How does March Madness work? The NCAA tournament explained
From Cinderella teams to bracket busters, here's all you need to know about the NCAA Tournament, also known as March Madness.
What is March Madness?
March Madness is another name for the NCAA Tournament – the end-of-season play-off that determines the national college basketball championship in the United States.
The tournament features 68 teams from the Division I level of the NCAA. The single-elimination format – meaning the loser of each match-up is immediately knocked out of the tournament – makes March Madness one of the most exciting and popular sporting events in America.
The tournament begins – unsurprisingly – in March and typically ends in early April.
The first ever NCAA tournament was in 1939 and it has been played in every year since then.
The phrase ‘March Madness’ was first used in connection with the tournament by CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger in the early 1980s and quickly became popular with fans. The term is now trademarked by the NCAA.
Which teams take part?
The teams that compete in the tournament are decided on by a combination of the regular season standings and the selection committee.
The champions of the 32 NCAA Division I conferences all earn automatic spots in the tournament.
These champions are decided by conference tournaments that take place before March Madness.
The remaining 36 spots – known as at-large berths – are decided by the selection committee on Selection Sunday, which is on 15 March in 2020.
The committee is comprised of 10 athletic directors and conference commissioners from around Division I.
The committee ranks all the teams chosen from 1 to 68. Those teams are all assigned to one of the four regions, which vary from year to year. In 2019 the regions were East, South, West and Midwest.
The top four teams - which would likely include the favourites in the college basketball odds - are seeded first in their region. The next four are seeded second, and so on.
Since 2011, the tournament has started with a series of play-in games known as the First Four. These games feature the four lowest-ranked at-large teams and the four lowest-ranked conference champions.
The winners of these games go into the final 64-team bracket.
How does the tournament work?
The tournament follows a simple single-elimination format. When a team wins, they advance to the next round. When they lose, they are eliminated.
The No. 1 seed in each region plays the No. 16 in the first round. The No. 2 seed plays the No. 15 seed, and so on.
Each round of the tournament has come to be known popularly by a name that denotes how many teams are remaining.
The names of the rounds are the First Round, Second Round, Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and finally the National Championship.
Where are the games played?
All venues in the tournament must be neutral, as no teams can play on their home court up until the Final Four.
A team will be moved to a different region at the start of the tournament if their home court is scheduled to host any of their games.
The venue of the Final Four is determined years in advance, however, so there is always a chance that a team will have home advantage should they reach the semi-finals.
This is unlikely, though, as Final Four games are often played at larger venues that don’t typically host college basketball games.
In 2021, however, the entire tournament will take place within the Indianapolis metro area and central Indiana.
Some fans will be present, with all the venues operating at a maximum of per cent capacity.
The First Four, First Round and Second Round will take place across several venues in the state of Indiana, including Ball State University, Butler University, Purdue University and Indiana University.
The Sweet Sixteen will take place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium.
Lucas Oil Stadium will also play host to the Final Four and the Championship game.
When is March Madness in 2021?
This year, March Madness begins with the First Four on 18 March.
The First Round will be played between 19 March and 20 March, with the Second Round taking place between 21 March and 22 March.
The Sweet Sixteen begins on 27 March, followed by the Elite Eight on 29 March.
The Final Four games will take place on Saturday 3 April, and finally the Championship game will be played on Monday 5 April.
What is a Cinderella team?
Teams that comfortably outperform their seeding are known as Cinderella teams.
The definition is rather broad – it could refer to a No. 14 or 15 seed reaching the Sweet 16, a No. 8 seed reaching the Final Four, or a No. 6 seed going all the way and winning the title.
Recent examples include the 2018 Loyola Ramblers, who reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, and the 2011 Butler Bulldogs, who lost in the championship game as a No. 8 seed.
What is a bracket buster?
Filling out the bracket is the most popular March Madness tradition. When the bracket is revealed on Selection Sunday, the public will try to predict the outcome of every game, from the first round all the way up to the Final Four.
Bracket pools, where participants stake an amount of money and the most successful predictor wins the lot, are extremely popular.
There has never been a verified case of someone picking a perfect March Madness bracket, though in 2019 one participant recorded the longest recorded streak in bracket history, picking the first 49 games correctly, a run that lasted into the Sweet 16.
A bracket buster is a team that causes a major upset in the early rounds of the tournament, subsequently spoiling the chances for many predictors hoping to have the perfect bracket.
This is typically a mid-major team – meaning a college from a smaller conference – upsetting a powerhouse that most predictors would have expected to go a long way in the tournament.
Arguably the most famous bracket buster in history came in 2018, when UMBC became the first ever No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, eliminating favourites Virginia in the first round.
Who are the current champions?
The Virginia Cavaliers are the defending national champions, having won the tournament in 2019.
Virginia came through the South region after beginning the tournament as a No. 1 seed, and beat Texas Tech in the championship game.
The 2020 tournament did not take place.
Who are the most successful teams?
Since the tournament’s inception in 1939, 36 different colleges have won the national championship.
The UCLA Bruins are the most successful team ever. They have won 11 titles, 10 of which came in a dominant 12-year spell between 1964 and 1975.
The Kentucky Wildcats are the second-most successful team in history, having won eight titles, the most recent of which was in 2012.
The Duke Blue Devils have been the most successful team in the past 30 years, with all five of their titles having come since 1991.
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