For 36 years, David Hixon, the men’s basketball coach at Amherst College, has done what basketball coaches do at this time of year: traveled to the Final Four — wherever the city, whoever the teams — and watched the college game at its highest level.
Saturday night in Atlanta, Hixon will be at the Georgia Dome through the first national semifinal, Wichita State against Louisville, and he’ll likely stick around for tip-off of the nightcap, Syracuse against Michigan.
“But my guess is we won’t stay for both games,” he said. “It’s a pretty early start the next day.”
The next day, for the first time, the host city for the Division I Final Four will also host the NCAA’s lower-level championship games, with Metro State and Drury squaring off for the Division II title and Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor playing for the Division III crown.
“For us, and for our athletes in these two divisions, it brings a little bit of focus,” said Ken DeWeese, whose Mary Hardin-Baylor team will face Hixon’s Amherst squad at 12:30 p.m. Sunday (the Division II title game follows at 4 p.m.). “Normally, you have the Division III game one weekend and the Division II game the next weekend, and it’s like: ‘Oh, okay, you guys get out of the way. Hurry up.’ This will be good for our games.”
Last year, the Division III title game was held March 17, when the Division I tournament was in its second round, and the Division II title game was March 24.
The new setup is not without complication, nor is it with any permanence. The move to hold the lower-level finals on the off day between the Division I semifinals and Monday’s national title game came about as a way to further celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament.
“We wanted to make it particularly special in Atlanta,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president for men’s basketball championship. The decision predates Gavitt’s tenure, which began last year, but he embraced it. “I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
But consider the odd way it made the Division III tournament play out. Both Amherst, a central Massachusetts liberal-arts school of roughly 1,800 students, and Mary Hardin-Baylor, a Christian school of around 2,900 undergraduates in Belton, Tex., received byes in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That meant they had two weeks off between the end of their conference tournaments Feb. 24 and their first NCAA tournament game March 9.
“We tried to keep it normal,” Hixon said. “But on that Wednesday, we scrimmaged, and we were awful. I thought, ‘Boy, is the air coming out of the balloon?’ ”
The time off, though, merely served as a preview of another stretch of inactivity. Both Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor won March 9, then again a week later. That advanced them to Salem, Va. — which normally hosts the Division III Final Four, but this year instead hosted eight teams in rapid-fire quarterfinal and semifinal rounds March 22 and 23. So both Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor played two games, total, between Feb. 25 and March 21 — nearly a month — and then played two games in just more than 24 hours.
And when they advanced to the championship game — Amherst by beating North Central (Ill.) College, Mary Hardin-Baylor by taking out top-ranked St. Thomas (Minn.) — their reward was another two-week hiatus before Sunday’s championship game in Atlanta.
“Nobody gave it too much concern at the time of the decision,” said DeWeese, the Mary Hardin-Baylor coach. “You don’t know you’re going to be there.”
But it isn’t an ideal way to determine a champion. At this point in a normal season, the Division III kids would be on to the rest of their spring semester, which for some involves participation in spring sports.
“I think it was a concern among the Division III membership,” Gavitt said. “There’s mixed feelings about this opportunity. We had to find some compromise.”
And that’s the primary reason why this may be a one-off for the Division II and III games. Gavitt said no determinations have been made about whether the NCAA will do this again, but officials could only consider another host city similar to Atlanta, which has a smaller venue, Philips Arena, located near the Division I site at the Georgia Dome. The NCAA is making the games free for fans, so it hopes to attract basketball junkies already in town for the Division I games.
Amherst (29-2) and Mary Hardin-Baylor (27-5), meanwhile, will use the opportunity to tell their stories. The Lord Jeffs went undefeated in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which also sent Middlebury and Williams to the NCAA quarterfinals. They’re led by junior guard Aaron Toomey, who was named the Division III player of the year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. They won the 2007 national championship under Hixon
The Crusaders went into the season thinking they’d be anchored inside, but their center suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury in a preseason scrimmage, another forward tore knee ligaments and another forward left school because he received a job offer in Houston — an offer that included tuition payments to complete his degree at the University of Houston.
“I couldn’t say no to that,” DeWeese said. “We went from being a very large team to being a very small team. Around Thanksgiving, I was probably clinically depressed.”
Now, he is one of just eight men’s coaches — at all levels — still going to the gym each day to prepare for the sport’s biggest stage. And when his team walks into the Georgia Dome to watch Saturday’s Division I games, they’ll do so with a sense of anticipation knowing they, too, have one more game.
“Very few teams are practicing right now in college basketball,” DeWeese said. “I think they’re excited. I think the only thing that would bother this team is if they really stopped and thought there’s not going to be a practice or a game the next day.”