What is the First Four in March Madness and why do 11 seeds play in it?

Mar 13, 2023; Dayton, OH, USA; General view of the March Madness logo at UD Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 13, 2023; Dayton, OH, USA; General view of the March Madness logo at UD Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

The First Four is an odd wrinkle for March Madness, but what is it, which teams play in it, and why are 11-seeds part of the First Four with 16-seeds?

Before the full-blown NCAA Tournament gets going, we get a March Madness appetizer when it comes to the First Four. The First Round officially tips off on Thursday after Selection Sunday but Tuesday and Wednesday each have two games with teams trying to stay dancing.

But what are the First Four games and how do they matter? After all, why are there 68 teams in the March Madness bracket when there used to be 64, which makes for an even number?

Don’t worry, we’ll explain the deal for you.

What is the First Four in March Madness? A brief history

The First Four really started to take form back in 2001 when the Mountain West started to get an automatic bid, thus expanding the field to 65 teams as the NCAA didn’t want to reduce the at-large bids available. That initially slotted the two lowest-seeded automatic bids against one another in the Opening Round.

However, in 2011, the field then expanded to 68 teams, which began the First Four, though that name wasn’t used until 2016. The four lowest-seeded teams (16 seeds) would play against one another to get into the field of 64 and the First Round. The new wrinkle, though, was also adding four at-large teams with an opening round game to play their way in. Other than 2021 when all of March Madness was in the state of Indiana, the games are played in Dayton, OH.

Since 2015, those at-large teams have been a quartet of 11 seeds. But why is it that 11 seeds are involved in the First Four?

Why do 11 seeds play in the First Four in March Madness?

While the 16 seeds are the lowest-seeded teams, the 11 seeds in the First Four are the Last Four In, or the last four at-large teams that did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament by winning their conference tournament.

Essentially, the NCAA and the selection committee has made it to where these 11 seeds, the final at-large bids handed out, have to prove themselves in Dayton in order to advance to play in the First Round after they were definitely on the bubble on Selection Sunday.

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