One of the most highly anticipated sporting events in the United States every year, the NCAA men's basketball tournament takes 68 of the best teams in college basketball and puts them into a single elimination tournament to crown a national champion. During each round is the potential for massive upsets, incredible last second shots, and any number of wild occurrences, which has earned the tournament the nickname March Madness.
The NCAA Tournament is made up of 32 automatic qualifiers, who are granted entry into the tournament by winning their respective conference tournaments prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament. The other 36 entrants are made up of at-large bids, which are bids handed to remaining teams by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
NCAA Tournament History
The first NCAA Tournament took place in 1939, consisting of just 8 teams. A field expansion did not take place until the 1951 tournament, when the field was doubled to 16. While the current 68 team bracket is what allows for so many wild upsets to occur, one would imagine that a bracket of just 8 or 16 teams would have lacked the same appeal that the tournament has today. This was true, in that the NIT used to be the premier postseason college basketball tournament, rather than the secondary competition that it is today.
1975 marked the first year that the tournament field had expanded to 32 teams, and was also the first year that more than one team from each conference was allowed to make the tournament field. This was the result of many highly ranked teams missing out on the tournament due to that rule in the past, with the rule change paving the way for the Big East and other power conferences to load the bracket with squads.
In 1985, the tournament expanded to 64 teams, a number that was bumped up to 65 in 2001 to make room for a play-in game between two automatic qualifiers for the right to play in the first round as a 16 seed. In 2011, three more play-in games were added, upping the tournament field to the 68 team mark that you see today.
Memorable NCAA Tournament Moments
No NCAA Tournament would be memorable without the upsets that make it great, which is why any list of the most memorable moments in tournament history would not be complete without a rundown of some of those upsets. Perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament came in the first round of the 2012 tournament, when 15 seed Norfolk State defeated 2 seed Missouri in a thriller. Norfolk State entered the game as a 21.5 point underdog, with their win constituting the largest point spread upset in tournament history since the field expanded to 64 teams.
The 2012 NCAA Tournament was memorable thanks to its upsets, not just from the aforementioned Norfolk State either. Another 15 seed, Lehigh, defeated Duke in the first round, a team with one of the best pedigrees in all of college basketball. Led by current NBA star CJ McCollum, Lehigh combined with Norfolk State to make 2012 the only year with two 15 seeds advancing to the second round of the tournament.
The wins by Norfolk State and Lehigh had nothing on perhaps the most memorable NCAA Tournament Cinderella team in history, though, that team being the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast. After earning a 15 seed as an automatic qualifier from the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Eagles defeated 2 seed Georgetown in the first round, and then defeated San Diego State in the second round to become the first 15 seed to make the tournament's Sweet 16. Florida Gulf Coast didn't just win games, though, they did so with style, with their frequent alley-oops earning them the nickname Dunk City.
Three college basketball teams have won more than five NCAA Tournament championships. Above everyone else are the UCLA Bruins, who have won 11 championships, 10 of which came from 1964-1975 under the legendary John Wooden. Kentucky has won 8 NCAA Tournament titles, while North Carolina has 6 after adding one by winning the 2017 national championship over the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The first two days of the NCAA Tournament are sacred days in American sports, as the action on those days begins at noon Eastern time on a Thursday and Friday. With games going on during prime work hours on both of those days, it is estimated that billions of dollars in worker productivity are lost, as employees find ways to watch games, fill out brackets, and keep up with their picks on company dimes around the nation.
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