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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Northeastern chapter.

Was someone in your life obsessing over March Madness last month? Are you feeling totally lost in the world of NCAA? If so, then this is the guide for you. This article lays out all the basics of the game from Breakthrough Basketball, a company that provides resources and information for players, coaches and fans, so you’re sure to go into the next season prepared. 

What is March Madness?

March Madness is the NCAA D1 women’s and men’s basketball tournament that happens every March across the United States. It is single elimination, which means that once you lose you’re out. There are 68 teams that play in seven rounds. The penultimate round, the last one in the series, is known as the Final Four. These are one of, if not the, most famous college basketball games of the year. If you are a fellow college student in Boston, this is essentially America’s Beanpot, basketball edition. This year the men’s and women’s championship games were held on April 8 and April 7, respectively. 

The Rules:

Let’s start super simple. Basketball is played by two teams of five players. The court is split into two halves with a hoop at each end. The offensive team is the one with the ball and the defense is the one defending their hoop. You can only move the ball by passing or dribbling.

When a basket is made, the offensive team puts the ball into play under their own hoop. They now have ten seconds to make it across the mid-court line or they lose the ball. If they can’t get the ball over, then there is a turnover and the defense gets the ball. If they do get it over, they now have 30 seconds to get a shot up — this is called the “shot clock”. The shot clock resets every time the ball hits the rim. If you don’t get a shot up, then there is a turnover. The goal is to score the most points. 

Player Positions: 

There are five players per team on the court at a time, which includes a center, forwards and guards. Your center is usually your tallest player. Their main offensive goal is to be near the basket to shoot, pick up rebounds and set picks. On defense, they usually are keeping the ball out of the paint and blocking shots. 

Then you have your forwards. These are your next tallest group of players. They may be under the hoop with the centers or guarding in the wings — they’re pretty versatile. 

Finally, there are the guards. These are usually shorter players who are fast, really good at dribbling and usually the ones you find shooting outside the three point line. A shooting guard is the shooter on the court, they are the one making the last minute shot from 3-point line to tie the game. The point guard is the on-the-court leader. They bring the ball up the court, call plays and control the speed of the game.

Some Important Terms: 

  • Drive: When a player dribbles to the basket. 
  • Pick (or a screen): When an offensive player sets up to block for their teammate to drive to the basket. 
  • Rebound: When a shot goes up, but misses and a player grabs it as it comes back down. 
  • The Paint: The (usually colorful) area under the basket.
  • Tip-off: The beginning of the game starts with a tip-off. This is where a player from each team, usually the one with the highest vertical jump, come together at the center of the court. The referee will toss up the ball in the middle and the two will have to try to tip the ball towards their team. This is how possession is decided at the start of the game. 

Scoring: 

When a player makes a basket, they score two points and the defense gets the ball. However, if the shot was made from outside the 3-point line, they get three points. You only get three points if both feet (and toes!) are outside the arc. 

The other scoring difference are free throw shots, which only get one point. Free throws occur when a player is fouled while going for a shot. This results in them getting two or three shots (depending on if they were behind the 3-point line or not) from the free throw line. The free throw line is at the top of the paint. 

Free throws can also occur when the defense commits too many fouls in one half. If a team racks up seven or more fouls in a half they shoot a “one-and-one” and if they go over 10, they get two shots. A 1-and-1 means they get one shot and if they make it are awarded with another one. If they miss the first shot, the ball is live. 

Game Clock: 

In the men’s tournament, games consist of two 20-minute halves with a halftime in the middle. At halftime the teams switch baskets. The women’s tournament has four 10-minute quarters. 

If at the end of the game, the score is tied, the teams go into overtime. In March Madness, overtime consists of an additional five-minute period. If the teams are still tied, then they will continue playing five-minute intervals until someone wins. This is the same as the NCAA regular season rules. 

Fouls: 

Although you don’t need to know all the fouls to understand basketball, it is most likely the part that every basketball fan will yell the most about. Here are some of the most common ones. Personal fouls include hitting, pushing, slapping, holding, illegal pick/screen and other aggressive, non-basketball moves. 

One thing you’ve probably heard yelled many times is “AND ONE!” after a shot. Remember how I said if a player is fouled while shooting they get to shoot free throw points? If the player makes the 3-point shot that they were fouled on, they get to shoot one extra free throw shot and could potentially score four points on one play. This is why everyone goes wild if it happens.

Some other notable fouls are:

  • Charging: If an offensive player runs over a defensive player who’s established their position, this is called charging. This is one of the only fouls that is given to offensive players and usually causes a big roar from the crowd if the defense “takes a charge”. 
  • Blocking: This is similar to a charge, but is when the defensive player does not establish their position and is now interfering with the offensive player’s drive. This is now a personal contact foul on the defense. 
  • Intentional foul: When a player makes contact with another without any reasonable effort towards taking the ball. 
  • Technical foul: This is when game day trash talk gets a little too obscene, such as foul language, obscene gestures, arguing with officials, filling out the scorebook incorrectly or dunking during warmups. Both coaches and players can get technical fouls. If you ever see the ref aggressively create a T with his hands, you are most likely going to want to get really mad or really excited. Technical fouls can get players or coaches removed from the game or even suspended from future games. 

Violations: 

In addition to fouls, there are also rules that if broken, turn the ball over to the defense. Some common ones include: 

  • Traveling: Traveling is when you take more than a step and a half without dribbling the ball, which results in a turnover. Once you stop dribbling, you are no longer allowed to move except to rotate around your “pivot foot.” This simply means that you are allowed to rotate and move as long as your pivot foot stays firmly on the ground. This is only one foot and once it’s established, you cannot switch until you get rid of the ball. You are essentially a spinning top around that foot now.
  • Carrying/palming: If you dribble the ball and move your hand far enough to the side or under that it looks like you are carrying it, this is a turnover.
  • Double dribble: If you pick up your dribble and then start again, this is a turnover. 
  • Held ball: This is when opposing players both have hands on the ball and are playing a bit of tug-o-war. This call is usually known as a “jump-ball”. To avoid the tussle getting violent or taking up too much time, the ref will blow the whistle and the ball will be awarded to one of the teams on a rotating basis. 
  • Goaltending: If a player tries to hit the ball out as it goes into the hoop, this is called “goaltending” and the shot will count. 
  • Backcourt violation: Remember how I said the offensive team has ten seconds to make it across the mid-court line? Once they make it over the mid-court line and their shot clock starts, they are no longer allowed to take the ball behind that line. If they do, it will be a turnover. 
  • Time restrictions: Other than the ten seconds to get it over mid-court and the 30 second shot clock, there are also time restrictions that allow a player who is inbounding the ball five seconds to pass it in before it becomes a turnover. 

Defense: 

Defense is complicated because a lot of teams approach their strategy differently. The main two concepts you should know are that you can either play man or zone defense. Man defense means that everyone is matched up. You guard one person at a time. Zone defense means that you are protecting a certain part of the court. For example, a center in zone defense usually locks down the area right under the basket. 

Some Slang to Impress:

  • Assist: When you pass the ball to someone and they score, you get an assist.
  • Flop: Someone exaggerated contact so that the ref would call a foul. 
  • Board: Another term for rebound.
  • Foul trouble: A player can only get five fouls before they are taken out of the game. If a player gets to three or four, especially early in the game, they are getting into foul trouble. 
  • Bank shot: A shot that hits off the backboard before going in. 
  • Step back: When they step back and then take a shot. 
  • Floater: A shot with a high arc to avoid being blocked by the defense. 
  • Alley-oop: When a player does a high arcing pass so their teammate can dunk it. 
  • Euro step: This is when a player is driving to the basket, picks up the ball, steps one direction before quickly stepping in another to shoot. 
  • Full-court press: This is when the defense sets up full-court to try and stop the offense from getting the ball over the mid-court line in 10 seconds. 
  • Top of the key: This is the area between the free throw line and the three point line. 
  • Three-second violation: This is when a player, usually the center, has the ball in the paint for more than three seconds. This is a turnover. 
  • Turnover: When the offense loses the ball and it is given to the defense. 
  • Assist-to-turnover ratio: Lots of guys like to talk about players’ statistics. If they mention this term, they are talking about how efficient the ball handler is. A good player has high assists and low turnovers. 
  • Pulling up from the logo: This means that a player shot from mid-court, usually where the home team’s logo is displayed. 
  • Triple-double: The term for getting double-digits in three major categories of player statistics: points, assists and rebounds. It sometimes can include blocks or steals. If you get double-digits in only two categories it’s a double-double, and if you get four categories it’s a quadruple-double.

This year the winner of the men’s division was the UConn Huskies. The winner of the women’s division, which according to ESPN Press Room was the most watched tournament in women’s basketball history (a 299% higher viewership than 2022), was the USC Gamecocks. See you next year, basketball fans!

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Lyric Westlund

Northeastern '25

Lyric is a third year Behavioral Neuroscience major at Northeastern University. She's passionate about women's rights, psychology of wellness, holistic health, economic empowerment, spreading positive media and much more! Her goal is to be able to use science to help people better understand themselves and live more positive lives. I have a special place in my heart for plants, books, and coffee shops!