Sports For Dummies: March Madness

It is that time of the year again. March Madness is here. Countless conversations at the water cooler, anxious nights on the living room couch, last-second wins, and last-second heartbreaks. It all culminates in March Madness.


What is March Madness?

March Madness is the nickname for the Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The first tournament occurred in 1939, with Oregon becoming the first NCAA tournament champion. The term “March Madness” would become associated with the tournament during the 1982 tournament when sportscaster Brent Musberger used it. Nowadays, the tournament hosts 68 teams. There is a bracket format used during the tournament, with teams advancing by single elimination.


How are Teams Chosen?

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee is responsible for deciding the teams that get in and their seeding. A team automatically enters the tournament if they win their conference. What quantifies as winning a conference varies on the conference itself. Conferences have a conference tournament to decide the conference champion and their automatic bid to the tournament.

The teams that do not win their respective conference tournaments will be referred to as “at-large bids.” These thirty-seven at large bids are decided by ballot by the committee. Factors such as a team’s strength of schedule wins against quality opponents, a team’s NET ranking, and the all-important “eye test” determine what teams can fill these at-large bids.

A NET ranking is a system used by the committee to judge a team. The ranking is determined by a formula that measures who a team won and lost to, where these games have taken place, and how well a team has performed against certain opponents.

Once the 68 teams that will compete are established, the committee will create a seeding list to rank the team from first to sixty-eighth. This ranking will then determine the team’s seeding, ranging from a one seed to a sixteen seed. The one seed being the best teams in the tournament, and the sixteen seeds being the worst teams in the tournament. There are four teams per seed.


The Bracket Structure

The “First Four” is the first round to occur, with eight teams playing in this round. The worst four at-large bids will compete in the First Four along with the worst four automatic bids. This will determine which four teams out of the lowest eight rated teams will participate in the 64-team bracket.

There are six rounds in the 64-team bracket: Round of 64, Round of 32, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four, and National Championship. The bracket is structured so that the highest seeded teams will play the lowest-seeded teams. For example, the one seed will always play the sixteen seed in the round of 64. When UMBC beat Virginia in 2018, that was the first time a sixteen seed has ever beaten a one seed. Since then, it hasn’t occurred again.


Does the Seeding Matter?

Somewhat. Not surprisingly, one seeds have the majority of national championships in the tournament. Those with the best win percentage in the National Championship other than the seven seeds have been to one championship and won it.

However, in other rounds, the chances for upsets for higher-seeded teams are extremely present. In the Elite Eight, two seeds that have reached that point have a 45 percent win percentage in that round. The one seeds have only a 59 percent win percentage that round, a big difference from the 81 percent win percentage in the Sweet Sixteen. Five seeds have the best win percentage that round at 78percent.

While the highest seeds generally win the championship, the chances of an upset are still very much possible.


Sources:, Daniel Wilco |. “March Madness History – The Ultimate Guide.”,, 14 Mar. 2021,, Daniel Wilco |. The First Four of the NCAA Tournament, Explained. 25 Feb. 2021, How the Field of 68 Teams Is Picked for March Madness. 22 Jan. 2021,