How March Madness Works


College Athletics 101
Ohio State center John Schick makes a basket during the first NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship game held in Evanston, Illinois in 1939. Oregon defeated Ohio State 46-33 to win the first title. NCAA Photos via Getty Images

A single governing body, known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), is charged with overseeing the 1,117 (as of 2018) voluntary college and university members that comprise the association. Representatives from the member schools help draft the rules of NCAA competition, and a national NCAA office operates all championships, including March Madness [source: NCAA].

The NCAA member schools are divided into three divisions depending on certain factors like school size, athletic budgets and overall competitiveness. In addition, each division has its own rules for member schools [source: NCAA]:

Division I: These schools must sponsor at least seven sports each for men and women, or six for men and eight for women, with two team sports for each gender. Men's and women's basketball teams must play all but two of their games against Division I teams, and men must play a third of their contests in their designated home arena. Schools have a minimum and maximum number of scholarships they can award. Of the three divisions, Division I is the most prominent and receives the most publicity. The schools in Division I tend to the largest ones and with the largest athletic budgets, often because of lucrative media contracts. Some 351 schools are in Division I, including Duke, UCLA and the University of Kentucky.

Division II: These schools must sponsor at least five sports each for men and women (or four for men and six for women), with at least two team sports for each gender. Men and women's basketball teams must play at least half of their games against Division I or Division II schools. There are no minimum home game requirements for this division. Most of the 308 schools in Division II have enrollments of less than 8,000 students, like Lynn University in Florida. Student-athletes usually receive partial athletic scholarships. There is an emphasis on regional competition in order to reduce missed class time.

Division III: These schools must sponsor at least five sports each for men and women, with two team sports for each gender. Unlike Divisions I and II, Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships. Division III is actually the largest division of the NCAA, with more than 450 schools participating. Playing seasons are shorter to allow more time for academics. Universities such as Johns Hopkins and Emory are in Division III.

Since the Division I Men's and Women's Basketball tournaments are the most prominent, and the format for all of the tournaments is the same, the rest of this article focuses on the Division I tournament.

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