March Madness is the name commonly used for the NCAA Tournament, held annually in March and April to determine the national champion in Division I men’s and women’s college basketball. The tournament is also called “The Big Dance.”
In 1939, the first March Madness featured eight teams—Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah State, Villanova, Brown, Wake Forest and Ohio State. Oregon won the championship game against Ohio State, 46-33.
Until the 1950s, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), founded in 1938, was the most important post-season college basketball competition. As the NCAA Tournament expanded, the pool of teams for the NIT dwindled. The watered-down event, however, is still played each spring.
In 1951, the men’s NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 16 teams and then 32 in 1975. In 1985, the field was doubled to 64 teams. In 2001, a play-in game was added, increasing the number of teams to 65. In 2011, three more play-in games were added to the tournament.
The 64 teams were separated into four 16-team regions in which the No. 1 seed plays the No. 16 seed, the No. 2 seed plays the No. 15 seed and so on. The winner of each region meets in the Final Four each year, which is held in a single location. The final 16 teams are called the “Sweet 16.” The final eight teams are called the “Elite Eight.”
The first women’s tournament was held in 1982. In the first championship game, Louisiana Tech defeated Cheyney, a Pennsylvania school, 76-62. The women’s tournament does not have play-in games but otherwise follows the same format as the men’s tournament.
UCLA Dominates 1960s, Early 1970s Men’s Tournaments
UCLA has won the most national titles, 11—10 under legendary coach John Wooden, nicknamed “The Wizard of Westwood.” The first came in 1964, the second the following year. After not winning in 1966, the Bruins won seven titles in a row from 1967-1973 and another in 1975.
UCLA’s March Madness dominance through the 1960s and 1970s was spearheaded by future NBA stars Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks and Marques Johnson and Hall of Fame centers Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton.
Abdul-Jabbar, a 7-foot-2 center who went on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, starred for the Bruins from 1967-1969. He averaged 25.3 points over 12 tournament games and guided UCLA to three consecutive titles. He was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player three times.
In 1972 and 1973, Walton led UCLA to back-to-back championships. In the latter title game, the 6-foot-11 Walton made 21 of 22 field-goal attempts and scored 44 points in a 87-66 win over Memphis State. Walton’s performance is considered one of the greatest by a player in tournament history.
In 1974, UCLA’s bid for an eighth straight title ended in the Final Four with an 80-77, double-overtime loss to the eventual champion, North Carolina State. The Wolfpack was led by David Thompson, a 6-foot-4 guard and two-time Associated Press Player of the Year. North Carolina State beat Marquette in the 1974 championship game, 76-64.
Notable Men’s NCAA Championship Teams
In 1983, sixth-seeded North Carolina State, coached by Jim Valvano, defeated the heavily favored Houston Cougars, led by future Hall of Famers Akeem (who later changed his first name to Hakeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. In a slow-paced, back-and-forth game, the Wolfpack won, 54-52, on a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles.
In 1990, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, led by future NBA players Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, dominated the tournament. In the title game, the Runnin’ Rebels crushed Duke, 103-73—the largest winning margin in a men’s tournament championship game.
UNLV carried its championship momentum over to 1991, winning 34 straight games before a 79-77 upset loss to Duke in the Final Four. The Blue Devils won the 1991 and 1992 championships, the first of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s five national titles.
In 2007, the Florida Gators became the first team since Duke to win back-to-back national titles. Florida coach Billy Donovan and a team led by three future NBA players—Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer—beat UCLA in the 2006 title game, 73-57. In the 2007 title game, Florida beat Ohio State, 84-75.
In 2018, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No.. 16 seed when it was blown out by Maryland-Baltimore County, 74-54. Virginia rebounded to win the 2019 national championship game against Texas Tech, 85-77, in overtime.
Notable Men’s NCAA Tournament Players
Duke’s Christian Laettner is the most prolific scorer in March Madness history with 407 points (17.7 per game) in 23 games, the most tournament games by any player. Laettner led Duke to a Final Four finish as a freshman, a runner-up finish as a sophomore and back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992.
In a 1992 Elite Eight matchup versus Kentucky, Laettner scored 31 points, making all 10 of his shots from the field and all 10 from the free-throw line. He also swished a buzzer-beating shot to win the game in overtime, 104-103.
In the 1982 championship game, North Carolina freshman guard Michael Jordan—considered by many the greatest basketball player of all time—made the winning shot with 17 seconds left to beat Georgetown, 63-62.
Kansas’ Danny Manning and Connecticut’s Kemba Walker had famous runs through the tournament that culminated in championships and Most Outstanding Player awards. In the 1988 tournament, Manning carried the No. 6 Jayhawks, averaging 27.2 points. In the championship game, Kansas defeated Oklahoma, 83-79. In the 2011 championship game, Walker led inexperienced Connecticut over Butler, 53-41.
In a 1970 game against Ohio, Notre Dame’s Austin Carr scored a tournament-record 61 points.
Connecticut Dominates Women’s Basketball Tournament
Connecticut, led by Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma, the winningest coach in Division I women’s college basketball, has won the most championships (11). The team’s titles came in 1995, 2000-2004, 2009, 2010 and 2013-2016. Six of Auriemma’s championship teams finished unbeaten.
Auriemma was the first coach in women’s basketball history to guide a team to five consecutive Final Four appearances on two separate occasions.
In the 2013 national championship game, Connecticut defeated the Louisville, 93-60—the largest margin of victory in an NCAA women’s title game. In 2016, at the bookend of four consecutive championships, UConn nearly matched its 2013 margin of victory by crushing Syracuse, 82-51.
Many of the greatest players in women’s basketball history have played at Connecticut. Since 1995, UConn players have won the Associated Press Player of the Year award 12 times: Rebecca Lobo (1995), Jennifer Rizzotti (1996), Kara Wolters (1997), Sue Bird (2002), Diana Taurasi (2003), Maya Moore (2009 and 2011), Tina Charles (2010), Breanna Stewart (2014, 2015 and 2016) and Paige Bueckers (2021).
First Women’s NCAA Tournament
The women’s tournament, first held in 1982, started with 32 teams, expanding to 64 teams before the 1994 season. In 1994, North Carolina defeated Louisiana Tech, 60-59, for the championship in the first 64-team women’s NCAA Tournament.
In 1987, Pat Summitt won the first of her eight national championships, leading Tennessee over Louisiana Tech, 67-44. Tennessee won championships in 1989 and 1991 as well. Then, after watching her coaching rival Auriemma win his first championship in 1995, Summitt won championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998. She also won NCAA titles in 2007 and 2008.
READ MORE: First women’s college basketball game played
Notable Women’s NCAA Tournament Players
In the first women’s NCAA Tournament, in 1982, Drake’s Lorri Bauman scored 50 points against Maryland—a women’s tournament record.
In 1983 and 1984, Southern California’s Cheryl Miller led her team to national championships. She was named the Most Outstanding Player in each of USC’s title runs.
From 1996-1998, forward Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee to three national titles. She holds the women’s record for points (479) in the tournament and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 1997 and 1998.
In the 2012 tournament, Brittany Griner, a 6-foot-9 center, led Baylor to its second national title. Her 105 blocks are the most in tournament history.
In 2018, Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale made game-winning, buzzer-beating shots in the Final Four to defeat then-undefeated Connecticut and then Mississippi State in the national championship game.
March Madness Television History
CBS has broadcast the men’s NCAA Tournament since it wrested rights from NBC in 1982. In 2016, CBS partnered with Turner Sports for an $8.8 billion deal that extended its broadcast rights through 2032.
The highest-rated tournament game was the 1979 showdown between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Larry Bird’s Indiana State, broadcast by NBC. The game had a 24.1 rating and 35.1 million viewers.
The next two highest-rated title games were Villanova’s upset over Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas in 1985 and Duke’s victory over the “Fab Five” Michigan Wolverines in 1992. Those games had 23.3 and 22.7 ratings, respectively.
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Boxscores for NCAA Tournament games from College Basketball Reference
John Wooden “Wizard of Westwood,” ESPN
New York Times on NCAA Tournament rights sold to CBS.
NCAA.com on TV rights extension for NCAA Tournament.