The NCAA added the “First Four” to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, expanding the tournament field from 64 to 68 by adding two play-in games in Dayton for the final four at-large teams to make the Big Dance.
Traditionalists cringed, but ultimately, the First Four was an immediate success, as VCU emerged from Dayton to make a run to the Final Four. Since then, 11-seed Tennessee made the Sweet Sixteen in 2014, 12-seed South Florida upset 5-seed Temple and at least one “First Four” team has advanced in every year.
Who could make a similar run this season? Look out for Wake Forest.
Exceeding expectations all season, the Demon Deacons are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 as a giant mystery.
Nobody is claiming Wake Forest is one of the top teams in college basketball (the Demon Deacons are in the First Four for a reason), but they are underseeded. According to KenPom.com, which ranks teams by a more advanced metrics than the NCAA selection committee seems to use (KenPom includes margin of victory, for example), Wake Forest is actually the 30th-best team in the country, meaning it should really be around the 7-8-9-seed range, give or take.
The Demon Deacons have had some close losses—by six at Duke, by two against Duke at home, by six against North Carolina, by seven at Northwestern and by seven at Notre Dame—which hurt their resume, but showed they could play with those teams if needed. The NCAA selection committee apparently sees a 30-point loss the same as a two-point loss, but we know that Wake Forest can perform better than the NCAA’s bad math implies.
According to KenPom, Wake’s defense ranks 159th in the country, leaving a lot to be desired, but the offense is nationally elite, ranking eighth in the country. Star center John Collins has an incredibly efficient offensive rating of 124.2, and is capable of taking over a game.
Statistically, Cincinnati, (which awaits the winner of Wake/Kansas State) is only slightly better than Wake Forest—22nd vs. 30th in KenPom—and Collins has the ability to rebound against the tough rebounding Bearcats, which could help negate Cincy’s strength inside. After that, Wake would likely face high-flying UCLA, in what could be an epic shootout. The path to the Elite Eight could then include Kentucky, which doesn’t shoot well—that provides a unique opportunity for the Wake’s efficient offense.
No First Four team is likely to go on a run, of course. It’s far more likely that Wake Forest’s defense gets them in trouble and they loses in the first round. However, this team has improved all season, and it’s proven that it can play with some of the best teams in the country. Combined with a deadly offense and being underseeded by the committee, and the Demon Deacons could be the Final Four value pick that shocks the world out of the First Four once again.