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The annual men's basketball tournament began in 1939 | ©Al Sermeno Photography/Shutterstock
The annual men's basketball tournament began in 1939 | ©Al Sermeno Photography/Shutterstock
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What is March Madness and When Did it First Begin?

Picture of Michael LoRé
Sports Editor
Updated: 13 March 2017
The third month of each year means one thing for sports fans in the United States: March Madness. While most people in the country are quite familiar with the college basketball tournament (and fill out brackets), others around the world might not be as familiar with the Big Dance.

What is it?

March Madness is an annual single-elimination college basketball tournament for NCAA Division I men’s programs in the United States. The tournament, which began in 1939, starts play each March (hence the name) and features 68 teams from around the country with a winner crowned at the end.

Who plays?

The tournament field is comprised of the 32 winners from the Division I conferences (who earn “automatic bids”) and 36 programs picked by the NCAA Selection Committee who earn “at-large bids” based on record, strength of schedule, significant wins, bad losses, and other factors. The field is announced on national TV the Sunday before the tournament starts on what has been dubbed Selection Sunday.

What’s the format?

The tournament bracket is divided into four regions — East, West, South, and Midwest — and teams are seeded 1-16. Like most seed-based tournaments, the No. 1 seed plays No. 16, No. 2 plays No. 15, and so on and so on. Play begins with four Opening Round games played in Dayton, Ohio, between two pairs of No. 16 seeds and two sets of No. 11 seeds. Four teams are eliminated and the Second Round (comprised of 64 teams) begins fast and furious with 16 games played each of the first two days, so buckle up. Teams continue to advance through their region in the bracket, eventually dwindling the numbers down to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and finally the Final Four. The last four teams (one from each region) play the in tournament semifinals in early April with the championship game the first Monday of the month.

Significant numbers

1939 — The NCAA Tournament is created by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and is the brainchild of Ohio State University coach Harold Olsen.

11 — UCLA holds the record for most NCAA Tournament championships. Legendary coach John Wooden led the Bruins to 10 of them.

0 — The number of times a No. 16 seed has defeated a No. 1 seed.

2011 — The tournament expands to its current field of 68 teams.

90 — Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski holds the record for NCAA Tournament wins.

121 — The University of Kentucky holds the record for NCAA Tournament victories.

8 — The number of times a No. 15 seed has upset a No. 2 seed. Most recently Middle Tennessee State University upset Michigan State University in the 2016 tournament.