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Daniel Wilco | | January 23, 2019

NCAA bracket university: March Madness explained and our best picking tips

Welcome to March Madness University, where we'll teach you absolutely everything you need to know about the NCAA men's basketball tournament ahead of March.

Here's what we'll cover in this course (click any to jump ahead to that lesson):

1: The tournament itself
2: How to play a bracket game
3: Bracket picking tips
4: March Madness history

We've written dozens of articles on all of these topics, so here we will include short summaries of the most important points, then link out to full articles on each topic for out-of-class reading.

Lesson 1: The tournament itself

What is March Madness?

The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is a single-elimination tournament of 68 teams that compete in seven rounds for the national championship. The penultimate round is known as the Final Four, when only (you guessed it) four teams are left. The first NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament was in 1939, and it has been held every year since.

How has the tournament changed since 1939?

The tournament had a field of only eight teams in its first year, and expanded multiple times over the next few decades until 1985, when the modern format of a 64-team tournament began. 

How are the teams selected?

There are two ways that a team can earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. The 32 Division I conferences all receive an automatic bid, which they each award to the team that wins the postseason conference tournament. Regardless of how a team performed during the regular season, if they are eligible for postseason play and win their conference tournament, they receive a bid to the NCAA tournament. These teams are known as automatic qualifiers.

The second avenue for an invitation is an at-large bid. The selection committee (more on them in a second) convenes on Selection Sunday, after all regular season and conference tournament games are played, and decides which 36 teams that are not automatic qualifiers have the pedigree to earn an invitation to the tournament.

ADDITIONAL READING: What is the March Madness selection committee?

When is 2019’s March Madness?

Here is the full schedule for 2019's NCAA tournament:

March Madness 2019 dates and schedule
Selection Sunday N/A March 17
First Four Dayton, OH March 19-20
1st/2nd Rounds Hartford, CT March 21/23
1st/2nd Rounds Salt Lake City, UT March 21/23
1st/2nd Rounds Des Moines, IA March 21/23
1st/2nd Rounds Jacksonville, FL March 21/23
1st/2nd Rounds Tulsa, OK March 22/24
1st/2nd Rounds Columbus, OH March 22/24
1st/2nd Rounds Columbia, SC March 22/24
1st/2nd Rounds San Jose, CA March 22/24
South Regional Louisville, KY March 28/30
West Regional Anaheim, CA March 28/30
East Regional Washington, D.C. March 29/31
Midwest Regional Kansas City, MO March 29/31
Final Four, National Championship Minneapolis, MN April 6/8

RELATED: Final Four tickets: Prices and everything else you need to know

How to watch March Madness:

Every single March Madness game will be broadcast on either TBS, TNT, TruTV or CBS. You can also stream every game on March Madness Live. We'll post the full schedule here when it is available.

ADDITIONAL READING: To learn more about the tournament, read our complete breakdown here 

Lesson 2: How to play a bracket game

What is a bracket game?

The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament starts with a bracket of 64 teams. Before the games begin, you can try your hand at predicting the winner for each one of the 63 games. Your methodology is entirely up to you, whether that's taking a deep dive into the statistics, flipping a coin, or having your dog make picks for you. 

Then, sit back and watch the madness unfold as you revel in victory, or witness your bracket get busted before the first weekend.

As the games progress, you’ll get points for every winner you picked correctly. Those points increase every round (games in the second round are worth twice as much as games in the first round, and so on). At the end of the tournament, the player in each group with the most points wins that group.

How to play a March Madness bracket game

You can sign up for the Bracket Challenge Game here.

You'll be notified when the game goes live in March.

Important bracket game dates:

  • Today: Sign up!

    • You can sign up for the Bracket Challenge Game right now. Visit this site and enter your email. You’ll receive an email reminder at all important dates, including as soon as brackets go live in March.
  • Sunday, March 17: Selection Sunday

    • On this day, the selection committee will reveal the 68 teams that made the tournament’s field and the final bracket. Once that is announced, brackets will open up for picking for the first time.
  • Thursday, March 21: First round starts

    • The first games of the tournament’s first round will start on this day. At 12:00 p.m. ET, right before the first games tip off, bracket picking will lock, and you won’t be able to change any picks in your bracket for the remainder of the tournament. Don’t get caught with an incomplete bracket before then.
  • Monday, April 8: Championship game

    • The national championship game will be played this night. Once it is over, the tournament will be complete, and the scores for the bracket challenge game will be final. 

Lesson 3: Bracket picking tips

Tips for picking your bracket

Here is a list of suggested reading for how to make the most informed bracket picks:

What are the odds of a perfect bracket?

That’s tough to say exactly, but we'll get two things out of the way quickly. One, no one has ever filled out a verifiably perfect bracket in the history of the modern NCAA tournament. Two, no one likely ever will, because the odds are infinitesimally small. So astronomically small that in reality they're practically zero. Let's take a look.

Virtually all NCAA tournament brackets disregard the First Four and only pick games starting with the first round. Since there are 64 teams in those brackets, the most basic calculation is the number of possible outcomes for 63 games picked randomly. That would be 2 (the number of potential winners for each game) to the 63rd power (the number of games in the bracket). More simply, that's 2 times 2, 63 times, which is equal to roughly 9.2 quintillion. But that's an oversimplification, only accurate if every game was a coin flip. For a more in-depth explanation, check out this story:

ADDITIONAL READING: The absurd odds of a perfect NCAA tournament bracket put into perspective

So, what is the greatest bracket we know of? 

We looked at millions of brackets from the largest online bracket games to find the longest a verifiable bracket had gone undefeated, and the best we have found went an incredible 39 games before getting one wrong. That’s ridiculous, but it’s still just 61.9 percent of the way to a perfect bracket.

In 2018, the best bracket in our Capital One Bracket Challenge Game — out of millions of entries — picked 51 of 63 games correctly, for a percentage of 80.95.

In the eight years that we’ve run a bracket game, the best we’ve ever seen is 54 picks (85.7 percent accuracy), which happened in both 2015 and 2017.

Here’s the breakdown for the winning brackets every year in our bracket challenge game, with the number of games correctly picked compare to the number of games per round:

Year First round Second round Sweet 16 Elite Eight Final Four Championship
2018 27/32 12/16 6/8 3/4 2/2 1/1
2017 28/32 13/16 6/8 4/4 2/2 1/1
2016 25/32 11/16 7/8 4/4 2/2 1/1
2015 25/32 15/16 7/8 4/4 2/2 1/1
2014 25/32 11/16 6/8 4/4 2/2 1/1
2013 22/32 12/16 7/8 3/4 2/2 1/1
2012 23/32 12/16 7/8 3/4 2/2 1/1
2011 25/32 10/16 5/8 2/4 2/2 1/1

    Lesson 4: March Madness history

    Where did the phrase “March Madness” come from?

    March Madness was first used to refer to basketball by an Illinois high school official, Henry V. Porter, in 1939, but the term didn’t find its way to the NCAA tournament until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger (who used to be a sportswriter in Chicago) used it during coverage of the 1982 tournament. The term has been synonymous with the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament ever since.

    ADDITIONAL READING: March Madness history ultimate guide

    Who has won every NCAA tournament?

    In the 80 years since the tournament’s inception, 35 different teams have won a championship, but no team has won more than UCLA, which has 11, 10 of which came a span of 12 years from 1964 to 1975.

    Here is the list of every men’s basketball national championship since the NCAA tournament first started in 1939:

    2018 Villanova (36-4) Jay Wright 79-62 Michigan San Antonio, Tex.
    2017 North Carolina (33-7) Roy Williams 71-65 Gonzaga Phoenix, Ariz.
    2016 Villanova (35-5) Jay Wright 77-74 North Carolina Houston, Texas
    2015 Duke (35-4) Mike Krzyzewski 68-63 Wisconsin Indianapolis, Ind.
    2014 Connecticut (32-8) Kevin Ollie 60-54 Kentucky Arlington, Texas
    2013 Louisville (35-5)* Rick Pitino 82-76 Michigan Atlanta, Ga.
    2012 Kentucky (38-2) John Calipari 67-59 Kansas New Orleans, La.
    2011 Connecticut (32-9) Jim Calhoun 53-41 Butler Houston, Texas
    2010 Duke (35-5) Mike Krzyzewski 61-59 Butler Indianapolis, Ind.
    2009 North Carolina (34-4) Roy Williams 89-72 Michigan State Detroit, Mich.
    2008 Kansas (37-3) Bill Self 75-68 (OT) Memphis San Antonio, Texas
    2007 Florida (35-5) Billy Donovan 84-75 Ohio State Atlanta, Ga.
    2006 Florida (33-6) Billy Donovan 73-57 UCLA Indianapolis, Ind.
    2005 North Carolina (33-4) Roy Williams 75-70 Illinois St. Louis, Mo.
    2004 Connecticut (33-6) Jim Calhoun 82-73 Georgia Tech San Antonio, Texas
    2003 Syracuse (30-5) Jim Boeheim 81-78 Kansas New Orleans, La.
    2002 Maryland (32-4) Gary Williams 64-52 Indiana Atlanta, Ga.
    2001 Duke (35-4) Mike Krzyzewski 82-72 Arizona Minneapolis, Minn.
    2000 Michigan State (32-7) Tom Izzo 89-76 Florida Indianapolis, Ind.
    1999 Connecticut (34-2) Jim Calhoun 77-74 Duke St. Petersburg, Fla.
    1998 Kentucky (35-4) Tubby Smith 78-69 Utah San Antonio, Texas
    1997 Arizona (25-9) Lute Olson 84-79 (OT) Kentucky Indianapolis, Ind.
    1996 Kentucky (34-2) Rick Pitino 76-67 Syracuse East Rutherford, N.J.
    1995 UCLA (31-2) Jim Harrick 89-78 Arkansas Seattle, Wash.
    1994 Arkansas (31-3) Nolan Richardson 76-72 Duke Charlotte, N.C.
    1993 North Carolina (34-4) Dean Smith 77-71 Michigan New Orleans, La.
    1992 Duke (34-2) Mike Krzyzewski 71-51 Michigan Minneapolis, Minn.
    1991 Duke (32-7) Mike Krzyzewski 72-65 Kansas Indianapolis, Ind.
    1990 UNLV (35-5) Jerry Tarkanian 103-73 Duke Denver, Colo.
    1989 Michigan (30-7) Steve Fisher 80-79 (OT) Seton Hall Seattle, Wash.
    1988 Kansas (27-11) Larry Brown 83-79 Oklahoma Kansas City, Mo.
    1987 Indiana (30-4) Bob Knight 74-73 Syracuse New Orleans, La.
    1986 Louisville (32-7) Denny Crum 72-69 Duke Dallas, Texas
    1985 Villanova (25-10) Rollie Massimino 66-64 Georgetown Lexington, Ky,
    1984 Georgetown (34-3) John Thompson 84-75 Houston Seattle, Wash.
    1983 North Carolina State (26-10) Jim Valvano 54-52 Houston Albuquerque, N.M.
    1982 North Carolina (32-2) Dean Smith 63-62 Georgetown New Orleans, La.
    1981 Indiana (26-9) Bob Knight 63-50 North Carolina Philadelphia, Pa.
    1980 Louisville (33-3) Denny Crum 59-54 UCLA Indianapolis, Ind.
    1979 Michigan State (26-6) Jud Heathcote 75-64 Indiana State Salt Lake City, Utah
    1978 Kentucky (30-2) Joe Hall 94-88 Duke St. Louis, Mo.
    1977 Marquette (25-7) Al McGuire 67-59 North Carolina Atlanta, Ga.
    1976 Indiana (32-0) Bob Knight 86-68 Michigan Philadelphia, Pa.
    1975 UCLA (28-3) John Wooden 92-85 Kentucky San Diego, Calif.
    1974 North Carolina State (30-1) Norm Sloan 76-64 Marquette Greensboro, N.C.
    1973 UCLA (30-0) John Wooden 87-66 Memphis State St. Louis, Mo.
    1972 UCLA (30-0) John Wooden 81-76 Florida State Los Angeles, Calif.
    1971 UCLA (29-1) John Wooden 68-62 Villanova Houston, Texas
    1970 UCLA (28-2) John Wooden 80-69 Jacksonville College Park, Md.
    1969 UCLA (29-1) John Wooden 92-72 Purdue Louisville, Ky.
    1968 UCLA (29-1) John Wooden 78-55 North Carolina Los Angeles, Calif.
    1967 UCLA (30-0) John Wooden 79-64 Dayton Louisville, Ky.
    1966 UTEP (28-1) Don Haskins 72-65 Kentucky College Park, Md.
    1965 UCLA (28-2) John Wooden 91-80 Michigan Portland, Ore.
    1964 UCLA (30-0) John Wooden 98-83 Duke Kansas City, Mo.
    1963 Loyola (Ill.) (29-2) George Ireland 60-58 (OT) Cincinnati Louisville, Ky.
    1962 Cincinnati (29-2) Ed Jucker 71-59 Ohio State Louisville, Ky.
    1961 Cincinnati (27-3) Ed Jucker 70-65 (OT) Ohio State Kansas City, Mo.
    1960 Ohio State (25-3) Fred Taylor 75-55 California Daly City, Calif.
    1959 California (25-4) Pete Newell 71-70 West Virginia Louisville, Ky.
    1958 Kentucky (23-6) Adolph Rupp 84-72 Seattle Louisville, Ky.
    1957 North Carolina (32-0) Frank McGuire 54-53 (3OT) Kansas Kansas City, Mo.
    1956 San Francisco (29-0) Phil Woolpert 83-71 Iowa Evanston, Ill.
    1955 San Francisco (28-1) Phil Woolpert 77-63 LaSalle Kansas City, Mo.
    1954 La Salle (26-4) Ken Loeffler 92-76 Bradley Kansas City, Mo.
    1953 Indiana (23-3) Branch McCracken 69-68 Kansas Kansas City, Mo.
    1952 Kansas (28-3) Phog Allen 80-63 St. John's Seattle, Wash.
    1951 Kentucky (32-2) Adolph Rupp 68-58 Kansas State Minneapolis, Minn.
    1950 CCNY (24-5) Nat Holman 71-68 Bradley New York, N.Y.
    1949 Kentucky (32-2) Adolph Rupp 46-36 Oklahoma A&M Seattle, Wash.
    1948 Kentucky (36-3) Adolph Rupp 58-42 Baylor New York, N.Y.
    1947 Holy Cross (27-3) Doggie Julian 58-47 Oklahoma New York, N.Y.
    1946 Oklahoma State (31-2) Henry Iba 43-40 North Carolina New York, N.Y.
    1945 Oklahoma State (27-4) Henry Iba 49-45 NYU New York, N.Y.
    1944 Utah (21-4) Vadal Peterson 42-40 (OT) Dartmouth New York, N.Y.
    1943 Wyoming (31-2) Everett Shelton 46-34 Georgetown New York, N.Y.
    1942 Stanford (28-4) Everett Dean 53-38 Dartmouth Kansas City, Mo.
    1941 Wisconsin (20-3) Bud Foster 39-34 Washington State Kansas City, Mo.
    1940 Indiana (20-3) Branch McCracken 60-42 Kansas Kansas City, Mo.
    1939 Oregon (29-5) Howard Hobson 46-33 Ohio State Evanston, Ill.

    *Louisville’s participation in the 2013 tournament was later vacated by the Committee on Infractions.

    Who has the most NCAA tournament championships?

    In the 80 years since the tournament’s inception, 35 different teams have won a championship, but no team has won more than UCLA, which has 11, 10 of which came a span of 12 years from 1964 to 1975.

    Here are all the teams with three or more titles:

    UCLA 11 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1995
    Kentucky 8 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012
    North Carolina 6 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2017
    Duke 5 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015
    Indiana 5 1940, 1953, 1976, 1981, 1987
    Connecticut 4 1999, 2004, 2011, 2014
    Kansas 3 1952, 1988, 2008
    Villanova 3 1985, 2016, 2018

    What team has the most NCAA tournament appearances?

    There have been 80 NCAA tournaments since 1939, and there are five schools that have been to more than half of them. Kentucky has the most NCAA tournament appearances with 57, followed by North Carolina with 49.

    Here is the full list of the top 10 teams:

    57 Kentucky 1942 2018
    49 North Carolina 1941 2018
    47 Kansas 1940 2018
    47 UCLA 1950 2018
    42 Duke 1955 2018
    39 Indiana 1940 2016
    38 Louisville 1951 2017
    37 Syracuse 1957 2018
    37 Villanova 1942 2018
    36 Notre Dame 1953 2017

    What team has the most NCAA tournament wins?

    Again, it's Kentucky leading the way. The Wildcats have 126 NCAA tournament wins, for an average of 2.2 wins per appearance. The Tar Heels are right behind with 124 wins, or 2.5 per appearance.

    Here is the full top 10:

    126 Kentucky
    124 North Carolina
    111 Duke
    107 Kansas
    101 UCLA
    66 Indiana
    65 Michigan State
    64 Syracuse
    61 Louisville
    60 Villanova

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