DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- They ate breakfast on the team bus, had lunch at the airport and got their ankles taped on yet another bus while heading to practice.
By the time they arrived for the NCAA tournament play-in game, Winthrop and Northwestern State had enough experience with the new 65-team format to know it needs to be changed.
Their suggestions? Give the play-in teams an extra day to get to the site. Most important, let someone else play in it.
Winthrop and Northwestern State, which got the two bottom rungs in the NCAA bracket, tip off the tournament Tuesday with a game that neither particularly cared to play.
"Coach told us at our last practice that we were probably going to be in it," Winthrop forward Derrick Knox said. "It's a little disappointing, being a player."
It was more than disappointing. It was exhausting.
Winthrop, the three-time Big South champ, and Northwestern State, the Southland Conference representative, lost sleep and preparation time getting to the University of Dayton Arena for their practices Monday night.
Northwestern State left Natchitoches, La. -- the backdrop for "Steel Magnolias" -- on a pre-dawn bus ride through a thunderstorm. Sleepy players and coaches munched on breakfast sandwiches as rain pelted the windows on the way to Shreveport.
A one-hour delay in Dallas resulted in an airport lunch and a late arrival in Dayton. The team went straight to the arena for its workout, knowing next to nothing about its opponent.
Coach Mike McConathy still hadn't gotten any tape on Winthrop when his team took the court.
"We're hoping there's some at the counter at the hotel," he said.
For the Demons, March Madness took on an entirely different meaning.
"Actually, it was kind of fun," Northwestern State guard Michael Byars-Dawson said. "It was a chance to bond and get closer to each other. We had to be at the gym at 5:30 this morning. It was a long day."
Travel arrangements forced Winthrop to show up late for its news conference. Players didn't have time to find the dressing room and get ready.
"It was a big rush," Knox said. "We had to get taped on the bus. It was a little crazy."
Just getting there became the overriding concern.
"Dealing with the travel arrangements last night was kind of like dealing with Rubik's Cube," Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall said.
Both coaches suggested giving the play-in teams an extra day next year if the NCAA keeps the same format. They also suggested letting someone else go through the ordeal.
"It might be a situation where you do it with two at-large teams in the future," Marshall said.
His counterpart concurred that teams without automatic bids should face the disadvantage next year.
"They're on the bubble," McConathy said. "It would be a way for a team on the bubble to play their way in."
The all-day travel, the late practice, the lack of preparation time and the requirement that the winner plays No. 1 seed Illinois on only two days' rest weren't the only downsides for the play-in teams.
All of the NCAA floor decals and banners couldn't hide the fact that the tournament's opening game is nothing like the rest that will follow.
Most tournament practices draw hundreds of fans. When Northwestern State guard Michael Edwards led his purple-shirted teammates onto the court Monday night, the arena was as silent as a library and the ushers outnumbered the fans.
It was the same for Winthrop, which arrived only 25 minutes before its scheduled workout. Nine fans sat in the stands and watched the 50-minute practice.
"Hopefully we can play in front of a big crowd tomorrow and have a great experience, something we've always dreamed of," Northwestern State guard Ryan Duplessis said.
The first 40 minutes of the tournament is being pre-empted by "60 Minutes II." CBS is carrying its usual prime-time programs, leaving the play-in game to TNN.
About 6,000 tickets have been sold, roughly half the capacity of UD Arena. Neither team was able to bring many fans because of the tough time arranging travel.
"There's nothing you can do about it," Marshall said. "I'm no spin doctor, but I try to take a negative and see a positive. This is an opportunity to advance. This is not a play-in; this is the NCAA tournament."
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