Introduction to March Madness

So you’re new to this whole March Madness thing.  You know it’s some kind of basketball tournament, and that people are all talking about filling out brackets.  But what does it all mean, and why does everyone care so much?  Well, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about one of the biggest sports events of the year.

What is March Madness?

March Madness is the common name that refers to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, a 68-team single-elimination playoff tournament to determine the winner of the college basketball National Championship.  Also known as the Big Dance, the tournament is played annually over the course of two and a half weeks, typically beginning on the third Thursday of March.  There is also a Division I women’s tournament that takes place simultaneously.

How do Teams Qualify for March Madness?

To answer this question, you first have to understand the structure of college basketball.  In basketball, there is currently 351 Division I schools divided into 32 conferences.  Over the course of the regular season, which takes place from November to early March, teams will play a roughly 30 game schedule consisting first of nonconference opponents and then teams within a school’s own conference.

Following the conclusion of conference play, teams in each conference are seeded based on their record within conference play.  Then, in the week before the March Madness bracket is announced, schools from each conference battle it out in their conference tournaments in what’s known as Championship Week, where the 32 winners are given an automatic bid to the Big Dance.  Finally, on Selection Sunday, the Sunday before March Madness begins, a selection committee determines the 36 most deserving teams that did not win their conference tournaments and grants them at-large bids, completing the 68 team field.

The committee, which is made up of conference commissioners and athletic directors chosen by the NCAA, is also responsible for ranking each team, giving them a seed 1-16, and placing them in one of the four regions of the bracket.

How Does the Committee Determine Which Teams to Give At-Large Bids?

Haha.  Well, at times, it can seem impossible to figure out what the committee is thinking in terms of their team selections and seedings.  In fact, there’s a “science” known as Bracketology, dedicated to trying to predict the committee’s decisions come Selection Sunday.  The major tool used by the committee is a formula known as the Rating Percentage Index (RPI).  However, there are numerous metrics used to evaluate schools, including their records, Strength of Schedule (SOS), quality wins against strong opposition, bad losses against weak opponents, and records while playing on the road or at neutral sites.  As new advanced metrics are created, such as Ken Pomeroy’s KenPom ratings, the committee is increasingly looking at more ways to compare teams and hopefully award the best teams at-large bids.

68 Teams?  If It’s Single-Elimination, Shouldn’t There Only Be 64?

Good catch.  That’s exactly how things worked from 1985-2000.  However, in 2001, a new conference was created, and instead of taking away an at-large bid, the NCAA decided to expand to 65 teams.  For the 2011 tournament, three more at-large bids were added, bringing us to the current total of 68.  To narrow things down to 64, we have what’s known as the “First Four.”  On the Tuesday and Wednesday before the tournament begins, the four weakest automatic and at-large bids as determined by the committee play in Dayton, Ohio for the final spots in the first round of March Madness.

Once the final 64 teams are decided, we enter the first week of the tournament.  On Thursday and Friday, all 64 teams play their first games, with #1 seeds taking on 16s, #2s playing 15s, and so on, with 16 games played on each day and up to four games going on at the same time.  This high volume of basketball is a big part of the reason why the first few days of March Madness specifically are among the greatest sports days of the year.  Thursday victors play their second round matchups on Saturday while Friday winners meet on Sunday.  All of these games are played at various locations around the country.  The teams that survive through the weekend are known as the Sweet 16.

Over the week, the Sweet 16 travel to the sites of the regional finals.  Each of the bracket’s four regions is named geographically (West, Midwest, East, and South) and correlates with these sites, which are designed to be close to the #1 seed in that region.  For example, in the 2017 bracket, Villanova (a Philadelphia school) is the #1 seed in the East region, which plays its finals in New York City.  Similarly, Kansas is the Midwest’s #1, and should they advance, they’ll be playing in Kansas City.

The second week of the tournament begins on Thursday and Friday, with winners once again advancing to play on Saturday and Sunday in the Elite Eight.  Following these matches, only one team is left standing, and they become that region’s representative in the Final Four, which is played the following Saturday and Monday in another location where the National Champions will be crowned.


To follow along with the tournament, it’s become a tradition for over 40 million Americans to fill out March Madness brackets, making their predictions about who will win each game of the tournament before the first games tip off on Thursday.  These brackets are then entered into pools with coworkers, friends, and family, or against the general public on websites such as ESPN, Yahoo, CBSSports, and, often with buy-ins and prizes.  Depending on the pool, a certain amount of points is earned for getting picks in each round correct.  In 2017, there will be an estimated $10 billion wagered on March Madness.

Filling out brackets is so fun and addictive primarily because of how unpredictable the NCAA Tournament is.  Games are notoriously difficult to predict, as conservative estimates on the odds of picking a perfect bracket are still billions to one.  The Big Dance is typically filled with close games and unthinkable upsets as entertaining as they are infuriating when one busts your bracket.  The only thing we know (almost) for certain is that a #16 seed won’t beat a 1.  Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, #16 seeds are 0-128.  It’s the mother of all upsets and the day it finally it happens will truly shock the world.

Despite the tournament being little more than a crapshoot, millions still spend countless hours researching each team, trying to identify their sleepers and Cinderellas (code for lower seeded teams, typically not from major conferences, that make a deep run) just to seemingly always end up losing to that guy who doesn’t watch basketball and just picks the teams with the coolest mascots.  Everyone has their own strategy, but no one has perfected the madness.

Awesome.  Can I join the Top Level Sports Bracket Challenge?

Of course.  Join here.

Thanks.  Any Tips on Picking My Bracket?

Didn’t you hear me?  It’s notoriously unpredictable!  But hey, that won’t stop me from giving advice.  As the winner of a grand total of zero bracket pools, I feel plenty qualified.  Here is a thorough overview of this year’s tournament, broken down by region.  For actual advice on the science of filling out the bracket, click here for 10 general tips and here to really get into the nitty-gritty of the mathematically optimal bracket.  Two warnings come with that last one: first, I hope you like heat maps.  Second, even though I realize the bracket I describe gives you the best chance of winning, I highly discourage using it, for reasons you’ll see if you choose to read it.

It’s March Madness!  Fill out your bracket, get ready, and get pumped!  Comment or ask me directly if you have any additional questions.

**Also, you can watch every March Madness game LIVE on or through the March Madness Live App if you sign in through your TV provider.

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