There are two ways that a college basketball team can earn a bid to the NCAA tournament at the end of the season: an automatic bid, and an at-large bid.
We'll explain both here.
What is an automatic bid?
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.
For many teams, this is the only real chance that they can get to the NCAA tournament, making the stakes of conference tournaments much greater than just a trophy in many leagues.
But when it comes to the national championship, does winning a conference championship improve your odds?
Recently, it's neck and neck, but a slight margin points to no. Of the 25 past champions, only 12 have won their conference tournament:
|2018||Villanova||Won Big East|
|2017||North Carolina||Lost, ACC semifinals|
|2016||Villanova||Lost, Big East finals|
|2015||Duke||Lost, ACC semifinals|
|2014||UConn||Lost, AAC finals|
|2013||Louisville||Won Big East|
|2012||Kentucky||Lost, SEC finals|
|2011||UConn||Won Big East|
|2009||North Carolina||Lost, ACC semifinals|
|2008||Kansas||Won Big 12|
|2005||North Carolina||Lost, ACC semifinals|
|2004||UConn||Won Big East|
|2003||Syracuse||Lost, Big East semifinals|
|2002||Maryland||Lost, ACC semifinals|
|2000||Michigan State||Won Big Ten|
|1999||UConn||Won Big East|
|1996||Kentucky||Lost, SEC finals|
|1994||Arkansas||Lost, SEC semifinals|
What is an at-large bid?
An at-large bid is the only avenue into the NCAA tournament for a team that didn't win its conference tournament. 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. Any Division I team that did not win its conference tournament and is not banned from postseason play is eligible to be selected as an at-large bid.
What is the March Madness selection committee?
The 10-member NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Committee is responsible for selecting, seeding and bracketing the field for the NCAA Tournament. School and conference administrators are nominated by their conference, serve five-year terms and represent a cross-section of the Division I membership.
How do they decide which teams get an at-large bid?
There are a multitude of stats and rankings that the Selection Committee takes into account, but there is no set formula that determines whether a team receives an at-large bid or not. The committee’s charge is simple: Select the best 36 at-large teams to join the 32 AQs. In previous years, the committee would use RPI as one of the primary sorting tool for each team’s resume, but that has been replaced by the NCAA's new NET ranking system in 2019.