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Learn About the History of NCAA March Madness

written by: Lynne Ringle•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 5/20/2011

The history of NCAA March Madness shows the evolution of the Division I Men's Basketball Championship from an eight-team tournament in 1939 to one of the most anticipated sporting events in American sports.

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    The history of NCAA March Madness dates back to 1939 and since then, the Division I Men's Basketball Championship has evolved from a small college basketball tournament to one of the most anticipated sporting events in America. The single-elimination tournament appeals to many people, from the diehard fans to the casual observers, as 68 teams compete over a three-week period for the college basketball championship crown.

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    March Madness History

    In 1939, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, led by Kansas coaching legend Phog Allen, created a tournament designed to crown the champion of the men's basketball season. The initial format had eight teams making the tournament, with four schools from the west and four schools from the east. Teams had to win district playoff games to qualify. In 1951, the field expanded to 16 teams, with 10 automatic berths going to conference champions. The first televised championship game was in 1954, when LaSalle beat Bradley 94 - 76 in Kansas City. In 1975, the NCAA expanded the tournament to 32 teams and began to refer to the last four unbeaten teams as the "Final Four." The tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and in 2011, it was expanded again to accommodate 68 teams.

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    The Phrase "March Madness"

    Sports announcer Brent Musberger is credited with being the first to use the phrase "March Madness" to describe the men's college basketball tournament, first using the term when covering it for CBS in 1982. However, the phrase was in use well before 1982 as the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) began calling their high school basketball tournament "March Madness" in the 1940s. The phrase is now copyrighted and owned by both the NCAA and the ISHA, which prohibits the use of the phrase in commercial ventures without proper authorization.

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    The Tournament

    March Madness determines the champion of men's Division I college basketball. It is single-elimination and gives automatic berths to 30 conference champions. For some of the smaller conferences, such as the Patriot and the Big Sky Conferences, their champion is often the only team that receives a tournament bid. Larger conferences, such as the Big 12, Big 10 and the Atlantic Coast Conference, typically receive the majority of the at- large berths, which go to schools that did not win their conference but still had a good overall record. There is no limit to the number of at-large berths one conference can receive, which can favor larger schools who receive more exposure during the regular season. Teams are not re-seeded after each round, meaning that a #16 seed, which is the lowest seed in each portion of the bracket, can conceivably make it all the way to the championship game.

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    The National Appeal of March Madness

    Barack Obama fills out 2009 NCAA Men's Div I Tournament bracket 3-17-09 Each spring, basketball fans along with those who have not watched a single game all season fill out tournament brackets and enter office pools in an attempt to guess which team will ultimately be crowned college basketball's champion. Unquestionably, part of the appeal to the tournament for the athletic departments at the participating schools is the potential for revenue. According to Forbes, the Big East Conference earned over $86 million over a five-year period between 2005 and 2010 due to appearances by its schools in the tournament. For the students and fans, the single-elimination format is a major contributor to the tournament's appeal. Every team has an equal chance to win. Upsets by #16 seeds over #1 seeds do occur and the possibility of a "Cinderella", a team that unexpectedly goes on a hot streak, making it all the way to the Final Four keeps fans interested and engaged.

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    UCLA has won more championships than any other school in the history of NCAA March Madness with 11 titles. John Wooden was the coach for 10Lew Alcindor, later named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won three consecutive Most Outstanding Player Awards in NCAA Division I Men's College Basketball Tournament play.  of those championships. The University of Kentucky is second on the list with seven championships. Statistics on past champions and other tournament results can be found here:

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    The history of NCAA March Madness is about more than the schools that compete. The growth of the tournament into a national sports spectacle has not only boosted school pride and, in some cases, school revenue, but is has also made March Madness part of the national lexicon and an integral part of American culture every Spring.

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    1. Oregon Business Report: Like Super Bowl, Saying March Madness Can Be Illegal;
    2. Forbes: March Madness Money: Which Schools Benefit Financially the Most;
    3. NCAA: Men's Basketball Division I;

    Image Credits

    1. Wikimedia Commons:

    2. Wikimedia Commons: