The History of March Madness
How well do you know your March Madness history? Learn all about the origin and evolution of this popular annual college basketball tournament.
Tomorrow kicks off the annual NCAA basketball tournament, a.k.a. “March Madness.” For basketball fans, the next three weeks will be spent cheering on their favorite teams in the 67-game, 68-team tournament.
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To celebrate one of the most popular and exciting sporting events of the year, here is a look at the origin and evolution of March Madness.
What is March Madness?
March Madness is a single-elimination college basketball tournament held every March to determine that year’s national champion.
The March Madness tournament is now made up of 68 NCAA Division I teams, all vying to win five to six games to take home the national title. The tournament begins with eight teams playing an initial round of four “play-in” games, known as ‘First Four.’ Once the four winning teams from that round are determined, the tournament breaks into four regions of 16 teams.
As games go on, with winners moving on and losing teams going home, the number of teams remaining bounces down 64 to 32 to 16 (“Sweet Sixteen”) to eight (“Elite Eight”). Finally, each of the winners from the four regions go on compete in the “Final Four” for the national championship.
Often described as “going to the big dance,” the teams that participate in the tournament include the champions from 32 Division I conferences, which win automatic bids by winning their conference, as well as 36 teams that are awarded at-large berths by the NCAA selection committee.
The origin of the term “March Madness” dates back to 1939, when Illinois high school official Henry V. Porter used the term to describe the event in a poem. It wasn’t until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger used the term during coverage of the 1982 tournament that it became synonymous with the annual NCAA basketball tournament.
The first NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament took place in 1939 and featured only eight teams. After going 29-5 on the season, the Oregon Ducks beat Ohio State to win the first-ever NCAA men’s college basketball national title.
In 1951, the NCAA expanded the tournament by doubling the number of teams in the tournament to 16. That number continued to grow steadily over the next few decades, and in 1985 the tournament reached its modern format of a 64-team event. After the Mountain West Conference joined Division I and received an automatic bid in 2001, the NCAA added a single game prior to the first round. In 2011, the field expanded even further, allowing 68 teams to qualify for the tournament.
The most dominant team in men’s March Madness tournament history has been the UCLA Bruins, who have taken home 11 national titles. Nearly all of their titles came over a 12-year stretch from 1964 to 1975 under legendary coach John Wooden. The Kentucky Wildcats, with eight titles, comes in second.
The NCAA held its first women’s basketball tournament in 1982 with 32 teams. Playing at Norfolk Scope in Norfolk, Virginia, the Louisiana Lady Techsters beat the Cheyney State Wolfies 76 to 62.
Adopting a format that echoes the men’s, the tournament expanded to 64 teams prior to the 1994 season. Unlike the men’s tournament, however, women’s March Madness has no play-in games.
The Connecticut Huskies have won the most national championships of all schools, with all 11 of their titles earned under legendary head coach Geno Auriemma. The Tennessee Volunteers, having won eight national titles under Hall of Fame head coach Pat Summitt, are second in championships earned.