With just over a minute remaining in regulation of its First Four game last year, UCLA trailed Michigan State by five points after the Bruins had barely made the field after losing their final four games prior to Selection Sunday. Now, they were staring the end of their season right in the face.
But then they rallied to force overtime and eventually beat the Spartans. Then they topped 6-seed BYU and 14-seed Abilene Christian. A week later, 2-seed Alabama and 1-seed Michigan had been vanquished, too. Less than two weeks after their season looked like it would end before some people had even finalized their brackets, the Bruins had destroyed most everyone's bracket and were headed to the Final Four.
Since its introduction in 2011, the First Four has been the launching point for teams that went from barely making the field to making plenty of noise. There have been 10 NCAA Tournaments since the expansion to 68 teams; nine have featured a First Four team winning multiple games.
|2011||(11) VCU||Final Four|
|2012||(12) USF||Round of 32|
|2013||(13) La Salle||Sweet 16|
|2014||(11) Tennessee||Sweet 16|
|2015||(11) Dayton||Round of 32|
|2016||(11) Wichita St||Round of 32|
|2017||(11) USC||Round of 32|
|2018||(11) Syracuse||Sweet 16|
|2021||(11) UCLA||Final Four|
Trying to find a rhyme or reason for these successes is mostly fruitless. Playing well entering the tournament isn't necessarily a factor. As explained above, UCLA didn't. Same with 2011 VCU, the only other First Four team to make it to the Final Four. Those Rams lost four of their final five regular-season games and then lost the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title game. On the other hand, ahead of its Sweet 16 run, 2014 Tennessee won its last four regular-season games and its first game in the SEC Tournament before narrowly losing to Florida, then the No. 1 team in the nation.
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Similarly, putting up a big win in the First Four hasn't correlated with success moving forward. There have been eight teams (not including 16 seeds) to win their First Four game by double digits. Of those eight, four immediately bowed out in the Round of 64.
That's what makes the NCAA Tournament so fun. In a single-elimination setting, unexpected results become expected.
Here's who could be next to add their name to the list of First Four success stories:
1. (11) Rutgers
Rutgers started this season by struggling to beat Lehigh, Merrimack and NJIT before losing to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. But in March, you're looking for underdogs that can play up to -- and ideally better than -- their competition. Rutgers fits that bill with six Quad 1 wins, the same number as Arizona, Duke and Illinois, among others. Four of those six wins came in February or later.
Experience matters in March, and the Scarlet Knights' top four minutes leaders are all either juniors or seniors. Ron Harper Jr. (15.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) is no stranger to big moments -- his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Purdue helped jumpstart the turnaround -- and is a go-to guy down the stretch with NBA talent. Fellow seniors Geo Baker (12.4 PPG) and Caleb McConnell (6.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and junior Paul Mulcahy (9.0 PPG, 5.3 APG) form an experienced, capable backcourt.
Last year, Rutgers beat Clemson in the Round of 64 and then came up just three points short to Houston, which made the Final Four. There's experience, NBA talent and a clear ability to beat top-tier teams. That's a good recipe.
2. (12) Indiana
One only needed to watch the last week to see why Indiana is capable of making a run. In the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers beat Michigan and 1-seed Illinois before losing to eventual champion Iowa on a buzzer-beater. Two of Indiana's four Quad 1 wins this season came this past week, and the Hoosiers seemingly needed both to make the field.
At 38th in the NET rankings, Indiana is the highest-ranked First Four team, and it has the pieces to win multiple games. All-Big Ten second-team selection Trayce Jackson-Davis (18.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG) is a handful down low and averaged over 25 points and eight rebounds in the conference tournament. He, fellow big man Race Thompson (11.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG) and point guard Xavier Johnson (12.3 PPG, 5.0 APG) are a formidable trio that can carry what can otherwise be a sluggish offense. Out of 14 Big Ten teams in conference play this season, the Hoosiers finished:
- 10th in offensive efficiency
- 13th in 3-point percentage
- 11th in 2-point percentage
- 12th in free-throw percentage
But they also finished first in defensive efficiency. That's where the Hoosiers hang their hat, and it's one area to watch in their First Four matchup against Wyoming. The Cowboys shoot over 64% at the rim this season, per Hoop Math, a top-50 mark in all of Division I. But Indiana has held opponents to just 51.2% shooting at the rim, 13th in the nation.
It may not be pretty, but if someone outside Jackson-Davis, Thompson and Johnson can contribute offensively, the Hoosiers' defense can keep them in -- and potentially win -- some games.
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3. (12) Wyoming
Sleep on the Cowboys at your own risk. Graham Ike (19.6 PPG, 9.6 RPG) is a steady presence who has scored in double digits in all but one game this season. Hunter Maldonado (18.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 6.3 APG) stuffs the stat sheet. You'll find few duos as good as this one.
Wyoming doesn't mind close games; Jeff Linder's squad is 9-2 in games decided by five points or fewer this season. While they don't play particularly fast, the Cowboys went 5-1 in regulation games that featured over 70 possessions while also going 9-2 in games that had fewer than 65 possessions. They can win in multiple ways.
Like Indiana, the Cowboys don't shoot it particularly well from the outside; unlike Indiana, though, the Cowboys don't protect the basket at a high level. Ike and Maldonado will have to be at their best for Wyoming to survive past the First Four.
4. (11) Notre Dame
Less than a month ago, Notre Dame had won five straight and looked a relatively safe bet for the NCAA Tournament. But the Fighting Irish lost three of their last six, making for an antsy Selection Sunday. A narrow win over Kentucky back in December was a major boost to their resume, but they are just 1-5 against Quad 1 opponents since. Notre Dame went 3-8 against Kenpom.com's top 75 teams this season.
That doesn't mean Mike Brey's team can't get it done, and some surface numbers are encouraging. In conference play, Notre Dame led the ACC in 3-point shooting and was second in defensive rating. Blake Wesley (14.6 PPG), Prentiss Hubb (9.1 PPG, 4 APG) and Dane Goodwin (13.9 PPG, 45% 3-pt) constitute a very solid perimeter trio; Nate Laszewski (9.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 46% 3-pt) is a terrific shooter who at 6-10 causes matchup problems; and Paul Atkinson (12.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG) anchors the interior. There's not much depth behind Laczewski and Atkinson, though, and it could struggle with a rugged Rutgers team.