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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | January 9, 2019

What is March Madness: The NCAA tournament explained

March Madness is one of the biggest, most exciting and most fun events in all of sports. Here’s everything you need to know about the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, which has been played annually since 1939.

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.

When did March Madness start?

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 inaugural tournament had just eight teams, and saw Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33 for the title:

In 1951, the field doubled to 16, and kept expanding over the next few decades until 1985, when the modern format of a 64-team tournament began. In 2001, after the Mountain West Conference joined Division I and received an automatic bid, pushing the total teams to 65, a single game was added prior to the first round. In 2011, three more teams were added, and with them, three more games to round out the First Four. Here’s how this year’s bracket looks (and here's a PDF):

2019 March Madness bracket

Where did the term “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.

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.

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.

What happens once the teams are selected?

Once the field of 68 is finalized, each team is assigned a seed and placed in one of four regions, which determines their first round matchups and their path to the championship.

What are seeds?

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is made up of 68 teams. On Selection Sunday, before any tournament game is played, those teams are ranked 1 through 68 by the Selection Committee, with the best team in college basketball — based on regular season and conference tournament performance — sitting at No. 1. Four of those teams are eliminated in the opening round of the tournament (known as the First Four), leaving us with a field of 64 for the first round.

Those 64 teams are split into four regions of 16 teams each, with each team being ranked 1 through 16. That ranking is the team’s seed. 

In order to reward better teams, first-round matchups are determined by pitting the top team in the region against the bottom team (No. 1 vs. No. 16). Then the next highest vs. the next lowest (No. 2 vs. No. 15), and so on. In theory, this means that the 1 seeds have the easiest opening matchup in the bracket.

What (and when) is Selection Sunday?

Selection Sunday is the day when the Selection Committee reveals the full NCAA tournament bracket, including all teams and all seeds. In 2019, Selection Sunday is on March 17.

When is 2019’s March Madness?

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

March Madness 2019 dates and schedule
Round Site 2019 Dates
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

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. 

How can you participate in March Madness?

By filling out a bracket! Our Bracket Challenge Game, the official bracket game of the NCAA, will open immediately after the committee announces the field on Selection Sunday (March 17). The brackets will lock on that Thursday, before the first game of the first round begins, so get your picks in before then. How hard is filling out a bracket? Well no one has ever gotten a perfect bracket, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

Advice for filling out a March Madness bracket:

Need help making your picks? We’ve got you covered with BracketIQWe have more than 50 stories to guide you as you fill out your bracket, covering everything from March Madness history and records, to lessons from past winners of our bracket game, to 7 common bracket-picking mistakes to avoid, to how to pick your bracket based on each team’s mascot.

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:

YEAR CHAMPION (RECORD) COACH SCORE RUNNER-UP SITE
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.

March Madness glossary:

The Madness of March isn’t just confined to what happens on the basketball court. When discussing teams, there are a bevy of statistics, terms, and acronyms thrown out. There’s a team’s RPI, KPI, and BPI. The SOS and the SOR. The automatic bid and the at-large bid. It can be a bit daunting.

Maybe you’ve never heard of any of these, maybe you just need a quick refresher. Either way, we’ve compiled a list of the 29 most helpful terms when dealing with the NCAA tournament. These are stats and phrases that the Selection Committee will use to determine the field, and understanding what they mean can go a long way in helping you make informed decisions while filling out your bracket.

At-large bid — Teams that receive a bid to the NCAA tournament are broken into two categories: At-large bids, and automatic bids. The selection committee hands out 36 at-large bids to teams that did not win their conference tournament, but impressed the committee enough to earn a trip to the tournament. There is no limit on the number of at-large teams the committee may select from one conference.

Automatic bid — In Division I, there are 32 conferences. Each has its own conference tournament at the conclusion of the regular season. Teams that win this tournament, regardless of their regular-season performance, automatically earn a trip to the NCAA tournament. 

AP ranking – The Associated Press has been ranking the top basketball teams since 1948. In its current form, the poll ranks the top 25 teams in Division I via a ranking that is compiled from the ballots of 65 sports journalists across the country. The ranking has no official weight in the selection process, and even a No. 1 ranking in the AP poll does not technically guarantee a team a bid to the NCAA tournament. View the current AP rankings here.

BPI — College Basketball’s Power Index, invented by ESPN, is a statistic that measures how far above or below average every team is, and projects how well the team will do going forward. The index uses two measurements to do this: BPI Offense (measure of a team’s offensive strength compared to an average offense) and BPI Defense (measure of a team’s defensive strength compared to an average defense). BPI is calculated by finding the difference between these two measurements. View the current BPI rankings here.

The bubble — A team that is “on the bubble” for the NCAA tournament is one whose qualification for the tournament could go either way. They’re on the verge of making the field of 68, but an invitation isn’t guaranteed.

Cinderella — Much like the titular character from the fairy tale, a Cinderella team is one that is much more successful than expected. Examples in March would be Villanova’s 1985 championship run, when the eighth-seeded Wildcats became the lowest seeded team to ever win the title, knocking off the heavy favorite Georgetown.

Defensive efficiency — A simple statistic that calculates the points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. For example, if Team A’s opponent scored 80 points in a game with 75 possessions, Team A’s defensive efficiency would be 106.7. View current defensive efficiency rankings here.

Elite Eight — The fourth round of the tournament, when just eight teams remain, is known as the Elite Eight. This round is the final game for each regional, before the four winners move on to the national semifinal, known as the Final Four. Read our Elite Eight ultimate guide for more.

Final Four — The fifth round of the tournament, when just four teams remain, is known as the Final Four. This is the penultimate round of the tournament, when the winners of each regional face off for a chance to play in the championship game. Read our Final Four ultimate guide for more.

First Four — When the NCAA tournament was expanded to 68 teams, a new round was added to the format: The First Four. Four games, played on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday determine which of eight teams advance to the first round of the tournament. Read our First Four ultimate guide for more.

First four out — When ranking all 68 teams in the NCAA tou rnament, the First Four Out fall in spots 69-72. These teams will not make the NCAA tournament, but will be the top-seeded teams in the NIT Championship.

KPI — KPI Sports ranks every team’s wins and losses on a scale of -1.0 (the worst possible loss) to +1.0 (the best possible win), and averages these scores across a season to give a score to a team’s winning percentage. The formula uses opponent’s winning percentage, opponent’s strength of schedule, scoring margin, pace of game, location, and opponent’s KPI ranking. View the current KPI rankings here.

Last four in — Another unofficial term, the "last four in" refers to the final four teams that receive at-large bids to the tournament. These are teams that are usually on the bubble as Selection Sunday draws near.  

NET — NCAA Evaluation Tool is a new ranking in 2018-19 that relies on game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses. The ranking replaces RPI as the main sorting tool for the selection committee. Some of the unique aspects of the NET include the omission of game date and order (to give equal importance to both early and late-season games), and the inclusion of a cap of 10 points for winning margin (to prevent teams needlessly running up the score in a game where the outcome was certain). Read more about the NET here.

Offensive efficiency — Points scored per 100 offensive possessions. For example, if a team scored 95 points in a game with 85 possessions, their offensive efficiency would be 115.9. View current offensive efficiency rankings here.

Pace/Tempo — An estimate of the number of possessions a team has per regulation (40 minutes)

Per-40 stats — A reference used to compare two or more players who do not play the same amount of minutes per game. It is measured by taking each statistic, dividing it by the minutes played per game, and then multiplying it by 40 — a full regulation game. For example, if Player A scores an average of 20 points in 30 minutes of play, his points per-40 would be 26.7.

POM — Kenpom.com, run by Ken Pomeroy, is a website devoted to advanced basketball statistics. The site gives an overall rating to each Division I team throughout the season based on a multitude of advanced metrics. The Selection Committee uses these rankings to help evaluate teams. 

Quadrants (Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4) — In order to determine the strength of a team’s wins or losses, the selection committee divides the team’s record into four quadrants on each team sheet. The quadrants are meant to serve as an indicator of how good a team’s wins are, or how bad their losses are. Each quadrant is divided based on a combination of the location of the game — Home (H), Neutral court (N), or Away (A) — and the opponent’s NET ranking.

  • Q1: H: 1-30; N: 1-50; A: 1-75
  • Q2: H: 31-75; N: 51-100; A: 76-135
  • Q3: H: 76-160; N: 101-200; A: 136-240
  • Q4: H:161-353; N: 201-353; A: 241-353

 

Regional — The NCAA tournament bracket is split into four regionals. The South, East, West, and Midwest. The first four rounds of the tournament are played in regionals, with the Elite Eight serving as the regional championship game. Teams are assigned a regional based on a combination of factors, such as overall seed, proximity to the regional, the other teams in that regional, and more.

RPI — The basic RPI (Rating Percentage Index) consists of a team’s Division I winning percentage (25 percent weight), its opponents’ winning percentage (50 percent weight) and its opponents opponents’ winning percentage (25 percent weight). The RPI is one of many factors the committees use for selecting and seeding teams.

SAG — On a team sheet, “SAG” stands for Sagarin rankings, from sagarin.com. The Sagarin rankings account for score differentials, strength of schedule, and weights for how recent a game was (wins in February are worth more than wins in November). Sagarin rankings differ from KenPom rankings in that efficiency is not taken into account. View the current rankings here.

Seed — 68 teams earn bids to the NCAA tournament, and each one receives a seed — from 1 to 16 —that determines where the team will be placed in the bracket. After the First Four, there are four of every seed. The seeds are also ranked overall from 1 to 68. This overall ranking affects the order in which team locations are selected (with higher-ranked teams getting preference), and which teams play in the First Four (the four lowest-seeded at-large teams and the four lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers go to the First Four).

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.

Selection Sunday — The day everyone waits for, when the Selection Committee announces the tournament field. This year, Selection Sunday is March 17.

Strength of record — From ESPN: “Strength of Record (SOR) is a measure of team accomplishment based on how difficult a team's W-L record is to achieve. SOR reflects the chance a typical 25th ranked team would have team's record or better, given the schedule on a 0 to 100 scale, where 100 is best.”

Strength of schedule — Strength of Schedule (or SoS) measures the difficulty of a team’s schedule, based on the win percentage of the team’s opponents.

Sweet 16 — The third round of the tournament, where only 16 teams remain. The winner of each game will play in the Elite Eight. Read our Sweet 16 ultimate guide for more.

Team sheet — A one-page document for every team in Division I that helps the committee get a complete picture of that team’s performance during the season. The team sheets contain in-depth team information about strength of schedule, performance against top-50 teams and home/road records.