Which “First Four” survivor will bust your March Madness bracket this year?


The NCAA’s “First Four” has been a breeding ground for tournament upstarts since its inception in 2011. 

That year, the VCU Rams squeaked into the field of 68, knocked off the USC Trojans as 4-point underdogs in the No. 11 seed play-in game, then took over the Big Dance like Kevin Bacon in Footloose, rolling through Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas before losing to fellow giant killer Butler in the Final Four. 

While the 2011 Rams set the bar high for play-in winners, and no First Four survivor has gone that deep into the bracket since, it did serve as the jumping off point for a trend involving those teams entering the Round of 64. There has been one play-in team (not the No. 16 seed obviously) advance out of the Round of 64 in each of the last six years.

That leaves college basketball bettors and those filling out their annual bracket wondering just which play-in team will be the one to survive the Round of 64 – and beyond – in 2017? 

The Kansas State Wildcats punched their ticket to Thursday’s schedule by earning the No. 11 seed after defeating Wake Forest in the play-in game Tuesday night. Kansas State now lines up with No. 6 Cincinnati in the South Regional, opening as a 3-point underdog. On Wednesday, the USC Trojans battled back from a 17-point hole to defeat Providence, earning a spot in the Round of 64 as a No. 11 seed in the East. That has Southern Cal facing No. 6 SMU Friday. 

The Wildcats and Trojans come from tough power conferences and have some notable wins under their belts: KSU knocking off West Virginia and Baylor in Big 12 play and USC owning a win against UCLA in the Pac-12. Past play-in upstarts didn’t necessarily have that same pedigree, with South Florida in 2012 coming out the Big East and Tennessee in 2014 from SEC as the only Power 5 members to make waves in the big bracket out of the First Four.  

Both KSU and USC come into the tournament with similar momentum, having won four of their last five games and picking up a win in their respective conference tournament before bowing out in the second outing. The Wildcats also enter the Round of 64 on a five-game ATS winning streak, while the Trojans are 4-1 ATS in their previous five contests.

The vacant No. 16 spots in the East and Midwest Regionals – and the honor of playing No. 1 seeds Villanova and Kansas – were filled respectively by the Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers Tuesday and the UC Davis Aggies on Wednesday. A No. 16 seed has never upset a No. 1 seed, so don’t bank on the Mountaineers or Aggies to be that live play-in program in 2017.

Diving into the history of play-in upstarts, the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth run was followed by the 2012 South Florida Bulls, who earned the No. 12 seed by beating California as 3-point underdogs in the play-in round and advanced to the Round of 32 by stunning No. 5 Temple as 3-point pups. 

The 2013 La Salle Explorers ran all the way to the Sweet 16 after winning the No. 13 play-in game over Boise State as 1.5-point dogs. La Salle took down No. 4 Kansas State as a 6-point underdog and No. 12 Ole Miss as a 4-point pup, then lost to No. 9 Wichita State in the Sweet 16.

The 2014 Tennessee Volunteers also went to the Sweet 16 after advancing into the Round of 64 with a victory over Iowa as 2-point underdogs in the No. 11 seed play-in game. The Vols rolled UMass as 6-point favorites in the Round of 64 and did the same against Mercer as 8.5-point chalk to escape the first weekend, before falling to Michigan in the Regional semifinals.

The 2015 “First Four” produced the Dayton Flyers, who earned a No. 11 seed with a win over Boise State in the play-in game. The Flyers dropped No. 6 Providence as 3-point pups in the Round of 64 but lost to No. 3 Oklahoma in the following round.

And last year, the Wichita State Shockers grabbed the No. 11 seed with a 20-point win over Vanderbilt in the First Four, then bounced blue-blood No. 6 Arizona from the Big Dance (pick’em spread) in the Round of 64 before losing out to No. 3 Miami the following game.

Overall, teams coming out of the First Four are 10-14 ATS in the Round of 64 since 2011, going just 6-18 SU. 

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