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What is the First Four in March Madness? Explaining the NCAA Tournament play-in games

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The NCAA Tournament expansion from 64 teams to 68 teams in 2011 expanded the bubble for teams hoping to capture an at-large bid. It also created the First Four and provided more basketball in March. Some questioned the need for more teams. Could a team that wouldn’t make a field of 64 even be good enough to advance in the tournament? VCU answered that question instantly. The Rams wrote a true Cinderella story and it started in the First Four and ended in the Final Four. 

VCU took down five high major teams, including 1-seeded Kansas in the Elite Eight. The Rams are still the most successful team to come out of the First Four games but not the only team that has prospered. In every year of the First Four’s existence, at least one First Four team has survived until the Round of 32. Lasalle, Tennessee and North Dakota State have all reached the Sweet 16 after starting as a First Four team. 

The teams in the First Four were the last ones to make the tournament field, but March Madness is one of the most appropriately named terms in all of sports. It doesn’t matter how you get in because as long as you do, anything can happen.

MORE: Why does the NCAA Tournament start on Friday?

What is the First Four in March Madness?

The NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It stayed that way until expanding to 65 teams in 2001 when the Mountain West Conference received an automatic bid to the tourney for the first time, bringing the automatic qualifiers in the NCAA tournament to 31. The two lowest-seeded teams in the tourney faced off in the “opening round game” on the Tuesday after Selection Sunday with the winner facing a No. 1 seed in the first round. 

The NCAA Tournament expanded again in 2011. This time the field expanded to 68 teams, with 31 automatic qualifiers and 37 at-large bids. The winners of each of those first four games advanced to the round-of-64. There were talks in 2011 about expanding the field to 96 or 128 teams, but the 68-team field allowed the format to remain the same and provide basketball to be played on two extra days between Selection Sunday and the first round-of-64 game.

Who plays in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament?

The eight teams that play in the First Four games consist of the four lowest-seeded teams that automatically qualified, and the four lowest-seeded at-large teams. For the four lowest-seeded automatic-qualifiers, two games feature two 16-seeds with the winner advancing to the round-of-64 to play a No. 1 seed. The at-large qualifying teams play each other as 11 or 12-seeds to advance to the round-of-64 as well.

MORE: Why is Michigan State a First Four team in 2021?

First Four 2021 schedule

Game Time (ET) TV
Game 1: No. 16 Mount St Mary’s vs. No. 16 Texas Southern 5:10 p.m. truTV
Game 2: No. 11 Wichita State vs. No. 11 Drake 6:27 p.m. TBS
Game 3: No. 16 Norfolk State vs. No. 16 Appalachian State 8:40 p.m. truTV
Game 4: No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 11 UCLA 9:57 p.m. TBS

The entirety of the First Four will take place on Thursday in 2021 beginning with the first of four games at 5:10 p.m. ET. Michigan State vs. UCLA is the final game of the night, tipping off at 9:57 p.m. ET.

Where is the First Four played?

The First Four games have been in Dayton, Ohio since the field was expanded in 2011. However, this year’s First Four games are being held in Indiana due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Purdue’s Mackey Arena and Indiana’s Assembly Hall will host two games apiece — the first time Four Four games aren’t played in Dayton.

There are practical reasons for Dayton to host these games every year, like the relatively centralized location and the convenient Eastern time zone. But more than anything, Dayton embraces college basketball. The First Four is a big deal in Dayton and the continuously packed arenas showcase that. The city celebrates “Big Hoopla” every year when the First Four comes to town.

First Four results

Year Winner Score Loser
2011 UTSA 70–61 Alabama State
2011 Clemson 70–52 UAB
2011 UNC Asheville

81–77 (OT)

Arkansas-Little Rock
2011 VCU 59–46 USC
2012 South Florida   65–54
2012 BYU 78–72 Iona
2012 Vermont 71–59 Lamar
2012 Western Kentucky 59–58 Miss. Valley St.
2013 La Salle 80–71 Boise State
2013 North Carolina A&T 73–72 Liberty
2013 James Madison 68–55 LIU Brooklyn
2013 Saint Mary’s 67–54 Middle Tennesse
2014 Albany 71–64 Mount St. Mary’s
2014 Cal Poly 81–69 Texas Southern
2014 NC State 74–59 Xavier
2014 Tennessee 78–65 (OT) Iowa
2015 Dayton 56–55 Boise State
2015 Ole Miss 94–90 BYU
2015 Hampton 74–64 Manhattan
2015 Robert Morris 81–77 North Florida
2016 Florida Gulf Coast 96–65 Fairleigh Dickinson
2016 Holy Cross 59–55 Southern
2016 Michigan 67–62 Tulsa
2016 Wichita State 70–50 Vanderbilt
2017 UC Davis 67–63 North Carolina Central
2017 Kansas State 95–88 Wake Forest
2017 Mount St. Mary’s 67–66 New Orleans
2017 USC 75–71 Providence
2018 Radford 71–61 LIU Brooklyn
2018 St. Bonaventure 65–58 UCLA
2018 Texas Southern 64–46 North Carolina Central
2018 Syracuse 60–56 Arizona State
2019 North Dakota State 78–74 North Carolina Central
2019 Belmont 81–70 Temple
2019 Fairleigh Dickinson 82–76 Prairie View A&M
2019 Arizona State 74–65 St. John’s

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