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Siena, Alcorn St. play for 64th tourney spot

The Associated Press

DAYTON – C’mon in, Alcorn State and Siena.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

DAYTON – C’mon in, Alcorn State and Siena. Lace ’em up and learn firsthand what it’s like to play in the only NCAA tournament game that inspires more dread than dreams.

It’s the play-in, and it’s like nothing else – the all-night travel, the missed meals, the quiet arena that feels more like a sideshow than center stage.

”It’s been real, real strange,” sleepy Alcorn State guard Jeff Cammon said Monday after practice.

For the second straight year, the NCAA has its two lowest seeds playing in Dayton for the 64th spot in the tournament. Tuesday’s winner will catch another flight to Washington to play No. 1 Maryland on Friday.

The play-in format returned last season when the number of automatic bids expanded to 31. Northwestern State beat Winthrop, and both teams grumbled about the travel hardships.

Alcorn State (21-9) and Siena (16-18) found out fast that just getting there is no fun.

The Braves were surprised to learn Sunday night that they, not Winthrop, were headed to Dayton to play the only team in the tournament with a losing record.

They stayed up all night packing and planning, then got on a bus at 3 a.m. in Mississippi for a two-hour ride to Baton Rouge, where they caught a plane to Atlanta, where they had a brief delay changing flights to Cincinnati, where they caught another bus for an hour-long ride up Interstate 75 to Dayton.

Breakfast? Lunch? Sleep?

”I haven’t gotten any sleep,” Cammon said.

Neither had the Braves’ 72-year-old coach. Davey L. Whitney didn’t get to nod off until the team reached its hotel in Dayton, had some roast beef and rice for lunch, then relaxed for a little while before heading to the virtually empty arena for a 6 p.m. EST practice.

”I never take a nap,” Whitney said. ”At 20 minutes after 5, I was out. That’s why we’re late.”

They got to the arena five minutes late for their one-hour workout, the lack of sleep showing in their slow gait. Whitney’s team has played seven games in 14 days and then had to travel overnight – not exactly conducive to a good showing in Tuesday’s play-in.

”I’ve only started thinking about it in the last 24 hours,” Whitney said. ”Somebody’s going to have to look at it because I understand they had the same situation last year. It’s not conducive for teams to give their top performances.”

Siena had it a little easier – the Saints’ flight didn’t leave New York until 9 a.m. They weren’t in position to complain about anything, anyway.

Siena won four games in four days on its home floor to get the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s automatic bid. The Saints are the 16th team to make the NCAA tournament with a losing record.

Florida A&M reached the tournament with a 12-18 record in 1999, the last to do so. Only one of those 16 teams actually won a game – Bradley won two in 1955.

The Saints knew they’d be relegated to the play-in. They had the lowest RPI ranking in the field at 218, while Winthrop was 217 and Alcorn State 182.

”The success is in being here,” coach Rob Lanier said. ”Everything else is gravy.”

Alcorn State has a deeper bench and a more uptempo style that could give it the advantage – providing the players can stay awake.

Last year’s play-in drew a crowd of 6,813 to University of Dayton Arena, roughly half of capacity. More than 7,500 tickets – priced at $5 and $10 – have been sold for Tuesday’s game.

The game was bumped to TNN last year, when out-of-work coach Rick Pitino did the commentary. It’s been moved to ESPN this year.

Whitney, in his 26th season at Alcorn State, has already won a couple of NCAA play-in games in Dayton, beating Xavier in 1983 and Houston Baptist a year later.

”I won both of those games on this floor,” he said. ”I’m hoping that this floor will be just as good to us.”

The winner gets to head East for another game in three days. The loser gets to feel like any other NCAA tournament team that shows up and then leaves after one game.

That may be the play-in’s closest resemblance to the real thing.

”It feels like the NCAA tournament,” Lanier said. ”If we lose, we go home.”