The American Eagles decided to hang out at a campus food court Sunday. No, they weren’t there for the burgers and fries.
The champions of the Patriot League gathered with several hundred of their newest friends to receive a formal invitation to the First-Timers Club.
They aren’t the only ones, either.
Let’s also welcome Maryland-Baltimore County, Texas-Arlington and Portland State.
Those four schools will be making their first appearances ever at the NCAA tournament, a giddy time that also comes with a warning: Hazing is still allowed when it comes to March Madness, and the neophytes will be expected to cram all the fun they can into a one-and-done, then turn over the stage to usual powers such as North Carolina and UCLA.
Until then, the score is nothing-nothing.
“It’s great to see our names being called,” American junior Derrick Mercer said. “As a little kid you wish to see your team out there, and here I am now.”
The Eagles (21-11) are the next-to-last seed in the East Region, which earned them a tough matchup against No. 2 seed Tennessee in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday. The Volunteers were a likely No. 1 until an upset loss in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, and they’ll be heavily favored against American.
But this wasn’t a day for worrying about matchup problems.
Surrounded by fellow students in the food court of the Washington, D.C. campus, the Eagles jumped out of their chairs to exchange high-fives and hugs after their school’s name popped up on the television screen. Fans holding signs with the Journey-inspired theme “Don’t Stop Believin”’ erupted into chants of “Let’s go Eagles!”
“It’s different,” junior Brian Gilmore said. “Usually I’d be watching this in my den with my dad.”
The Eagles had their best season since 1981-82, when coach Gary Williams — now at Maryland — led them to the National Invitation Tournament. American’s only trip to an NCAA tournament came way back in 1960, when it reached the Division II semifinals.
“I’ve watched Tennessee on TV several games this year,” junior Garrison Carr said. “We’re going to have to prepare hard to play against these guys.”
Up the road in Baltimore, a similar celebration broke out when the letters “UMBC” flashed on the screen. The Retrievers are seeded 15th in the Midwest, which makes them a huge underdog heading into their game against Big East power Georgetown — a team that reached the Final Four last year.
But that game in Raleigh, N.C., isn’t until Friday. The Retrievers (24-8) can talk big until they actually take the court against the Hoyas.
“We know what we’re capable of doing, and we’re going to go out there and do it, no matter who our opponent is,” forward Cavell Johnson said. “Yes, they have national recognition and a lot of respect across the country. We’re going to give them respect, but we’re going to play the way we know how.”
While few people outside Maryland could even tell you what UMBC stands for, the guys who proudly wear those letters don’t feel out of place in the NCAAs. In fact, the Retrievers were hoping to be seeded a little higher.
That’s the beauty of the Big Dance, which opens up its 65-team field to the proletariat by handing out automatic bids to conferences such as the America East, thereby creating all sorts of Rocky themed stories and the illusion that everyone has a chance — at least until tipoff.
“At first I kind of thought we deserved better than a 15 seed,” Johnson said boldly, “but we’re in the tournament. All we needed to do was get our foot in the door, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
Texas-Arlington earned its spot Sunday with an 82-79 victory over Northwestern State in the title game of the Southland Conference tournament.
The Mavericks (21-11) fell far short of the regular-season title, but made up for it in the tournament.
Now, a dose of reality: Texas-Arlington is seeded last in the South and faces No. 1 Memphis at North Little Rock, Ark., on Friday.
Portland State (23-9) claimed its spot last week by winning the Big Sky Conference tournament. Like Texas-Arlington, the Lumberjacks received a No. 16 seed and will face powerhouse Kansas, champion of the Big 12, in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday.
Several schools are back in the tournament after long times away, led by Drake.
The Bulldogs (28-4) claimed their first bid in 37 years by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, though they likely did enough during a remarkable regular season to get in. Seeded fifth in the West, Drake gets Sun Belt champion Western Kentucky on Friday in Tampa, Fla.
“It was a little nerve-racking. I tend not to get too nervous for games, but there were butterflies tonight,” said Adam Emmenecker, who blossomed from walk-on to league MVP. “It’s a little bit different of a feeling.”
Different indeed. Drake’s last trip to the NCAA tournament in 1971 was long before any of the current players were born.
This group is getting the rock-star treatment on campus. The line of fans who gathered to get autographs from the team and first-year coach Keno Davis stretched all the way around the court, and folks who had showed up over an hour before the brackets were unveiled happily scooped up T-shirts and hats honoring the Bulldogs for their turnaround season.
There plenty of excitement at Cal State Fullerton, too.
The Titans (24-8) will be making just their second tournament appearance after winning the Big West Conference. They can only hope to do as well as the last time: a run to the regional final in 1978 before coming up one win short of the Final Four.
This year’s entry is seeded 14th in the Midwest and will join Portland State in Omaha for a Thursday matchup against Big Ten champion Wisconsin.
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