Norfolk State & Appalachian State Are Making History In The 2021 First Four

Norfolk State & Appalachian State Are Making History In The 2021 First Four

Norfolk State and Appalachian State play one of the most anticipated games in the history of college basketball on Thursday night.

Mar 17, 2021 by Kyle Kensing
Norfolk State & Appalachian State Are Making History In The 2021 First Four

Since its inception 10 years ago, the NCAA Tournament’s First Four has been a consistent source of controversy. 

A specific debate asks: Does sending No. 16 seeds — always conference champions who won automatic bids into the field — short-change these programs of the NCAA Tournament experience? Opinions vary. 

In 2021, however, occupying an exclusive spotlight on the first day of March Madness in almost two full years is a special opportunity. 

“It’s great to be part of the First Four,” said Appalachian State coach Dustin Kerns. “Last year, with the NCAA Tournament being canceled, this is going to be a monumental moment for our entire country.”

The stark reality of COVID-19 hit home for millions when the 2020 NCAA Tournament — an event launched during the Great Depression, endured through World War II, tipped off the same day as the United States entering into war in Iraq in 2003 — was called off. 

Progress toward curbing the first profoundly impacting pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has been made in the past 12 months. But the appearance of normalcy, and the return of the NCAA Tournament, should not be conflated with actual normalcy. 

To wit, Appalachian State and Norfolk State meet in the first-ever First Four game played outside of Dayton. Since the round was established in 2011, and dating all the way back to the original opening game established in 2001, the Road to the Final Four always began in Ohio. 

The Mountaineers and Spartans meet at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, part of the Indiana “bubble” established to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. 

“I’ve never spent any time in prison. Unfortunately, I know a few people who spent some time in prison,” said Norfolk State coach Robert Jones. “I’d probably equate [the bubble] to the nicest jail you could be in right now.”

Jones joked that getting out for practice on Tuesday was the Spartans’ chance to “walk the yard.” Although deadpan humor on the coach’s part, the regimented schedule, which includes specific times to eat and “two choices, three choices” of food, makes for a much different experience than the last time Norfolk State reached the Tournament. 

In 2012, the Spartans scored one of the eight all-time 15-over-2 upsets in March Madness history, beating a Missouri team in a matchup Jones said, “could have been a 16-and-1.” 

“This is nowhere near the Tournament experience in 2012. It’s not even close,” Jones said, while also teeing up some important perspective. “But people who don’t know what we experienced in 2012 think this is pretty cool.” 

No, there won’t be 18,000 fans in Assembly Hall, roughly the attendance in Omaha nine years ago. COVID-19 restrictions have capacity limited mostly to the teams and assorted other staff working the Tournament. 

The 2012 upset marked the program’s first, and until Thursday, last NCAA Tournament appearance. In 2019, Jones had a team that dominated the MEAC much of the regular season, but lost to North Carolina Central in the conference tournament championship to deny Norfolk State a return. 

Despite beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa to open that year’s NIT, missing out on March Madness left a dissatisfaction with Norfolk State that lingered “730 days,” according to Jones. 

Topping Morgan State to win the MEAC Tournament this year and make up for the missed opportunity two years ago won’t be soured by health protocols. 

“It was a great experience, playing one of the top teams in Alabama and beating them,” said Norfolk State guard Joe Bryant Jr., one of the few holdovers from the 2019 NIT team. “But honestly, there’s nothing like the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament. Making the NCAA Tournament is a dream come true.” 

For Appalachian State, the wait is even longer. This season’s trip to the Tournament marks the program’s third all-time and first since 2000, before some of this roster was even born. 

“We’re enjoying everything that comes with it,” said Appalachian State guard Justin Forrest. “A lot of people don’t get to experience this, and we’re very grateful we are some of the very that get to.” 

Pandemic, First Four, bubble: The qualifiers don’t matter. Appalachian State and Norfolk State made history in 2021, and will again when they help open arguably the most anticipated NCAA Tournament in the event’s 82-year history.

Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.