The NCAA Tournament is one of the pillars of modern sports. Not only is it one of the most fun parts of the year, but it’s incredibly iconic as well. That being said, there have been some big changes to the format since its inception all the way back in 1939.
To break down how the tournament has changed, and why it’s ever-evolving, the following guide will look at the First Four. Understanding those games, alongside their history, will create a much better understanding of March Madness as a whole.
A Big Shift
For most of the NCAA Tournament’s history, it followed a specific format. The games would start in March with the round of 64 and then continue until a winner was crowned. It would go to the round of 32, then the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the championship.
That format lasted from the very beginning of March Madness (1939) all the way until the turn of the century in 2000. However, in 2001 things changed. At that time, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) split and created the Mountain West Conference (MWC) in 1999.
That change gave the WAC an automatic bid to the tournament for the winner of its conference championship, but it also created 31 different conferences to have a bid. While the Women’s Tournament adapted to that change by expanding their teams, the Men’s did not.
The NCAA decided to keep their at-large entries locked in at 34. To do that, they needed to eliminate one of the teams. They brainstormed a few solutions, and finally came up with a play-in game between the two lowest-ranked teams from leagues with an automatic bid.
That play-in game proved successful, allowing some smaller ranked colleges to get their shot at a sixteen seed. However, though it stuck around a while, it soon proved to not be enough.
The Dawn of the First Four
The NCAA’s single play-in game proved to be successful, even in the face of an expanded tournament, but it only stuck around for a decade. In 2010, the tournament regulators decided to increase the number of teams that entered March Madness to 68.
Rather than risk the integrity of a 64-team tournament, they upped the number of play in games from one to four. Those four games are what is now known as the First Four, and they help create a more exciting start to the NCAA tournament.
In these games, two contests take place between the four lowest-ranked teams (No. 65 vs No. 66 and No. 67 vs No. 68) and two take place between the four lowest-ranked at-large seeds. They are played on the days leading up to the round of 64.
That system works because, not only do colleges that don’t normally play in big games get some national spotlight, but it makes larger programs need to worry about falling too far down the ladder as well. They never know when they might get bounced before things start.
A Litany of Names
The First Four is a common name for college basketball fans, but it’s not something that was always part of the tournament’s vernacular. When the play-in games first came about, they were called both “the First Four” as well as the “first round” games.
That then led to the round of 64, which had always been referred to as the first round, being called the second round and the round of 32 (normally called the second round) getting referred to as the third round. As expected, it created a good deal of confusion.
To help stem that, the NCAA officially began referring to the play-in games only as the First Four starting in 2016. The first round is now only used to discuss the round of 64, and the second round is only used when talking about the Round of 32.
That’s a much cleaner method, especially since the First Four appears to be a permanent addition to March Madness. The games received some criticism when they first began, but they are now a favorite for college basketball fans all over the world.
They are single elimination contests with everyone giving it their all. In that way, they don’t just represent the start of a new playoffs, they represent everything the tournament stands for.
March Madness has a long and storied history. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. There have been plenty of changes to the tournament over the years, and there will likely be more as the years go on. The First Four is one of the best examples of that.
The play-in games are incredibly fun and help bridge the gap left by past shifts.Though not everyone was on board, they are now a key part of the tournament that signals it’s time for March Madness.