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Daniel Wilco | | February 25, 2021

The First Four of the NCAA tournament, explained

All-Time Moments: VCU goes First Four to Final Four

The First Four is the official start to March Madness: four games traditionally played on the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the NCAA tournament.

Things will be different in 2021 because of the pandemic. The NCAA announced Jan. 19 that all First Four games will be played on Thursday, March 18. The first round will begin the next day. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the First Four:

When did the First Four start?

In 1999, the Mountain West Conference was added to Division I. In its second season, 2000-2001, the conference received an automatic bid for the first time, bumping the total number of automatic qualifiers in the NCAA tournament to 31, and the total number of teams to 65.

From 2001 to 2010, this was addressed by an Opening Round game, where the two lowest-seeded teams would play on the Tuesday after Selection Sunday.

In 2011, the NCAA tournament expanded again, to 68 teams, with 31 automatic qualifiers, and 37 at-large bids, and the First Four was created to cull the teams to 64 for the first round.

Who plays in the First Four?

When selecting the teams for the NCAA tournament, the Selection Committee ranks every team from No. 1 through No. 68. In its current format, the First Four consists of eight teams — the four lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers, and the four lowest-seeded at-large teams. Each subset plays against itself (i.e., at-large teams face at-large teams, and automatic qualifiers face automatic qualifiers).

How do First Four teams do in the 64-team bracket?

Better than might be expected. Through 2019, at-large First Four winners, though seeded between No. 11 and No. 14, win the first round at a rate equal to a seed at least two spots better (No. 9 seeds). The standard-bearer is the 2010-11 VCU team, the 11 seed that made it to the Final Four after starting in the First Four. No team has repeated that run but 2019 is the only tournament where at least one at-large First Four team failed to win a game in the 64-team bracket. You can read exactly how First Four teams do here.

Who was in the inaugural First Four?

The 2011 First Four consisted of Texas, San Antonio, Clemson, UNC-Asheville, VCU, Alabama State, UAB, Arkansas-Little Rock, and Southern California. Here’s what that bracket looked like (First Four scores are in the bottom right):

2011 NCAA tournament bracket

When is the First Four played?

The First Four is normally played on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday, with the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64 starting that Thursday. In 2021, it will be played on Thursday, March 18.

Where is the First Four played?

The First Four has always been hosted at the University of Dayton, in Dayton Ohio. Here is more on Dayton's impressive history as a college basketball town. It will be played in Indiana in 2021.

Who are some notable teams that have come out of the First Four?

In all eight years of the First Four’s existence, at least one First Four team has survived until the Round of 32. 

But no team has managed to match the success of VCU in 2011. The Rams knocked off 11-seed USC in the First Four, then downed 6-seed Georgetown, 3-seed Purdue, 10-seed Florida State, and 1-seed Kansas to reach the Final Four, where they fell to 8-seed Butler. VCU is still the only team to have made the Final Four from the First Four.

VCU stuns Kansas


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