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March Madness: What it is & How it Works (Full Guide)

March Madness Full guide

What is March Madness?

March Madness is the biggest College sports event and one of the most popular tournaments in the US sporting calendar.

Played throughout the month of March and early April, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I men’s basketball tournament, which is commonly referred to as March Madness, is a single-elimination tournament which consists of 68 teams who compete in order to be crowned the national champions. Teams are placed in four different regions and each given a seed between one and 16. The tournament consists of seven rounds that take place over three weeks.

The name ‘March Madness’ was first used all the way back in 1939, by Illinois high school official Henry V Porter, though the term did not become synonymous with the tournament until 1982. CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger used the moniker during coverage and it stuck ever since.

To highlight just how popular March Madness is in the US, the 2022 national championship game between the Kansas Jayhawks and North Carolina Tarheels drew in more than 18 million viewers. To put this into perspective, the 2023 NBA finals matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat was watched by an average of 11.64 million people.

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How are the teams selected?

There are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament, more than any other sporting event in the US. So how are these teams divided and split up?

Thirty-two of the teams automatically qualify by winning their conference tournament, which takes place during the two weeks before March Madness. The remaining 36 qualify by receiving an at-large bid based on their performance during the season. These are determined by the Selection Committee, who ranks all the teams involved 1 to 68. They are then placed in the bracket on ‘Selection Sunday’, a dedicated day in which it is revealed to the public prior to the tournament. The matchups to be played in each round are predetermined by the bracket.

There are four regions which teams are divided into. Each region consists of 16 to 18 teams. These regions are named after broad geographic regions of the US, which varies from year to year.

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How does the tournament work?

In 2011, the tournament was expanded to 68 teams from an original 64, adding three additional opening round games. The opening week sees eight teams compete in the ‘First Four’ which determines the four winners to join the 60 other teams to compete in the first and second rounds. These teams are the four lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers and four lowest-seeded at-large teams.

From these rounds, sixteen winners advance to compete in the regional semi-finals and finals in the second week. These are also known as the ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Elite Eight’ to signify the number of teams left. Four teams then advance to the third and final weekend of the tournament for the national semi-finals and national championship, known as the ‘Final Four’. The eventual winners are crowed national champions.

It is an absolute dream for basketball and college sports lovers, with so many games to choose from and very little time to wait in between matches. During the second and third week, there are 48 games played across just four days, with games often on at the same time allowing viewers to switch freely throughout.

Unlike the NBA where they compete in a seven-game series, another big allure of the NCAA tournament is that the ‘one and done’ format makes for exciting and competitive matchups everywhere you look.


After ranking the teams, the NCAA selection committee puts together what is known as the tournament bracket.

The bracket maps out the tournament’s schedule, laying out each matchup in the first round based on seeding and geographic location. This then determines the paths each teams have to take to eventually reach the championship game.

Furthermore, the brackets are extremely popular with fans across the country as each year they hope to fill out a perfect bracket. Known for regular upsets of favoured teams, it makes for great fun for fans across the country to get involved with their predictions. Whether it be for personal interest, money or just bragging rights, it keeps fans interested in the tournament even after their favourite team gets knocked out.

The chances of filling out a perfect bracket are almost zero, with the longest verifiable streak lasting 49 games in 2019, which stretched into the ‘Sweet 16’ stage of the tournament. However, this does not stop people from filling out brackets and competing with fellow fans.

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Who are the most successful teams?

In NCAA tournament history, 37 different teams have been victorious and 15 have won multiple times. UCLA have been the most successful team, winning it 11 times, though their last title came in 1995. Kentucky trail them with eight, and North Carolina further back with six.

Last year saw the UConn Huskies win their fifth championship title, defeating the San Diego State Aztecs 76-59.

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NBA Players in the NCAA Tournament

With the whole nation watching, March Madness has helped propel players into the spotlight ahead of the NBA draft. Here are some current NBA players who made a name for themselves at the tournament.

Steph Curry, arguably the greatest point guard of all time and perhaps one of the most transformative players in NBA history, announced himself during the 2008 tournament. Representing Davidson, Curry scored 40 points in the opening round, dragging his team from down double digits against Gonzaga to advance to the second round. A matchup with second-seeded Georgetown followed, where a similar story unfolded. Twenty-five second half points helped his team pull off another comeback. He became a national story, and there was an increased interest in his and Davidson’s run. They could not go all the way, falling at the ‘Elite Eight’ to top-seeded Kansas, but Curry cemented his status with a legendary run where he averaged 32 points per game, with 44.2% shooting beyond the arc on 5.8 attempts.

Anthony Davis, an NBA champion, also had a memorable March Madness in 2012. His dominance helped Kentucky to their eighth title, which is their most recent success. Whilst his scoring was inconsistent, it was his defense which really set him apart. Across six games, Davis averaged 12.3 rebounds and 4.8 blocks. His 29 total blocks is the second most in a single NCAA tournament ever. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, before being taken number one in the NBA draft by the then New Orleans Hornets just two months later.