in Tampa.
Logistics are only one reason this year's tournament has such a slapped-together feel. The last major expansion of the field, to 64 teams in 1985, required plenty of adjustments in the intervening years and already this time around, brackets have had to be reconfigured, fans have had to locate Tru TV — one of CBS' three new partners in televising this year's tournament — on their systems and wonder whether Charles Barkley is going to do any homework.
The former NBA star and current analyst for TNT — another CBS partner — is one of several broadcasters pressed into service who appear, through the early going, out of their element. Barkley is incisive and lights-out funny talking about the pro game. But the college game? Not so much, at least not yet.
Barkley might want to start studying more, especially since so many of the top college players will almost certainly be in the NBA next season. By some estimates, as many as six of the first 10 picks in the league's draft will be freshmen, a trend that has not only changed the tournament but the sport itself.
Dominant teams are fast becoming a thing of the past. Keeping one loaded with talent and together for long is next to impossible, making it easier for teams with lesser players but more experience to compete on a regular basis. That's what fuels arguments about whether the selection committee should be favoring high-achieving mid-majors over middle-of-the-pack teams from the power conferences. It's also made filling out a bracket tougher than ever.
For all those gripes, the redeeming value of the tournament is that the last team standing when the confetti starts to fall has earned their place.
"It's the same rule," said Clemson guard Tanner Smith, whose team hadn't won a tourney game in 14 years. "You lose, that's it."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org