Bracket Breakdown 2: First Four failures, plus Howard and VCU head West

The tournament tips off Tuesday night! Sort of.

From 1985 to 2000, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was a perfect bracket of 64 teams: four regions of 16 schools (or eight sub-regionals of eight teams apiece) playing two games on three consecutive weekends in pursuit of a national championship.

There was balance between automatic qualifiers and at-large schools and the buildup from Sunday night through Thursday at noon delivered anticipation and storylines like nothing else while letting everybody (teams, fans, media) ample time to get to the eight sites across the country.

Unfortunately, the split in the Western Athletic Conference (a 16-team league that expanded beyond its abilities to govern) created the Mountain West Conference and another automatic bid that the large schools didn’t want to take away from the at-large pool.

Solution: Add another game! For a while, there was an extra “opening round” game involving the lowest-rated automatic qualifiers and then a second one, like a cancerous appendix.

Ten years later, the bright minds at the NCAA turned the scaffolding into something more permanent titled “The First Four,” and turned Dayton into the appetizer for the Big Dance.

While I’m happy to see more schools, more athletes and more fans (along with more games) involved in March Madness and though Dayton puts on a great event, I still wish they’d have the extra schools head straight to the first and second round sites to be a part of the main bracket from the get-go. Especially the kids who might be making their only NCAA Tournament appearance.

Let them share the same stage as the bluebloods even if for only a day or two. It’s also easier on travel for everybody.

Howard (22-12, 11-3 MEAC) is dancing like it’s 1992! The Bison’s 65-64 win over Norfolk State in the MEAC Championship Game Saturday punched its first ticket to the NCAA Tournament since the Bush 41 administration — or since current head coach Kenny Blakeney was a freshman playing for eventual national champion Duke. And just like 1992, the Bison are a No. 16 seed and will battle Kansas in a Midwestern city beginning with D (subbing 1992’s Dayton for 2023’s Des Moines). I’m happy they’re in the main bracket (as opposed to the First Four) but recognize the incredible task ahead: No. 16 seeds have beaten a top seed just once (UMBC over Virginia in 2018) since the field was expanded to 64 schools in 1985. But just like David had a slingshot in his arsenal when he beat Goliath, the Bison have made 37.7% of their 3-pointers (25th best in Division I) and will likely need to be firing from long-range to keep pace with the defending national champs.

VCU (27-7, 15-3 Atlantic 10) makes the tournament for the 13th time this century, and they’ve done so under five different coaches. In fact in order to advance to this year’s field the Rams had to defeat Dayton and former VCU coach Anthony Grant (2006-09). They’re best known for the 2011 run from the First Four (as an at-large team) to the Final Four under then-coach Shaka Smart. Current coach Mike Rhoades employs a similar style to the havoc that tore through the bracket that year, ranking 24th nationally in scoring defense (62.9 points allowed per game). Their not-so-secret weapon this month? Senior sharp-shooter David Shriver, who’s hitting 53% from 3-point range in March. VCU draws No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s, a team that has lost just three times since Dec. 18: twice to West Coast Conference champ and perennial power Gonzaga and once in overtime at Loyola Marymount.

Checking out the rest of the West Regional, there’s plenty of star-power from the previously mentioned top seed Kansas to UCLA and Gonzaga. I’ve also seen more teams in this region in person (VCU, Illinois, UConn, Northwestern) than any other of the brackets, which will give me a false sense of security when breaking the West down:


Beware the schools that play in the First Four: In the 11 years of the Dayton Games one of the at large teams has advanced to the Round of 32, and five teams have gotten to the second weekend. Nevada (22-10) is the record-tying fifth school that coach Steve Alford has guided to the NCAA Tournament. But it’s Bobby Hurley whose (22-12) Sun Devils have successfully punched above their class twice in the last couple of weeks with upset wins at Arizona and USC on a neutral floor. Hurley’s also rather familiar with the First Four as this is the third time in six years he’s taken the Sun Devils to Dayton (does he get points at the hotel by now?). Look for ASU to cause some problems.


Northwestern (21-11) won a school-record 12 Big Ten games this winter and is back in the Big Dance for the second time in school history, while guard Boo Buie has game to match his name. But the Wildcats have lost four of five and have been somewhat offensively challenged (311th in scoring, 343rd in shooting, 294th from 3-point range) this winter. And while defense has been their calling card, they’re not that much better on that side of the floor than Boise State, who also boast multiple players who can stick the three.


One is tempted to take Kansas as the defending champs have been an elite team for the entire season, but more often than not, the weight of the crown proves to be too much in March (Duke is the only defending champ since 2014 to reach the second weekend). I’ve got the Jayhawks losing to UConn, a team that was ranked as high as No. 2 in December. Coach Danny Hurley’s team led the Big East in scoring defense while boasting two of the top three scorers in forward Adama Sanogo and guard Jordan Hawkins. The Huskies have also lost four games by a combined total of nine points since Jan. 15. One feels they’ll string together four wins over the next two weeks.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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