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NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Play-In Game

The Opening Round game, (formerly known as the Play-In Game) of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship is the first game of the tournament, played between the two last-seeded (i.e. 64th and 65th) teams. The winner of the game is then given a #16 seed and plays one of the #1 seeds that plays on the opening Friday in the first round of the tournament (to give the #16 seed an extra day of rest). To date, no winner of the play-in game has gone on to defeat the #1 seed in the next game. In fact, no #16 seed has beaten a #1 seed at all, including the ones that didn't have to play in the extra game.

The game was first played in 2001, when the Mountain West Conference, which had split from the Western Athletic Conference in 1999, received an automatic bid for the first time. Under NCAA rules, a new conference must serve a two-year probationary period before receiving an automatic bid to the tournament. Once the Mountain West Conference received its own bid (the WAC retained its bid), the number of teams in the field increased from 64 to 65, requiring one team to be eliminated before the tournament entered its traditional 64-team bracket format. The NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Championship accommodated this change by eliminating an at-large bid, decreasing from 34 to 33, rather than adopting the opening round game.

Although analysts’ initial reactions to the concept were skeptical, the first game, played on March 13, 2001, was a success, and few complaints have been heard since. One reason for these positive comments is the fact that the game is played on a Tuesday night, during which no other games are played (the first round of the tournament starts the following Thursday). Thus, the opening round game assumes a greater prominence than most first-round games, both to the viewing public and to scouts. Recently, Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim has advocated for an expansion of the tournament from 65 to 76 teams, which would include 4 opening round games for all of the 16th and possibly opening round games for the 15th seeded teams too. The expansion of play in games faces logistical challenges and lukewarm acceptance from NCAA President Myles Brand and the corporate and media partners of the NCAA.

The opening round game has also been criticized as a handicap for teams among the historically black colleges and universities. In all but one of the games played so far, one of the teams has been an HBCU. However, it should be noted that the two conferences which are made up of HBCUs, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference, are often two of the lowest-rated conferences in the RPI. This has caused some opponents of the opening round game to suggest that the game should be between the last two teams to make the field (i.e. the final two at-large teams) rather than the 64th and 65th place teams.

The game is traditionally played at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. It is not included in CBS coverage of the tournament. Since 2002, the game has been aired on ESPN. The 2001 game aired on TNN, now known as Spike TV.

Opening Round or Play-In Game

The reason the game is not officially referred to as a "play-in" is because the two teams are officially in the tournament before the game is played. As recently as 1991, the NCAA has conducted play-in games (usually between champions of what were considered to be the weakest conferences) prior to the announcement of the brackets; the losers were not considered to have been in the tournament. Note that the loser of the current opening round game is still credited with a tournament appearance for purposes of sharing in the NCAA basketball contract revenues, while the winner receives a share for being in the round of 64.

CNN/Sports Illustrated uses the popular term "play in game" in their coverage of the tournament, while ESPN uses the official "opening round" term.


Year Date Winner Loser #1 Seed Faced
2001 March 13 Northwestern State 71 Winthrop 67 Illinois
2002 March 12 Siena 81 Alcorn State 77 Maryland
2003 March 18 UNC Asheville 92 Texas Southern 84 Texas
2004 March 16 Florida A&M 72 Lehigh 57 Kentucky
2005 March 15 Oakland 79 Alabama A&M 69 North Carolina
2006 March 14 Monmouth 71 Hampton 49 Villanova
2007 March 13 Niagara 77 Florida A&M 69 Kansas
2008 March 18 Mount St. Mary's 69 Coppin State 60 North Carolina

Appearances by conference

Conference Appearances
Big South 2
Northeast Conference 2
Patriot League 1
Southland Conference 1
Summit League 1
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