– They don’t even get their own line in the bracket. They have to share one with another team, separated by a forward slash. Either or.

Eight teams vying for four spots — and their own line — in the NCAA tournament bracket. Technically, they already are in the tournament, but they begin with a quirky soft launch before the grand party really commences.

For many college basketball fans, the road to the Final Four in Minneapolis starts with Thursday’s morning-to-midnight slate of first-round games. In actuality, the journey started here Tuesday night with what the NCAA calls the “First Four.”

Two games Tuesday, two more Wednesday with the winners advancing into the full bracket, either as No. 11 or No. 16 seeds.

Fans filling out brackets probably skip right over them without much thought because the eight teams in Dayton were the last four automatic bids and the last four at-large bids.

Basically, long shots competing in play-in games as a warmup act to March Madness.

“Obviously some people would look at it as not the most ideal situation,” Arizona State forward Zylan Cheatham said. “But we find positive in every situation.”

Why not? Teams advancing from the First Four routinely win their second game. In 2011, Virginia Commonwealth rode a hot start all the way to the Final Four.

Who knows, maybe lightning will strike again with a First Four entrant pulling upsets all the way to Minneapolis. Of course, one winner has to play Duke, another draws Gonzaga. So …

“Right now we’re worried about North Carolina Central,” said North Dakota State guard Vinnie Shahid, a former Hopkins star who would face No. 1 Duke if the Bison win Wednesday.

The tournament has started in Dayton every year since 2001 when the NCAA expanded the field to 65 teams with a play-in game. The First Four brainchild occurred as the field ballooned to 68 teams in 2011.

Dayton has a long-standing relationship with the tournament and will play host to the First Four until at least 2022 when the contract expires. This likely will become a permanent site.

The city and NCAA create a setting here that is similar to other tournament sites. There are March Madness banners everywhere, police escorts for teams, practices open to the public, national TV. Organizers roll out the red carpet — literally. Players stepped on a red carpet as they exited their bus.

“I thought that was neat,” Temple center Ernest Aflakpui said.

Disappointment is not an emotion on display for those sent here. This is still the NCAA tournament, after all. Prairie View A&M made it for the first time since 1998. Coach Byron Smith described his players’ reaction as “surreal.”

“I keep seeing them kind of pinch each other a little bit,” Smith said, “and pinching themselves, saying, ‘Is this really happening?’”

The Panthers didn’t look overwhelmed by the moment Tuesday night. They made 15 three-pointers and led by 13 points, but Fairleigh Dickinson rode its superior size and talented backcourt to an 82-76 victory in Game 1 of the tournament.

The comeback gave the Knights their first tournament victory in program history. The reward: a late-night flight to Salt Lake City to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Thursday.

“It’s overwhelming,” coach Greg Herenda said.

Belmont recorded its first NCAA tournament victory as well, 81-70 over Temple, validating the selection committee’s decision to give a mid-major program an at-large bid, which doesn’t happen very often.

The First Four allows smaller programs a better opportunity to win a tournament game before advancing as a lower seed. For others, especially at-large teams from power conferences, the First Four represents a second chance after nearly being left out completely and relegated to the NIT.

“Send us anywhere,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “It’s the NCAA tournament.”

Hurley played on much larger stages as an All-America point guard and a national champion at Duke. He is making his second consecutive appearance in the First Four as Sun Devils coach; last year, Arizona State lost to Syracuse 60-56.

“Maybe I should go and meet with a realtor and maybe look to buy a house here because I’m here a couple of years now,” he joked.

St. John’s was the last team put in the tournament, No. 68, a label that Red Storm coach Chris Mullin said “truly does not matter.”

Mullin is a legendary figure at St. John’s, leading his school to the 1985 Final Four as a player. He is in his fourth season as coach and making his debut in the tournament in that role.

Mullin and his players had to sweat out Selection Sunday, unsure if they would get in. They were grateful to see their name in the First Four.

“Watching those kids, like that authentic explosion of emotion,” Mullin said. “I was in the back and just to watch that, that was a new experience for me at 55. So that was cool.”

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com