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WTF Is March Madness? A Guide To Everything You Always Wanted To Know, But Never Wanted To Ask About College Basketball’s Most Hyped Month

In case you weren’t aware, March is objectively the best month of the year. First off, it kicks off with Justin Bieber’s birthday on March 1st, and as a semi-retired Belieber, that date will always hold a special place in my heart. Plus, March Women’s History Month, which is obviously a huge plus.

But, arguably most importantly in my opinion, March is home to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament —better known as March Madness.

If you’re at all a fan of college basketball, then you’ve probably been immersed in conference tournaments and patiently awaiting selection Sunday. If you’re not a fan, then you’re probably used to getting all confused in some bracket challenge this time of year. Well, this year, Her Campus has got you covered. 2018 is going to be the year you finally understand March Madness! Here’s the rundown.

College basketball 101

Before we get into bracketology, let’s start out with a kindergarten-level primer of college sports. Basically, almost every college in the country that has sports teams belongs to an athletic conference. (For example, you’ve probably heard of the Ivy league, which is a conference that includes colleges like Harvard and Yale.) The five conferences that feature the most popular college sports teams are often called the Power Five conferences: the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference (B1G), Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC).

The college basketball regular season starts in November and goes to the end of February or the beginning of March. Throughout the season, the teams are ranked by media outlets like the Associated Press and USA Today based on things like their record (how many games they’ve won, lost, and tied) and strength of schedule (how good the teams they played were). Rankings can be pretty controversial, and they’re chosen by votes from an electorate of sportswriters and broadcasters across the country.

The rankings are typically updated weekly and include only the top 25 teams in the country. Considering that there are 351 teams in Division I men’s basketball, most teams are unranked, and being ranked at all is pretty impressive. (Of course, not every college sees it that way—some schools, like Duke, are so used to being highly ranked that, if they were #25, all hell would break loose.)

In addition to national rankings, there are conference standings. A team’s standing is similar to a ranking within its conference, but it’s not nearly as controversial as a ranking. Standing is determined simply by the team’s conference record, which is the number of games it’s won, lost, and tied when playing other teams that are in its conference.

Conference tournament

Immediately following the regular season, each conference hosts its own single-elimination tournament. The winner of each tournament is named Conference Champion of that year, which is a pretty huge accomplishment. Most of the conference championship games of Power Five conferences will be played on Saturday, March 10, but you can find out who the winners are here. (The only Power Five conference to name a champion so far is the Big Ten, whose conference champ is the University of Michigan.)

Conference champions automatically get to compete in the NCAA tournament. Depending on how good your team is and how good your conference is, this may or may not be a big deal. Some teams are always good enough that they know they will be able to compete in the NCAA tournament regardless of whether they win their conference, while other teams might be super hype about the chance to possibly compete in the NCAA tournament.

Selection Sunday

Here we get to the good stuff. On Sunday, March 11, there will be a two-hour long program on TBS that will reveal the 68 teams that get to compete in the NCAA tournament, as well as each team’s seed (similar to a ranking). That means that by Sunday night, you could already be getting to work filling out your bracket. (Can you hear me shrieking with excitement?)

Since only 32 teams have automatic bids into the tournament from winning their conference championship game, there is a selection committee that determines the remaining 36 teams that will receive at-large bids to compete in the tournament.

Most teams the teams that receive at-large bids are from traditional basketball schools in Power Five conferences, or mid-major conferences like American Athletic, A-10, Big East, and Mountain West. However, there are also a lot of teams that come from lesser-known schools that will be surprised and thrilled to find out that they’re in the tournament. Every year, some of these teams do surprisingly well in the tournament, even though everyone said, “Wait, who?” when they were chosen on Selection Sunday. That’s part of what makes March Madness so fun.


Each team that makes the NCAA tournament is designated a seed. A seed is similar to a ranking, but there are four teams with each seed in the tournament. (I’ll explain why in a little bit, but it has to do with the type of bracket they use.) Last year, for example, the four #1 seeds were Villanova, North Carolina, Kansas, and Gonzaga. The four #2 seeds were Duke, Arizona, Louisville, and Kentucky.

The teams are also ranked, but I won’t get into that too much because it gets a little confusing. But if you hear someone talking about the #1 overall team or the #2 overall team, they’re both #1 seeds, because the top four teams have #1 seeds.


There are four regions in the NCAA tournament: East, Midwest, West, and South. Each team can be placed in any of the four regions, regardless of where the school is located. Each region receives one team of each seed. (Now do you get why there are four teams of each seed?) So, for example, the East region has one #1 seed, one #2 seed, one #3 seed, and so on.

The brackets are designed to favor the best teams as soon as possible, so as to eliminate the bad teams so fans don’t have to sit through boring basketball. So in the first round (known as the Round of 64), the best teams play the worst teams. Every #1 seed plays the #16 seed in its region, and every #2 seed plays the #15 seed in its region, and every #3 seed plays the #14 seed in its region, and so on.

It’s a single-elimination bracket, so the winners immediately go on to play one another in the Round of 32. After the round of 32 is when things get really fun. There is the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four, and then we’re down to the biggest game in college basketball: the National Championship game. The winner of this game has won March Madness.

The fun of brackets stems from the upsets that inevitably occur each year. For example, it’s fairly common for a #5 seed to lose to a #12 seed in the round of 64. According to stats, a #8 seed has just as big of a chance of winning the entire tournament as a #4 seed.


After Selection Sunday, you can fill out a bracket by printing one out from literally any sports website—ESPN, CBS, Sports Illustrated, NCAA.com, etc. If someone asks you to join their bracket pool (a competition of whose bracket ends up being the most accurate), they’ll likely want you to do it on an app or website. ESPN is the most popular website to have a bracket challenge.

Bracket challenges are fun because the basketball expert has literally no advantage over the person who chose winners based on the color of the uniforms. There are so many upsets each year that it’s impossible to predict who will beat whom, even if you’ve been following NCAA basketball all season.

Of course, basketball fans tend to get caught up on analysis. ESPN has a feature called Bracketology where Joe Lunardi uses stats to predict the winners. Nate Silver, a famous statistician, always covers March Madness on his website FiveThirtyEight. After Selection Sunday, websites like Sports Illustrated and ESPN will quickly become full of “guides to March Madness” and “your rundown of each team” and super detailed predictions of who’s going to win. I know my workout soundtrack will be Podcasts of people giving me “insider tips” for filling out my bracket. But any basketball fan will tell you that this is just for fun. In reality, the stats mean nothing and anything’s possible. (In fact, lots of people fill out a “joke bracket” that ends up doing even better than their real bracket.)

If you’re in a bracket competition, your bracket will be scored by the number of games you get right and how big the games were. For example, if you correctly predict the winner of a Round of 64 game, you will earn 1 point, but if you correctly predict the winner of a Final Four game, you will earn 16 points. You can read more about the point system here.

With Selection Sunday closing in, are you pumped yet? 

Hannah is an editorial intern for Her Campus and the editor of the High School section as well as a chapter writer for the University of Michigan. Achievements include being voted "Biggest Belieber" (2010) and "Most Likely to Have a Child Born Addicted to Starbucks" (2016), as well as taking a selfie with the back of Jim Harbaugh's head.  Goals for the future include taking a selfie with the front of Jim Harbaugh's head.  She's also an obsessive Instagrammer, so hit her with a follow @hannah.harshe
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