• Home
  • NCAA
  • The First Four is actually part of the NCAA Tournament

Share & Comment:

The First Four is actually part of the NCAA Tournament

The NCAA’s 2024 First Four took place Tuesday and Wednesday at the University of Dayton’s UD Arena. On Tuesday night,  No. 16 Wagner outlasted No. 16 Howard, 71-68, while No. 10 Colorado State demolished No. 10 Virginia, 67-42. On Wednesday night, No. 16 Grambling State defeated No. 16 Montana State, 88-81, while No. 10 Colorado beat No.10 Boise State, 60-53.

What is the First Four? It’s a series of games pitting the four lowest automatic qualifiers for the 68-team NCAA Tournament against one another and the four lowest at-large qualifiers against each other. The winners of each subset of games advance to the next round of the tournament on either Thursday or Friday.

And it really is the next round of the NCAA Tournament. A First Four contest isn’t a play-in game, even if the NCAA often refers to it as just that. Yes, these teams are playing their way into the Round of 64, but they’re still officially a part of the tournament.

I’m sorry, but it’s just a maddeningly annoying argument I have with college basketball fans every March. This was especially the case last year when my University of Pittsburgh Panthers qualified for the 68-team tournament as an 11-seed but had to start their journey in Dayton, Ohio. The Panthers survived a game Mississippi State squad, 60-59, and advanced to play No. 6 Iowa State in Greensboro, North Carolina. Pitt won that game, too, and did so in a rather convincing fashion before falling to Xavier in the Round of 32.

If you research the articles for the win over Mississippi State, you’ll see that writers used phrases like, “Pitt won its first NCAA Tournament game since 2014.” These writers didn’t say, “Pitt qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.”

Yet, many of the Panthers’ detractors (mostly Penn State and West Virginia faithful) said that they did not qualify for the tournament until they defeated Mississippi State.

Just not true.

In fairness to those PSU and WVU fans, the NCAA and even the media don’t make it clear enough that First Four participants are just as much a part of the dance as the teams with top seeds. You’ll often hear reporters and talking heads say things like, “Colorado State earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament with its blowout win over the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.”

Furthermore, it’s often optional for college basketball fans to include First Four games when filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket.

I realize this is nitpicking, but I’m a huge sports fan who knows what a wildcard team is. They’ve had them in the NFL since 1970. Major League Baseball added a wildcard team to its postseason field in the 1990s.

In time, both the NFL and MLB expanded their postseason fields by adding more wildcard teams. This meant that wildcard qualifiers had to play one more round than everyone else if they wanted to realize their championship dreams.

But they were still a part of the playoff field.

The NFL’s postseason currently consists of 14 teams. Baseball’s present playoff tournament is comprised of 12 squads.

And college basketball’s current postseason field consists of 68 teams. There are at least a handful of schools–including my Panthers–who would have gladly accepted an NCAA Tournament bid that started in Dayton, Ohio when the committee released its bracket on Selection Sunday.

Postseason expansion is part of life in athletics. The tournament saw major expansion when it went from 32 to 64 teams in 1985–the year No. 8 Villanova shocked the world by advancing to the national title game and knocking off juggernaut Georgetown.

For years there was talk of expanding the field even further, but how many teams would the NCAA add? After adding a 65th team–and the first defacto wildcard game–in 2001 to accommodate for 31 automatic bids, three more were added to the field in 2011. But you can’t have a 68-team tournament without some sort of wildcard round–the math doesn’t work. However, instead of a few schools earning byes–which is how it’s done in the NFL and MLB–64 teams earned byes into the first round.

That’s right, I said they earned a bye into the first round. How can you earn a bye into the first round?


And this is one of the reasons why we have these annoying First Four arguments every spring. Why not just call the First Four the first round? Or if the NCAA wants to call it the First Four, just sick with Round of 64 for the slate of games that take place on Thursday and Friday.

Anyway, it’s not like these First Four survivors are cannon fodder once they hit the Round of 64. Except for 2019, a First Four winner has advanced beyond the Round of 64 every year since 2011. Speaking of 2011, VCU advanced from the First Four round to the Final Four. UCLA did the same thing in 2022.

Oh well, that’s enough complaining for one day.

Just remember that the NCAA Tournament field consists of 68 teams, not 64.


Sign up below for the latest news, stories and podcasts from our affiliates

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.