One of the things that makes me smile as we head into the 2016 NCAA Tournament is that the round of 64 is the first round again, after the “injustice” done due to the introduction of the First Four preliminaries, which isn’t about anything but to generate more money by the NCAA, turning it into a 68-team tournament.
The First Four is basically a way to kick off the tournament a little bit early, and give a few more of the smaller schools to bask in some of the national glory that goes hand in hand with the greatest event in collegiate or pro sports, or a bigger name a chance to find their way into round of 64 after a rough season. But rarely do these First Four teams seize the opportunity given to them. More often than not, those who win their First Four game have to wait until the next season to win their next one.
This is the sixth season of the First Four format. That gives us 40 teams, 48 including this season, bringing us the enticing crop of Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast, Fairleigh Dickinson, Michigan, Tulsa, Holy Cross and Southern. Of the 20 teams in the past that won their First Four game, it usually ends there.
We’ve had ten different winners in the #16 vs #16 game. UTSA, UNC-Asheville, Western Kentucky, Vermont, North Carolina A&T, James Madison, Albany, Cal Poly SLO, Hampton and Robert Morris. One of the most important rules when filling out a bracket? A number one seed has never lost to a #16 seed in the round of 64. So you can guess how far these teams went after getting their moment in the NCAA spotlight.
Others who didn’t make it past the round of 64? Clemson (#11) in 2011, BYU (#14) in 2012, Saint Mary’s (#11) in 2013, North Carolina State (#12) in 2014 and Ole Miss (#11) last season. South Florida (a #12 seed in 2012) got past Temple in the regular #12 over #5 upset before losing to a #13 seeded Ohio. A #13 seed, La Salle, made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2013 after stunning Kansas State and then beating Ole Miss before losing to Wichita State. Tennessee were an #11 seed in 2014 and also went to the Sweet Sixteen, beating UMass and Mercer (who upset Duke in the previous round) before making Michigan sweat but losing. Last season, Dayton represented the First Four in the round of 32 after beating Providence prior to losing against Oklahoma.
And there’s one team that stands out. The 2011 VCU Rams. A team that was just 12-6 in the CAA and lost in the Conference Championship Game to Old Dominion. Troy Daniels, currently with the Charlotte Hornets, played on that team, which began it’s NCAA Tournament road by beating USC in the First Four, followed by crushing Georgetown (a #6 seed) 74-56. They were even more impressive in their third game, destroying Purdue (#3 seed) 94-76, starting the hype as they got into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history.
So the Cinderella run continued: Beating Florida State 72-71 and then upsetting Kansas, the #1 seed in the region, a team with the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey but surprisingly no Perry Ellis, that went 14-2 in the Big 12 and won the conference tournament, 71-61. They tied the record for lowest seed to make it into the Final Four, a Final Four without a single number one or number two team, that also had UConn, Butler and Kentucky.
VCU lost to Butler in front of 75,421 in Houston. UConn went on to beat Butler in one of the ugliest finals known to mankind. VCU never made the Sweet Sixteen again, although they’re in the tournament in 2016 for the sixth time in a row. Shaka Smart, who coached them during the Final Four run is now at Texas. Will Wade took over. They’re in the A-10 now. A lot of things have changed. But no one has come close to do what they did coming up from the First Four.
So overall, who do the First Four teams do in the 64-team field? Win 10 out of 30 games, with VCU owning four of those wins. And maybe more importantly for those thinking about the brackets, each season one of the First Four winners wins in the Round of 64 and maybe more than that, but never more than one of the four teams. Good luck with your brackets.