When the NCAA expanded its men’s basketball field of 64 tournament teams to 68 back in 2011, common logic dictated that the four teams that advanced out of the “First Four” — four play-in games, held annually in Dayton, Ohio, that are meant to whittle the eight least deserving tourney teams down to a quartet — would swiftly roll over in subsequent rounds.
Well, that hasn’t happened.
In the First Four’s inaugural season, Virginia Commonwealth marched all the way to the Final Four before falling to Gordon Hayward and the Butler Bulldogs. In 2021, First Four participant UCLA also made it to the Final Four before succumbing to another pack of Bulldogs, in the form of top-ranked Gonzaga. All in all, First Four teams — which are seeded no higher than 11th — have fared better in first-round tournament matchups than No. 9 seeds.
Is a Cinderella likely to emerge this week from the Dayton play-in? Maybe! Last month, Rutgers became the first team since the inception of the AP Top 25 to beat four consecutive ranked opponents after knocking off then-13th-ranked Michigan State, 16th-ranked Ohio State, 14th-ranked Wisconsin, and 12th-ranked Illinois. The Scarlet Knights also defeated another Big Ten rival, Purdue, when the Boilermakers were ranked No. 1 earlier in the season.
While people within the boundaries of New Jersey are barred from betting on Rutgers due to a prohibition on in-state college wagering, folks in other states with legal sports betting can have at it. To that end, here is a breakdown of each of the First Four contests (with seeds in parentheses), starting with a Texas-tinged tilt on Tuesday.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders (16) vs. Texas Southern Tigers (16), 6:40 p.m. ET
How they line up: Texas Southern is favored by a consensus 3.5 points. The best moneyline value on A&M is +146 at FanDuel, while the over/under ranges between 136 and 137 at most major sportsbooks.
How they got here: The 23-11 Islanders pulled off an upset to win the Southland Conference tournament as a No. 4 seed, while the Tigers earned the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s automatic bid, blowing out top-seeded Alcorn State to punch a ticket to Dayton.
Key players: The Tigers boast a balanced, 10-man rotation, with eight players averaging more than 6 points and none averaging in double figures. (Senior forward John Walker III, who is old enough to legally consume his namesake Scotch, paces Southern with 9.9 points per game.) Meanwhile, the Islanders are led by Congo native Isaac Mushila, who averages 13.5 ppg and 9.5 rebounds per game despite standing just 6-foot-5.
Fun fact: According to Texas A&M-CC’s website, the Gulf Coast school is “the only university in the nation located on its own island.”
Indiana Hoosiers (12) vs. Wyoming Cowboys (12), 9:10 p.m. ET
How they line up: Indiana is a consensus 4-point favorite, with BetMGM (Hoosiers -3.5) a slight outlier. The best moneyline offering for the Cowboys is +155 at both Caesars and DraftKings, while the over/under ranges from 132 to 133 at most major sportsbooks.
How they got here: Both are at-large selections. Seeded 9th in the loaded Big Ten, the 20-13 Hoosiers upset both Michigan and top-seeded Illinois to advance to the semifinals of the conference tournament, where they fell by 3 points to Iowa, the tourney’s eventual victor.
Similarly, the 25-8 Cowboys fell in the semifinals of their conference tournament to eventual tourney champ Boise State. They finished the season fourth in the Mountain West, which “has to be pleased getting four teams into the tournament,” said Westgate SuperBook executive Jay Kornegay.
“Wyoming snuck in there, and they have to be thrilled even though they’re in the First Four,” said Kornegay, who attended Colorado State, another Mountain West tourney entrant. “Indiana won’t be a great matchup for the Cowboys, but it depends on which Indiana team shows. Will it be the team that lost seven of nine at the end of the season or the team that played in the Big Ten tourney? Overall, the MWC could use some tournament wins.”
Key players: The Cowboys’ top-heavy attack features a pair of studs in sophomore forward Graham Ike, who leads the team in scoring (19.6 ppg) and rebounds (9.6 rpg), and top assist man (6.3 per game) Hunter Maldonado, a 6-foot-7 do-it-all senior who was All-Mountain West first team. (Ike made the second team.)
Forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who leads the Hoosiers in both scoring (18.1) and rebounds (8.2) while shooting a stellar 59% from the field, went off for 31 points on 15-21 shooting in the March 12 loss to Iowa. Frontcourt mate Race Thompson (11.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg) also puts the ball in the hoop at an efficient clip (55.4%).
Fun fact: While the classic coming-of-age sports film Breaking Away is based on Indiana University’s famous intramural bicycle race, the Little 500, there was not an actual team of townie “Cutters” until the film inspired its formation.
Bryant Bulldogs (16) vs. Wright State Raiders (16), 6:40 p.m. ET
How they line up: Located in Dayton, Wright State is the hometown favorite in this matchup, with their point spread ranging from -2.5 at BetMGM to -3.5 at DraftKings and WynnBET. DraftKings is offering the fattest moneyline odds (+145) on Bryant to win straight up, while the over/under is a consensus 154.5.
How they got here: Entering the Horizon League tournament as a No. 4 seed, 21-13 Wright State punched its ticket to the Dance when junior guard Trey Calvin his a free-throw line jumper with 10 seconds left to defeat third-seeded Northern Kentucky by a score of 72-71.
Meanwhile, the 22-9 Bulldogs, who hail from Rhode Island, won both the Northeast Conference’s regular season and tournament championships to nab an automatic bid. They carry a seven-game winning streak onto a court that figures to be anything but neutral on Wednesday.
Key players: While Calvin, who averages 14.3 points and 3.3 assists per game, anchors the Raiders’ backcourt, Wright State is paced by juniors Tanner Holden (19.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Grant Basile (18.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and leans on its starters for heavy minutes.
As for Bryant, senior guard Peter Kiss leads the team with 25 ppg. If Bill Raftery winds up calling one of the Bulldogs’ games, the odds on a “Kiss with a little kiss” utterance will be off the board.
Fun fact: In keeping with the name game, the Bulldogs have a backup guard on their roster named Chris Childs (no relation to the ex-Knick), and their leading rebounder is a 6’4” guard by the name of Charles Pride (no relation to the late, great country star and ex-Negro Leaguer).
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11) vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11), 9:10 p.m. ET
How they line up: The Fighting Irish are consensus 1-point favorites in this battle of major-conference also-rans, while the over/under ranges from 131.5 at BetMGM and FanDuel to 133 at WynnBET. For those looking to get some dough down on the underdog Scarlet Knights on the moneyline, WynnBET offers the most accommodating action at +100.
How they got here: It’s a testament to the ACC’s off year that the conference’s second-place regular season finisher barely made the tournament, but 22-10 Notre Dame slid into an at-large bid after losing 87-80 to surprise champion Virginia Tech in the first round of the ACC tourney. Rutgers, which finished 12-8 in the Big Ten and 18-13 overall, also lost in the first round of its conference tournament to a surprise champion in Iowa, which finished with the same conference record as the Scarlet Knights.
Key players: What’s in a name? When you’re Ron Harper Jr., a lot. The son of the five-time NBA champion and Miami-Ohio star, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Junior is built more thickly than his pop, and leads the Scarlet Knights in scoring at 15.6 ppg. The Irish, meanwhile, are led by steady senior forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and South Bend, Indiana, native Blake Wesley (14.6 ppg), who’s averaging 14.6 points per game in his freshman campaign.
Fun fact: Former presidential candidate and current U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg enjoyed his first date with his future husband, Chasten, at an Irish pub in South Bend (where Notre Dame is located and Pete used to be mayor) called the Fiddler’s Hearth. There, they fell in love over Scotch eggs and beer before taking in a minor-league baseball game, thus reducing to rubble stereotypes about what gay men do on dates.