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What is the First Four? Why do they have the First Four in NCAA Tournament?

We go over the history of the First Four in March Madness and why it’s played.

Pittsburgh Panthers guard Nike Sibande goes up for a layup against the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Before March Madness begins in earnest, with four games at a time and the pure chaos that comes with the tournament’s first four days, eight teams will participate in the First Four. The First Four takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday ahead of the Thursday on which the tournament begins — in this case, March 16 — as four teams play for two 11 seed spots and two 16 seed spots.

Which teams have to play in the First Four?

The four worst at-large bids play for the two 11 seeds. If you follow bracketology, you may know these teams as the “Last Four In.” The four lowest-seeded overall teams, often conference champions from smaller conferences, face off for two 16 seeds. This doesn’t necessarily spell out a short-lived tournament campaign, though — in 2021, UCLA was in a First Four game to begin the tourney and ended up playing in the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

When did the First Four start?

Play-in games began when the Mountain West Conference joined Division I in 2001, bringing the amount of automatic qualifiers to 31, which made the total amount of teams 65. Rather than knock out one at-large bid, the NCAA decided to have one play-in game in which the worst two seeds would face off for one spot in the tournament.

The First Four in its current iteration began in 2011, when the NCAA expanded the number of at-large bids to 37, creating a 68-team field with four play-in games to kick things off.