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Mid-Major Morning Mashups: NCAA Tournament First Four Edition

One of the great joys of the NCAA Tournament has always been the manner in which it starts - fast and furious. There's no easing in, no adjusting, it's zero-to-sixty. If you were one of the unlucky ones stuck in the office or class all day, by the time you managed to get in front of a TV you might have already missed a series of upsets and classic March Madness moments. There was something endearing about the rushed manner of that first day.

Today we try something new. The First Four is something of an enigma at this point. The premise is simple: four games that will ultimately yield a pair of 16-seeds, a 12-seed and an 11-seed, all of whom will advance to the "first" round into their appropriately slated boxes in the greater bracket. From the greater perspective most may view the actual start of the Tournament as being on Thursday and in many ways this is the case. For UAB and VCU fans, it's an opportunity for their teams to prove they deserved the controversial at-large bids they received.

Regardless of how you feel about the new structuring of the Big Dance, starting tonight everyone left standing has to be aware of only one thing: win or go home.

John Zenor of the Washington Post: "Mike Davis still emodies the attributes that drove him to the brink of a title and enabled him to survive replacing a coaching legend at Indiana: He's demanding, intense and ambitious. That's why after leading UAB back into the NCAA tournament, he wants more. "That's the driving force for me, is just to get back there," Davis said Monday before flying to Dayton, Ohio, for an opening-round game with Clemson. "I'm never satisfied with just making the tournament. Once you play for a national championship, that's all you think about. You don't think about just making the tournament, you think about national championships. "That's what drives me. That's what motivates me." He finally has his shot, long though it may be. The Blazers (22-8) barely made the tournament as one of the NCAA's "First Four" teams who must win to join the higher seeds. The winner heads to Tampa, Fla., as a 12th seed to face No. 5 seed West Virginia. It's a big step for Davis & Co. at a school that has made the field at times with regularity - just not with Indiana-style regularity."

Keith Jarrett of the Asheville Citizen-Times: "A No. 16 seed with plenty of talent and experience in the backcourt, a surprise winner of its conference tournament, a team coming into the NCAA tournament on a roll. If UNC Asheville's opponent in tonight's First Four game sounds familiar, it's because Arkansas-Little Rock took a similar road to reach the University of Dayton Arena, site of a 6:40 p.m. start that kicks off the Big Dance. Just as the Bulldogs (19-13) emerged from the Big South Conference Tournament as champions from the third seed and have won six straight games, No. 5 seed Arkansas-LR won four games in four days to claim the Sun Belt Conference championship. "(They are) a perimeter-oriented team. ... guards who are very strong and great shooters," said Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach, who has directed the Bulldogs to the NCAA tourney for the second time in his 15 seasons in Asheville. "It's a formidable opponent for us. Like us, they were not at the top of their league but were able to win their tournament."

Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News: "Over the previous decade, we grew somewhat accustomed to spending the Tuesday that opens the NCAA Tournament catching up on Tivo'd episodes of "Chuck" and maybe flicking to the play-in game during commercials so as not to miss a close finish. The First Four, the new portion of the tournament created to accommodate the expansion to 68 teams, is a different deal. We've got some serious teams playing Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio to kick off 2011 March Madness."

Dennis Pillion of "The state of Alabama was the epicenter for the controversy surrounding yesterday's NCAA Tournament selections, where the UAB Blazers earned one of the last bids available, while Alabama just missed the cut and will be a No. 1 seed in the NIT. The Blazers were aided by a strong RPI and strength of schedule ranking, as well as being the Conference USA regular season champions. However, the lack of marquee wins and an early exit from the C-USA tournament had many pundits placing UAB on the outside looking in. Anthony Grant's Crimson Tide squad struggled early, picking up bad losses to St. Peter's, Seton Hall and Providence before rallying to win 13 SEC contests, including wins over NCAA-bound teams Kentucky, Tennessee and twice over Georgia. The national media, as well as commenters, were divided as to which team was more deserving of an invitation to the tournament. Doug Segrest wrote that UAB deserved its bid, while Jon Solomon said this crowded bubble is another reason the two teams should face off during the regular season."

Steve Irvine of the Birmingham News: "Clemson head coach Brad Brownell left little doubt in what impressed him the most when he watched tapes of UAB games. Not surprisingly it was the play of senior point guard Aaron Johnson. "There aren't many teams that have a guy with that much pure speed, just pure open court speed," said Brownell, whose team will play UAB in matchup of 12th seeds in the nightcap of today's doubleheader in the NCAA Tournament First Four at Dayton Arena. "It's just that he can get past you, I think, before you even realize it. He's already in the paint." Johnson, the Conference USA Player of the Year, leads the country in assists with 7.7 per game. "They don't average 85 points a game, so they're playing in a way that is under control, yet this guy still finds a way to get eight assists a game," Brownell said."

Tim Gardner of USA Today: "Men's basketball players from North Carolina-Asheville felt "presidential" taking a chartered flight for their first-round game against Arkansas-Little Rock in the NCAA tournament, junior J.P. Primm said Monday. That turned out to be a perk for playing in the opening games of an expanded 68-team field for the tournament that begins tonight. The winner gets No. 1 seed Pittsburgh in the second round of the Southeast Regional on Thursday in Washington. Asheville (19-13) usually rides a bus to games, same as Arkansas-Little Rock (19-16). But the NCAA arranged for chartered flights for the eight teams in this round because winners have a short turnaround for their next games. There used to be one preliminary-round game in a 65-team field, but in expanding to 68 this season, the NCAA instituted four first-round games, two Tuesday and two Wednesday. The four worst-seeded automatic qualifiers and the last four at-large qualifiers will play in the First Four. The charter flight was an added thrill for Asheville, from the Big South Conference, and Arkansas-Little Rock, from the Sun Belt."