The Cougars got a little spring in their step with a comeback victory over Iona. Photo courtesy Al Behrman/AP

Thanks to the “First Four”, the NCAA tournament field has been trimmed down to the appropriate 64 teams for the bracket. Western Kentucky, BYU, Vermont, and South Florida are moving on to their regional sites and Mississippi Valley State, Iona, Lamar, and California have been sent home. So with this year’s edition of March Madness about to get underway FOR REAL today, here are four lessons the First Four taught us.

Tournament Experience Matters

How did Western Kentucky, a team with a LOSING record, get one step closer to — dare I say it — a national title by beating a fellow conference champion? The answer can be hard to find, especially in a game that was so ugly it was borderline unwatchable. But there is a trend that might provide some insight. Western Kentucky, along with BYU and Vermont, have been to the big dance before recently. Iona, Mississippi State, Lamar, and, yes, even California are relative newbies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those new to the big dance were sent home early.

I’m not saying tournament experience is the end-all be-all — if that’s the case Wichita State and Murray State have already lost today’s games — but it can be the difference maker between two evenly matched teams. In the case of Western Kentucky and BYU, their games came down to the wire. With only minutes left in the game, the liabilities of inexperience increase exponentially.

The Big East Could Be in for Big Redemption

Despite Connecticut winning it all last year, it’s fair to say that the overall performance by the Big East conference in last year’s tournament was abysmal. Accordingly, I was actually one of the biggest advocates of limiting the number of teams this supposed “power conference” got into the big dance. I was thrilled when the selection committee didn’t give them the ten some people thought were inevitable (sorry, Seton Hall), but I would’ve even gone as far as to kick out South Florida, too. Well, the Bulls proved me wrong with a solid victory over Cal last night.

USF’s opening win could be the precedent for a conference-wide rebound in this year’s tournament. In today’s first half of the first round, Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Connecticut are all in action. At the very least, the conference should walk away from those games 3-1 and Connecticut is good enough to pull the minor upset over Iowa State and sweep the board. The real bellwether test will come tomorrow when Georgetown faces Belmont. The Hoyas have an unfortunate habit of not making it out of the first round and Belmont has developed a bit of a reputation for being a giant-killer come March.

Iona will be sitting at home watching the first round after blowing a 25-point lead. Photo courtesy Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Iona is no VCU

When Iona’s name popped up on the bracket Sunday evening, everyone said, “Oh, they’re this year’s VCU.” I vehemently disagreed and the Gaels proved me right. After shooting out of the gates by scoring 55 points in the first 15 minute or so, Iona scored only 17 points in the remaining 25. In the process, the Gaels blew a 25-point lead and allowed the BYU Cougars to advance.

After VCU sent all the naysayers packing last year, the pundits were hesitant to jump down Iona’s throat. As it turns out, they probably should have. Despite a very respectable RPI, this was a team that beat absolutely no one special during the regular season. If you’re going to give a school an at-large #14 seed, I want to see the potential for them to be super-Cinderella’s. Iona never showed people that and it became evident a couple nights ago.

The Pac-12 is Dead

They had a good run, but this former basketball powerhouse of a conference is six feet under. That is, at least for a while. California appeared to be outclassed for much of their game last night against South Florida. Whether your argument is Cal didn’t deserve to be in the tournament or South Florida didn’t deserve being relegated to the First Four, one thing was clear: this conference is on its way to becoming about as competitive as the Southland.

Colorado, a Big 12 defector and Pac-12 champion, can still redeem the conference with a win tonight over UNLV, but I don’t see it happening. Sports Illustrated’s documentation of the downfall of UCLA was depressing, but it’s clear now that that degeneration is not isolated to one school. Depending on how things go, the Pac-12 may only get one school into the tournament next year.

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When Bryan isn’t studying bracketology, he is on twitter! Follow him @bclienesch!