The only thing more exciting about the NCAA March Madness first four is the final four. Basketball fans await eagerly for the days after selection Sunday when the first games of March Madness finally begin. The NCAA begun the “play-in” format in 2011 as a way of allowing more teams to have a shot at winning the big dance. In the past, there were often teams left on the outside looking in, and the new format was a way to give those teams an equally fair chance for glory and fame. Since 2011, no 16 seed team that has played on the extra day has ever made it past the first round. After all, no 16 seed has ever knocked off a top seed. However, each year the mid-seed teams that have won their way in during the first round have managed to do at least a little damage. One team a year has made it past the second round, each with varying success.
The Virginia Commonwealth Rams have had the best run of any first four team. They were the 11 seed in the 2011 tournament, playing out of the southwest region. After knocking off USC in round one, the Rams made a historic run all the way to the final four. They beat six-seed Georgetown, third-seed Purdue, ten-seed Florida State, and finally top seed Kansas to win the region and advance to the final four. They would eventually lose to Butler, but could not help but be thrilled with how far they made it.
South Florida was the party crasher of 2012. Though the Bulls did not make is as far as the Rams had done, knocking off sixth-seeded temple and advancing to the round of 32 was still a success for the school. 13-seeded La Salle found better success in 2013. They beat Boise State to make it to the second round, where they toppled Kansas, who was a four-seed and heavily favored. The Explorers would then squeak by 12-seeded Mississippi before losing in the Sweet Sixteen round to the Cinderella Shockers.
This year’s first four winners have a mix of both hope and disparity. Cal Poly must tangle with the top seeded Wichita State, and Albany must do the same in Florida. Neither of these teams have a real shot at advancing if history has anything to say about it, but nothing is ever certain during March Madness. 11-Seeded Tennessee has a difficult time in the Midwest region as well. If they can get by six-seeded UMASS, they will face either perennial powerhouse Duke or an upstart Mercer team. Lurking in the wings will likely be Michigan, or perhaps a streaking Arizona St. If they do make it to the Elite Eight, strong contenders such as Louisville and Wichita State will more than likely be waiting. However, the Midwest Region is a powder-keg just waiting to go off in 2014, so anything can happen.
Unfortunately for 12-seeded NC State, they are playing in the powder-keg too. They will face off against Saint Louis after taking out Xavier in the first round. Louisville, Kentucky, and Wichita State will block the Wolfpack’s path to the final four. There is a chance that NC State will face Tennessee for the regional championship, but those type of miracle runs usually happen once a year, not twice.
It remains to be seen if this year’s first four will reach the NCAA final four. History suggests one of these teams will at least reach the round of 32, but the seeding will make it very tough. Fans from all across America will be holding their breath, waiting to see if Cinderella does in fact make an appearance during March Madness this year.
Commentary by Chris Chisam