Understanding the NCAA Tournament’s Opening Act: The First Four

Published on March 01, 2024, 4:55 am
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As the excitement for March Madness builds, the NCAA Tournament kicks off each year with an appetizing opener known as The First Four. This set of four games, held earlier in the week before the Round of 64, is the official start to the highly anticipated NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. These games are not merely preliminaries but a critical juncture for teams on the bubble, offering a last shot at glory and a place in the main bracket.

Here’s a quick guide to the First Four, a stage where dreams are kept alive and the fervor of college basketball fans begins to reach its peak.

The Origins of the First Four in March Madness

The landscape of the NCAA Tournament underwent a significant transformation at the dawn of the new millennium. In 1999, the introduction of the Mountain West Conference to Division I basketball marked a pivotal moment, expanding the horizon for more teams to dream about the Big Dance.

By its second season, the 2000-01 campaign, the conference celebrated a milestone – receiving an automatic bid for its champion. This pivotal occurrence increased the total number of automatic qualifiers in the NCAA tournament to 31 and, consequently, the total number of teams to 65.

From 2001 to 2010, the NCAA implemented an opening-round game featuring the two lowest-seeded teams to address the expanded field. This game, held on the Tuesday following Selection Sunday, served as a single-elimination match to streamline the tournament field. However, in 2011, the NCAA expanded, growing the tournament size to 68 teams. This expansion divided the slots among 31 automatic qualifiers from the conference champions and 37 at-large bids.

Then, the First Four was born, a new preamble to the main event designed to reduce the field from 68 to 64 teams before the first round properly commenced. This new format addressed the logistical challenges of an enlarged bracket and added a fresh layer of suspense and excitement to the March Madness narrative.

Eligibility and Selection for the Men’s First Four

When selecting the teams for the NCAA tournament, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee undertakes the intricate task of ranking every competing team from No. 1 through No. 68. The First Four, in its evolved state, features a compelling competition between eight teams.

These include the four lowest-seeded teams who earned their spots by winning their conferences. The two winners of these games play the No. 1 seed in the first round. Additionally, the four lowest-seeded at-large teams earned a berth based on their season performances. The two winners of these games are traditionally given the 11-seed and play the No. 6 seed in the first round.

This selection process ensures a fair and competitive start to the tournament while adding a thrilling dimension for fans engaging in NCAAB Live Betting, providing an early opportunity to gauge the potential tournament’s Cinderella stories.

The Introduction of the First Four in Women’s NCAA Tournament

In a significant stride towards parity, the NCAA made a groundbreaking announcement in November 2021 about expanding the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament to include 68 teams, paralleling the men’s tournament format.

This historic expansion included the addition of the First Four, a thrilling prelude that offers four play-in games before the tournament progresses into the full frenzy of March Madness. The inaugural women’s First Four games in 2022 marked a pivotal moment, featuring No. 16 seeds Howard, Longwood, Incarnate Word, and Mount St. Mary’s, as well as No. 11 seeds Dayton, Missouri State, DePaul, and Florida State.

Impact of the Men’s First Four on the 64-Team Bracket

The men’s First Four teams have historically punched above their weight in the 64-team bracket, often surpassing expectations. Noteworthy examples include the teams from VCU in 2011 and UCLA in 2021, both No. 11 seeds that embarked on extraordinary runs to the Final Four after commencing their tournament journeys in the First Four. These achievements underscore the potential for underdog teams to make deep tournament runs, showcasing the unpredictable and captivating nature of March Madness.

Interestingly, the 2019 NCAA tournament stands out as an anomaly since it was the only year since the expansion to 68 teams where no at-large First Four team secured a victory in the 64-team bracket, highlighting the competitive balance and unpredictability that define the NCAA tournament.

The Storied Venue of the Men’s First Four and Teams That Defied Odds

The First Four of the men’s NCAA Tournament has traditionally found its home at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, cementing the city’s impressive legacy as a bastion of college basketball. Known for its passionate fans and rich basketball culture, Dayton is a fitting backdrop for the drama and dreams that the First Four embodies.

Exceptionally, in 2021, due to the logistical challenges posed by the CoViD-19 pandemic, the venue shifted to Indiana, utilizing the campuses of Indiana University and Purdue University to host the games. This move underscored the flexibility and resilience of the tournament’s organizers in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Among the teams that have emerged from the First Four to etch their names into March Madness lore, a few stand out for their improbable journeys deep into the tournament. In the first decade of the First Four’s existence, at least one team from this opening act has advanced to the Round of 32 in nine out of those ten seasons.

Notably, the First Four has been the launching pad for memorable Cinderella runs, such as VCU in 2011 and UCLA in 2021, both of which were No. 11 seeds. VCU’s remarkable path to the Final Four began with a win over No. 11 seed USC in the First Four, followed by victories against higher-seeded teams, eventually falling to Butler in the Final Four.

A decade later, UCLA mirrored this feat, demonstrating the potential for teams entering the tournament through the First Four to leave a lasting impact on the March Madness landscape. UCLA ended up losing in a classic Final Four game against Gonzaga, a game that some consider one of the best games in Final Four history.

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