The First Four: Many college basketball fans consider it the ultimate appetizer to the NCAA tournament. Created in 2011 with the purpose of creating more at-large bids, the First Four gives fans and players four extra games before the Round of 64 even starts, spread across the Tuesday and Wednesday prior. The idea is that you make the worst four automatic bids (No. 16 seeds) fight their way in and the worst four at large teams (No. 11 and 12 seeds) earn it. Despite theoretically being the worst at large teams though, these No. 11 and 12 seeds have actually found success in the tournament. In every year except 2019, at least one of the two survivors made it to the second round. Even more surprising, two such teams made it to the Final Four — 2011 VCU Rams and the 2021 UCLA Bruins. Today, staff writers Stratton Stave and Sam Zelin debate whether the First Four is good for the sport or if it should be abolished.
Stratton: Over the past 11 years, the First Four has become a staple of March Madness week. As people fill out their brackets, they get to scout teams that will be playing later that week in real time through games between teams that are fighting to earn their way into the tournament. And even better; the games have consistently been exciting. Let’s talk UCLA-Michigan State last year, a game that went to overtime. This year, Indiana-Wyoming and Texas Southern-Texas A&M CC were both decided by fewer than 10 points. The best one this year was Notre Dame-Rutgers, which went to double overtime and included a number of crazy shots to decide it. Who doesn’t want more crazy and unpredictable games? No true college basketball fan will say no to an extra buzzer beater or nail biter. It’s a great way to keep the engagement at a peak level as they bridge the gap between Selection Sunday and the first Thursday of games with a set of meaningful matchups. There is no reason to get rid of it as of now.
Sam: When it comes to March Madness, or any other competition with a restricted number of applicants, there will always be snubs. While giving the extra teams a chance to technically be a part of the event is a nice concept, it’s only nice for the teams that make the First Four. With an even bracket of 64 teams, the teams that make it get in, and the teams that don’t are all left waiting for next year. Instead of having an awkward pre-tournament, it would make more sense to have a clean break at 64, and then have all teams that don’t make that cut play in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). The NIT’s current purpose is specifically to create a stage for teams left out of March Madness to be able to compete for a championship, and having all the teams that barely missed the Big Dance, instead of only half of them, could make this competition more exciting and appealing to fans. On the topic of fan appeal, scrapping the First Four would also place more emphasis on conference play, with teams having more at stake due to a smaller pool of teams making March Madness.
Stratton: Although I do think that the NIT is a great platform for teams that didn’t make it to get on a big stage, it’s sort of outdated. Unless you’re a mid-major squad on the rise, most teams don’t care very much about the NIT. For high majors, it has become March Madness or bust, without room for consolation prizes. Another massive benefit of the First Four is that it gives 16 seeds that wouldn’t have a chance to win a game a very winnable one. In the history of the NCAA tournament, only one No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 seed. Now with the advent of the First Four, two 16 seeds get the chance to win games. Even better, the more wins a team gets, the more money their conference is awarded. Per the Washington Post, for every win a team gets, their conference is awarded $1.67 million. This opportunity for lower level teams to get money for their conference is massive and is a great reason to keep the games in existence.
Sam: While giving the little guy a chance is a nice sentiment, that shouldn’t be the goal of the NCAA tournament. The evenly-rounded 64-team format places all competitors on an even playing field, with each team having to play the same amount of games to get to each stage of the bracket. If preserving this format becomes the goal, we get back to the problem that the NCAA originally created the First Four as a solution for: Because more automatic bids were created, the NCAA had to find a way to fit all of these bids in without sacrificing at-large spots. In the end, the solution to this problem shouldn’t be arbitrary extra games, it should be decreasing the amount of automatic bids. If a conference on the whole routinely performs worse than its competition in the tournament, it should be put in jeopardy of losing its champion’s automatic bid. This will allow the NCAA to keep the most competitive conferences in the tournament, while still rewarding standouts from conferences that are less competitive in at-large selection. In the end, the competitiveness of March Madness is the most important part of it, and again, there will always be snubs regardless of the format.