ATLANTA – Aaron Toomey was talking about boyhood dreams, how out in the driveway you think about one day hitting big shots in front of a big crowd in a big arena.
"You're thinking NBA," Toomey, a guard for Amherst [Mass.] College, said before breaking into a laugh. "But this is as close as we're going to get."
Toomey is generously listed as 6-foot-1, 170 pounds and he is a decidedly Division III player. He's not going to be a pro.
Still, he was laughing and smiling while wearing a championship net around his neck after hitting big shots [16 points total] in a big NBA venue, Philips Arena – home of the Atlanta Hawks to be precise. He'd just helped Amherst defeat Mary Hardin-Baylor [Texas] 87-70 for the D-III national title.
And that, for him, was more than enough.
"It was special to play out there [Sunday]," he said.
It isn't easy to add a great tradition to an event that is already 75 years old and considered one of sports' best weekends to begin with, but the NCAA managed to pull it off Sunday.
For the first time ever, it staged the D-II and D-III national title games in the same city as the D-I Final Four. On the off day between the Division I semifinals and the championship game, the NCAA rented out an NBA arena, staged an old-school double header [two title games] and offered free admission to whoever wanted to come in and watch.
The result was phenomenal. There was an electric crowd of about 6,500 in the lower bowl of Philips for the D-III finale. Then nearly 8,000 took in a thrilling 74-73 victory by Drury [Mo.] over Metro State [Col.] for the D-II title, providing a tremendous atmosphere, and one otherwise impossible to create in small college hoops.
"We'd never have gotten a crowd that big," said NCAA president Mark Emmert.
The D-III final is usually played in Salem, Va., which does its best to provide a nice stage. D-II has moved around the country seeking a landing spot. However, no place can offer this much pomp, circumstance and excitement to the players.
The small-college guys were treated like big-school royalty. The hotels were plush. The meals top notch. There were police escorts for the team bus. "I haven't seen that many police lights since the last time I was in trouble," joked Amherst coach David Hixon, before noting, "I've never been in trouble."
All four teams were introduced on the court of Saturday's Final Four games at the Georgia Dome. Toomey even flashed a Syracuse shirt in honor of his dad, Kevin, an Orange alum. Amherst and Drury will be honored during Monday's national title game between Michigan and Louisville.
And finally they got to play in an NBA arena in front of not just their small collection of fans. There was also a healthy turnout of the basketball-obsessed who make annual pilgrimages to the Final Four no matter its location, not to mention local families seeking a cheap entertainment option – a chance to get in on the games. It couldn't have gone better.
"I think everyone is tickled at how it came out," Emmert said.
"It even exceeded our expectations," said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president of basketball. "It just fits. It just goes with the whole feel of having a big-time event over an entire weekend with so many things going on."
About the only question was why no one thought about it during the previous 74 years. [And in seemingly typical NCAA fashion, the guy who conceptualized bringing all the divisions to the same city, Greg Shaheen, was coincidentally let go by the organization last year.]
Small colleges are always going to struggle to attract fans. The competitive nature of the games, especially with a national title on the line, is tremendous. The ability of the players is excellent, although certainly below D-I.
The main issue though is marketing the teams and personalities. There just isn't much media attention. And there never will be. Rather than search for communities that might be hoops mad enough to turn out fans, the NCAA decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed and put it in the middle of the Final Four where so many potential viewers were already roaming around looking for something to do.
And then they didn't bother charging anyone a dime, using some of the money from the big event to prop up the unsung athletes of D-II and D-III.
The NCAA is under constant criticism for the extravagance and big business of its major sports. This was like a blast of feel-good enjoyment – non-scholarship guys playing their hearts out at a high level, given a stage they'd never before enjoyed.
This was one great idea.
"If this format doesn't become permanent then we are not doing a service to the student athletes in Division II and Division III level," said Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Ken DeWeese. "This is the greatest atmosphere in the world for college basketball players. Each team should have the opportunity to aspire to it, regardless of where the Final Four is.
"For Division II and Division III, this is the best thing that has happened."
Gavitt said no decision has been made on whether to keep the small-college championships tied to the D-I Final Four, such as in North Texas next year. "It's up to the membership," he said.
It shouldn't be a tough choice. It's the kind of fun doubleheader on the off day of the big tournament that could see its popularity build, with attendance increasing as word spreads.
It's a potentially new tradition for this old hoops weekend.
"The lights are bright, there were a lot of people there, chanting this way and that way," said Amherst's Willy Workman.
No, it wasn't the NBA. Minus the paychecks for the players though, across a long, championship afternoon of heated basketball, it might have been better.
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