What is the First Four in College Basketball?

The First Four refers to the games that kick off the NCAA Men's College Basketball Championships, what fans everywhere know as March Madness. Unlike the other playoff games, the First Four isn't part of tournament play itself; they're a precursor (sometimes called play-in games). The eight teams are competing for one of four slots in the first round of the actually NCAA playoffs. 

A New Playoff Format

The First Four began in 2011 after the NCAA expanded the men's basketball playoff tournament from 65 teams to 68. In the years prior, the two lowest-seeded teams (usually the champions of two very small conferences) would meet on the Tuesday after Selection Sunday, with the winner advancing to play one of the tournament's top seeds. 

In 2010, the NCAA announced its changes to tournament play for the following year. Under the new format, eight low-seeded teams would play in "First Four" games. The games would include the four lowest-ranked teams that had automatically qualified for the tournament and the four at-large teams who were last to be invited to play. 

Minor Rules Changes

Team selection got a little confusing, so in 2016, the NCAA made some additional adjustments to the way the First Four functions. To make the selection more consistent, the lowest-ranked teams to receive automatic playoff bids would be pitted against each other, while the four teams with the lowest rank among all at-large entrants would face one another. The automatic-bid teams that win advance to the No. 16 slots in the first round of the playoffs, the regionals. The winning at-large teams receive No. 11 slots in the regionals.

The initial First Four games were played in 2011 at the University of Dayton Arena. The eight teams were: the University of Texas at San Antonio, Clemson, University of North Carolina-Asheville, Virginian Commonwealth University, Alabama State, University of Alamaba-Birmingham, University of Arkansas-Little Rock, and the University of Southern California. The University of Dayton has continued to host the First Four tournament in subsequent years. 

First Four Achievements

Only four schools have been in the First Four portion of the NCAA basketball tournament, Boise State, Brigham Young University, Mount St. Mary's, and USC. Until the 2018 tournament, only one team had managed to climb all the way from the First Four to the Final Four. In 2011, the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth became the Cinderella story of the tournament, finally losing to Butler University 70-62. In 2018, Loyola-Chicago repeated that feat, advancing to the Final Four just as VCU had.