March Madness is a term used to describe the excitement surrounding the NCAA1 Division I Men's Basketball Championship. March Madness starts in the first week of March with individual conference tournaments, continues with the beginning of the championship tournament, and despite the name, ends in the first week of April with the championship game.
The championship tournament arguably produces more thrilling moments than any other major American sports championship. 64 teams qualify for the tournament, and unlike the championships for professional baseball, basketball, and hockey, the college basketball tournament is a single-elimination affair. The first time a team loses in the tournament, it is eliminated. In the professional baseball, basketball, and hockey championships, teams can lose several times in each round and still win the tournament.
A Brief History of the NCAA Championship
The first national championship tournament was held in 1939, with only eight teams participating. The final game was played in Evanston, Illinois, where Oregon defeated Ohio State. The championship game was not televised until 1946, when an estimated 500,000 people saw Oklahoma A&M2 defeat North Carolina in the tournament's first overtime final. This first broadcast was only seen in the New York City area, where the final was played. In 1951, the tournament expanded to 16 teams, and two years later it grew to 22 teams. The final game was televised nationwide for the first time in 1954, with La Salle defeating Bradley.
In 1964, UCLA won the tournament for the first time in school history. This started a stretch where UCLA won 10 times in 12 years, including seven years in a row. With stars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Gail Goodrich, UCLA is the most dominating team in the history of the tournament.
By 1973, NBC was televising the tournament final, and for the first time the final was broadcast on prime time television and radio. This led to the largest audience up to that point, estimated at 39 million people. The tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975, and one year later Indiana beat Michigan in the first ever final game between two teams from the same conference.
The number of teams participating was increased again in 1979, this time to 40. That year produced one of the most memorable final games, as Ervin 'Magic' Johnson and Michigan State defeated Larry Bird and Indiana State. By 1982 there were 48 teams competing for the championship, and this was the year that Michael Jordan became a star. Jordan hit the winning shot despite only being a freshman, as North Carolina defeated Georgetown. In 1985 the tournament expanded one last time, to 64 teams, and Villanova beat Georgetown in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
In 1994, Bill Clinton became the first sitting US president to attend a tournament game, and he saw his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks defeat Duke in the championship game.
An Overview of Division I
Division I is the highest level of competition in NCAA sports. There are 310 teams in Men's Division I Basketball, and most compete in one of 31 conferences spread out across the USA3. Some of the bigger conferences include the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big East, the South-eastern Conference (SEC), the Big Ten4, the Big 12, and the Pacific-10 (PAC-10). Conference teams typically play teams from other conferences during the early part of the season, and then play the rest of their games against fellow conference members. Most conferences also hold a post-season tournament.
March Madness kicks off with the conference tournaments held during the first two weeks of March. Every conference has its own single elimination post-season tournament, with the exception of the PAC-10 and Ivy League. The winner of each tournament is declared the conference champion, and receives the conference's automatic invitation to the championship tournament. Because the PAC-10 and Ivy League conferences do not have post-season tournaments, their champions are the teams with the best regular-season conference records.
Selecting the Tournament Field
64 teams are selected for the tournament. Of these, 30 are given automatic invitations by winning their conference championships. If there are 31 conferences5, the champion of the lowest rated conference does not receive an automatic invitation.
The remaining 34 teams are considered 'at-large' teams and are selected by a hopelessly complex process which has never been adequately explained to the public. Teams generally receive at-large invitations based on their overall record and their RPI6. But the selection committee will also consider a team's record against top-ranked teams, its record in its past ten games, its record against both conference and non-conference teams, and much more. The committee will even take injuries into account.
If you would like to know more about the selection process, check out the selection committee's Principles and Procedures for Establishing the 64-Team Bracket. It will explain the entire process, assuming you can finish reading it and still remember your own name.
Once the 64 teams have been chosen, the selection committee must determine who will play whom in the first round, as well as in each successive round. This is where the tournament bracket comes into play. The bracket is split into four regions: East, South, Midwest, and West7. 16 teams are placed in each region and given a rank, known as a 'seed'8. A number one seed is given to the best team in each region, a number two seed is given to the second best team, and so on through to number 16 seed. Somewhat paradoxically, the best teams are given low numbers and referred to as the 'high seeds'.
In the first round, each number one seed plays a number 16 seed, each number two seed plays a number 15 seed, and so on. Assuming the higher ranked team wins each game, in the second round the number one seed would play number eight, number two would play number seven, and so on. If the highest ranked team were to win every game, the four number one seeds would meet in the final two rounds of the tournament.
Every sport has its share of wagering, and college basketball is no exception. The tournament bracket has a special place in sports betting. It can be found in a large percentage of American offices and dorm rooms, as friends and co-workers pay a fee for a chance to win cash. Prior to the start of the tournament, each participant selects a winner for every game through the championship game. The rules vary from contest to contest, but usually points are awarded for each correct pick, and the later rounds are worth more points. It can be hard enough to decide that team X will beat team Y, but trying to decide if team X will win three games before losing to team Z can be maddening. If you want people to think you know something about college basketball, just ask them if they have filled out their bracket yet.
To see what a completed bracket looks like, check out the 1999 Division I Men's Championship Bracket.
The First Two Rounds
The first and second rounds of the tournament are played in eight cities, with each city hosting four first round games and two second round games. The first round is generally the most unpredictable, as upsets are very commonplace. Both rounds can include some of the best games of the tournament, especially when a powerful, highly-seeded team gets all it can handle from a supposedly weaker team. However, some of the worst games can also be played in the first two rounds - often the highly seeded team will beat the weaker team by 40 or 50 points.
Despite all the upsets that occur in the first two rounds, the four top teams are almost certain to advance to the second round. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, a number 16 seed has yet to beat a number one seed. However, there have been a few close calls, the closest of which came in 1989. Number one Georgetown barely hung on to defeat number 16 Princeton 50 - 49 when Alonzo Mourning blocked two shots in the final six seconds.
The Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight
The third and fourth rounds of the tournament are played in four cities, with each city hosting two third round games and one fourth round game. The third round is technically called the regional semi-finals, because at that point there are four teams left in each of the four regions. However, it is more often referred to as the Sweet Sixteen, because there are 16 teams left in the tournament.
The fourth round is the regional finals, often called the Elite Eight. Usually by the time the regional finals are played, the lower-seeded teams have been eliminated. Occasionally a number eight or nine seed will survive this long, but usually the final eight teams have seeds between one and five9. The winner of each regional advances to the Final Four.
The Final Four
The Final Four has become a major event on the American sports scene, rivalling the Super Bowl and World Series. The last four teams remaining in the tournament come together in one city for three games. The semi-finals are played on Saturday, and the championship game is played on Monday night.
On Tuesday everyone goes home, hoping the next eleven months will pass quickly and it will be time for March Madness again.