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In American sports, the final four is the last four teams remaining in a playoff tournament. Usually the final four compete in the two games of a single-elimination tournament's semi-final (penultimate) round. Of these teams, the two who win in the semi-final round play another single-elimination game whose winner is the tournament champion. In some tournaments, the two teams that lose in the semi-final round compete for third place in a consolation game.
The term "final four" is most often used in the United States and in sports heavily influenced by that country; elsewhere, only the term "semi-finals" is in common use. "Final four" first appeared in print in a 1975 article for the Official Collegiate Basketball Guide, whose author Ed Chay was a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Chay stated that the Marquette basketball team "was one of the final four" during the previous season's tournament. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) pioneered the term and later trademarked it.
The oldest and most common use of the term is in reference to the final four teams in the annual NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. Each Final Four team is the regional champion from the East, South, Midwest, or West regions of the tournament. (Other region names have been used, such as "Mideast" replacing South, or "Southeast" and "Southwest" replacing South and Midwest.) The teams travel from the four separate sites of their regional rounds to a common venue for the Final Four. In the men's basketball tournament, a team must win either four or five consecutive rounds (games) to qualify for the Final Four. The four teams are matched against each other on the last Saturday of the tournament. The two winners emerge to play in the national championship game two nights later, traditionally on Monday evening. The same concept is used for the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament (which has a Friday/Sunday semifinal/final scheduling to not conflict with the men's tourney). Because most teams in the men's, and all teams in the women's tournament begin play from a field of 64, each team must win four games to qualify for the Final Four.
The NCAA also uses "Final Four" for other sports besides basketball, such as the Men's and Women's Volleyball Championship. For ice hockey tournaments, the NCAA uses a variation of the term: the "Frozen Four".
Because the term is now a registered trademark of the NCAA in the U.S., no other organizations in that country can use the phrase to refer to their tournaments. Organizations in other countries may officially do so. Many basketball organizations outside the U.S. use the term for the semifinal and final rounds of their tournaments such as the FIBA Americas League (FIBA Americas League Final 4), the EuroLeague (EuroLeague Final Four), the Champions League (Champions League Final Four), the Israeli Premier League, and the University Athletic Association of the Philippines. The CEV Champions League in volleyball also uses "Final Four" for its final rounds.
- Koerner, Brendan (March 18, 2004). "Why Is It Called "March Madness"?". Slate.com. Slate. Retrieved March 9, 2016.
- Lubinger, Bill (March 14, 2011). "Interested in making some profit from the Final Four? That's just March Madness (for your lawyers)". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved March 9, 2016.
Was a mere passing reference by Ed Chay, the late Plain Dealer sportswriter, in a story he wrote on page 5 of the 1975 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide. 'Outspoken Al McGuire of Marquette, whose team was one of the final four in Greensboro, was among several coaches who said it was good for college basketball that UCLA was finally beaten,' Chay wrote. 'Final Four' was first capitalized in the NCAA's 1978 basketball guide.
- Irene Klotz (2011-07-21). "NASA's 'Final Four' astronauts close out shuttle era". Reuters.
- Seth Borenstein (2011-07-22). "Crowd to NASA's 'Final Four' astronauts: Welcome Home". Associated Press via MSNBC.