On Sunday, 68 teams heard their name called to play in the greatest tournament in all of sports. Well, kind of.
You see, the Big Dance only works with 64 teams—at least in its current format. It’s a beautiful system: six beautiful rounds of basketball that cut the field of teams in half each round. From 1985-2000, the field was made up of 29 automatic bids and 35 at-large bids. However, in 2001 the NCAA had a dilemma.
The History of the Play-in Game
In 2001, the recently-formed Mountain West Conference was lobbying for an automatic bid for their conference tournament champion, but the NCAA didn’t want to give up an at-large bid. Simple enough—they added a play-in game between the 64th and 65th teams in the tournament to determine the final 16-seed.
For 10 seasons, that play-in game practically went unnoticed. It rarely, if ever, appeared on NCAA tournament brackets because a 1-seed had never lost to a 16-seed anyway. Besides, if you didn’t make it to the first round of the tournament, were you even in it?
Well, that question got even muddier in 2011. Suddenly, eight teams would be playing in Dayton, Ohio, for a spot in the first round of the tournament and we weren’t talking about only 16-seeds anymore—there were legitimate at-large teams fighting for a shot in the first round. The NCAA Selection Committee would determine which seed lines would have play-in games, but the formula has been two 16-seed games and two not-as-low seed games (11-seed has been the most common).
Cinderella’s First Dance?
The First Four winners have a 6-18 record in Round of 64 games since 2011. On the surface, that’s not an eye-popping record until you peel back the layers: 16-seeds are expectedly 0-12 in their Round of 64 games. Play-in teams seeded 11th, 12th or 13th are 6-6. For a seed line that is already expected to lose in the Round of 64, that’s staggeringly efficient.
So does playing in the First Four give teams an advantage heading into the Big Dance? That’s hard to say. Here are the list of First Four teams that advanced past the first round:
2011: 11 VCU vs 6 Georgetown
2012: 12 South Florida vs 5 Temple
2013: 13 La Salle vs 4 KSU
2014: 11 Tennessee vs 6 UMass
2015: 11 Dayton vs 6 Providence
2016: 11 Wichita State vs 6 Arizona
A few things jump out:
- VCU, Dayton and Wichita State account for half of the wins and although they are all mid-majors, they are far from Cinderellas. VCU had a magical run from First Four to Final Four, but was no stranger to the NCAA tournament. Not to mention, Georgetown has turned into maybe the most consistent NCAA Tournament bust and hasn’t sniffed the second weekend since their 2007 Final Four run. Dayton’s victory coming out of the First Four came a year after an Elite Eight run and Wichita State has been one of the toughest outs in the tournament for half a decade.
- Two of the upsets came against teams from lower-major conferences. Temple was one of the most overseeded 5-seeds in recent history and UMass was making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 seasons and had to match up with a Power 5 team.
- La Salle may qualify as the only true Cinderella from the First Four rounds. As the lowest-seeded play-in team to ever win a Round of 64 game, they were able to knock off Big 12 co-champions, Kansas State.
So, there’s the bad news: the “upsets” from First Four teams are usually only upsets by definition and if you’re looking for a new Cinderella, you’re probably better off looking at the rest of the field. The good news? The one constant since the First Four began is that one team has always snuck into the Round of 32. So who has the best chance to be that team this year?
The 2017 Field
16 seed: New Orleans vs. Mount St. Mary’s
This will be a battle of the stars. Mount St. Mary’s guard Elijah Long leads the team in almost all major categories, averaging 15.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists and has been absolutely dominant in the past month. However, New Orleans will be punching back with forward Erik Thomas, who averages 19.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. New Orleans has been a bit more battle-tested this season and they will have a size advantage, but Mount St. Mary’s has gone on a tear, finishing the season 18-4 after starting just 1-11. This should be an entertaining start to the NCAA Tournament.
Prediction: New Orleans
Up Next: 1-seed Villanova
Will they advance? No. Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed and the defending national champs deserve it. Erik Thomas may go out fighting, but he and New Orleans won’t be won’t be playing a third game in the tourney.
16 seed: North Carolina Central vs. UC Davis
This is could quietly be one of the best games of the opening week. Both will field some of the most veteran squads in the nation—NCCU is the most experienced team in the nation while UC Davis is 32nd. Both teams are typical 16-seed candidates—undersized, but solid defensive teams in their low-major conferences and hit-or-miss on the offensive end. In games like these, experience can make all the difference.
Prediction: North Carolina Central
Up Next: 1-seed Kansas
Will they advance? Again, no. The 16-seeds simply aren’t good enough to hand a top-4 team a loss, although I wouldn’t be surprised if North Carolina Central came out hot for the first 15 minutes or so before Kansas takes over.
11 seed: Providence vs. USC
Providence has been on the other end of a First Four upset, but could they get revenge this year? They’ll have to get through a young USC team first, and it won’t be easy. The teams match up fairly well with size, but 6-10 Bennie Boatwright being back in the lineup for USC can only be a positive for them. Providence looked flat in the Big East tournament while USC lost a heartbreaker in its second game of the Pac-12 tournament to 3-seed UCLA.
Up Next: 6-seed SMU
Will they advance? It may be tempting to pick a power conference 11-seed over an AAC team that has only played in one NCAA tournament this millennium, but this isn’t what it seems. SMU is coming off a self-imposed postseason ban last season, and yet they were one of the best teams in the nation. This year, they’re even better. Neither USC nor Providence have the guns to realistically pull off the upset here.
11 seed: Wake Forest vs. Kansas State
I know there’s more to basketball than efficiencies, but I’m an unabashed KenPom lover. And do you know who KenPom loves? Wake Forest and Kansas State. If seeding were up to that beautiful analytic system, they’d both be 8-seeds (ranking 30th and 29th, respectively), so I’m fully expecting a fantastic game. Josh Collins is the guy to watch in this matchup and if Kansas State—the nation’s 28th-ranked adjusted defense—can find a way to contain him, they are efficient enough on offense to get past an average Wake Forest defense.
Prediction: Kansas State
Up Next: 6-seed Cincinnati
Will they advance? It won’t be easy. Cincinnati is a legitimate 6-seed and there’s only a handful of defenses better than the Bearcats’. However, both Kansas State and Wake Forest are MUCH more battle-tested and are the last 11-seeds you would want to face. If I had to pick a team to advance, it would be the winner of Wake Forest-Kansas State.
So sit back, relax, and look over those play-in games one more time before penciling in that Round of 64 win for those 6-seeds. The First Four may be an afterthought for most, but for you, it can be the perfect window into an upset pick no one else saw coming.