What is March Madness?

Something strange happens in the United States every March. Millions of people throughout the country become devoted college basketball fans.

There is even a name for this condition — March Madness.

It’s because March is the month when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournaments are played.

Men’s bracket

The men’s tournament started in 1939. Only eight teams competed and the University of Oregon won the first title by defeating Ohio State in the finals, 46–33.

The first NCAA tournament was a modest event. The championship game was played in a half-empty arena at Northwestern University that could hold 9,000 fans.

Gradually, however, the tournament grew because of television coverage and because the games became a showcase for such basketball legends as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry.

This year, the championship game will be held in the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, which can hold more than 73,000 basketball fans.

College sports, and especially college basketball and (American) football, are big business in the United States. In that way, U.S. sports are different from sports in other countries, where promising young athletes play for club teams and not teams associated with schools of higher education.

Today, the March Madness basketball tournament has expanded to a field of 68 teams. Thirty-two teams earn their place in the tournament “bracket,” a tree diagram of the games, by winning their conference championship. The remaining 36 teams are chosen by the NCAA selection committee.

That is one of the strengths of the tournament. At the beginning of the season, all of the roughly 350 Division I basketball teams has a chance to make the so-called “Big Dance.” During March Madness, fans may have a chance to root for their school or state team.

Basketball team members and coach holding trophy (© Nick Wass/AP Images)
Richmond coach Chris Mooney and player Jacob Gilyard pose with a trophy after a championship game leading up to the March Madness tournament. Richmond, which will play in the 2022 tournament, has been called a Cinderella school because it has upset teams thought to be more powerful. (© Nick Wass/AP Images)

The tournament format — a single-elimination system similar to the knockout rounds of the World Cup soccer championships — is popular. The winner of each game advances, while the loser goes home. Every game is a dramatic “do-or-die” contest.

The tournament is usually dominated by big schools that spend millions on athletic facilities and salaries for top coaches. For example, this season such traditional basketball powers as the universities of Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky are expected to do well in the men’s tournament.

Sometimes, however, smaller schools (so-called “Cinderella” teams) upset bigger, higher-ranked schools, creating some of the “madness.” In 2018, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, shocked the Number 1 team in the country, the University of Virginia, by beating them in the first round of the tournament.

Women’s bracket

In recent years, women’s basketball has become more popular. The women’s national championship tournament started in 1972 and was run by an organization called the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

A small women’s school in Pennsylvania with only 500 students, Immaculata College (now Immaculata University), won the first three AIAW championships. Immaculata’s coach, Cathy Rush, was paid only $450 a season.

Basketball coach yelling on court (© Jessica Hill/AP Images)
University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma hopes to lead his women’s basketball team to a record 12th national championship this year. (© Jessica Hill/AP Images)

The women’s NCAA tournament now features a field of 68 teams and, like the men’s tournament, is played in large arenas and dominated by bigger schools. The University of Connecticut has won 11 NCAA championships, and the University of Tennessee has won eight. This season the universities of South Carolina, Connecticut and Iowa are expected to do well in the women’s March Madness tournament.

In addition, the coaches of women’s teams, such as Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and coach of the University of South Carolina, are paid a lot more than $450.

In March, basketball fans enjoy competitive games between the best college teams and their famous coaches. But they may also go a bit mad for an unknown player who surprises them with exceptional play or a Cinderella team that wins against all odds.

Freelance writer Fred Bowen wrote this article.