March Madness: Everything You Need to Know About the NCAA Tournament

From the buzzer-beaters to the bracket-busters, it's the most wonderful time of the year – and here's our guide to the action

Can the Kansas Jayhawks survive the bracket and reign as NCAA champions? Credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/Zuma

With the NFL in the depths of the free agency period, MLB in Spring Training (snore) and the NBA in its annual pre-playoff lull, it's time to turn our collective attention basketball?

Sure, the season may be too long, and the majority of the early schedule meaningless, but that all changes when the calendar flips to March, the NCAA Tournament kicks into high gear and 68 teams begin the quest to rule the college basketball universe. Over the next three weeks, underdogs will rise, brackets will bust, stars will be born and dreams will die. It truly is a sporting event unlike any other – there's a reason they call it March Madness, after all.

Plus, after a few seasons where one-and-done stars dominated (then departed for the NBA) this year's top teams are powered by actual upperclassmen, meaning this could be one of the most competitive, compelling and downright crazy tournaments in recent memory. And if all that isn't enough to pique your interest, there's a pretty good chance you'll also get blasted at a sports bar, too.

And since things are going to get wild, it's more important than ever to be informed about what's happening on the court (Perry Ellis isn't just a designer, after all). So here's everything you need to know about March Madness 2016. Strap in, it's gonna get crazy.

So why is it called 'March Madness' anyway?
You mean aside from the fact that it starts in March and shit routinely gets crazy? Turns out, the phrase "March Madness" debuted in 1939, when Henry V. Porter – assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association – used it as the title of an essay he wrote about the state's annual high school basketball tournament. The phrase was picked up by the reporters of the day, and soon became a popular nickname for the tourney, though it remained a regional phenomenon until 1982, when broadcaster Brent Musburger used the phrase on-air when calling a game for CBS. In 1988, the NCAA began licensing the term, but neither they (nor the IHSA) ever thought about trademarking it, allowing a sports and entertainment marketing company called Intersport to swoop in. Rounds of lawsuits followed, and the NCAA and the IHSA were eventually granted the right to trademark the term for their own purposes. In the 2000s, the IHSA relinquished control of the trademark (though it can still use it in association with high school championships), and in 2010, the NCAA paid Intersport $17.2 million to obtain sole ownership of the term.

Enough with the history lesson. Who's playing?
Well, 68 teams are vying for the championship this year, a number that has risen dramatically from the first tournament in 1939, which saw eight schools competing for the crown. The field expanded to 16 teams in the Fifties, had grown to 40 by the end of the Seventies, 64 by the mid-Eighties and, finally, reached 68 in 2011. This year's teams were revealed during an interminable two-hour "Selection Sunday" broadcast on CBS, which served as the official start of all the madness (kind of like the opening ceremony at the Olympics, only with less fireworks and more Charles Barkley fumbling with a touchscreen). Of course, midway through said broadcast, the entire bracket leaked, which was, admittedly, kind of awesome.

How are those 68 teams chosen?
Not so much by ranking or points scored, but by a selection committee made up of just ten people. Much like The Hunger Games, the folks that make up the Division I basketball committee sort through more than 350 eligible schools to come up with the final 68. Some of their work is done for them – 32 automatic bids go to conference champions – while the remaining 36 at-large teams are chosen based on "observations, discussions with coaches, directors of athletics and commissioners, and review and comparison of data." From there, the field of 68 must be seeded, based on committee member's ballots and a numeric system (the best teams are 1s), and the bracket built, which means more math. You know what? Maybe just read this

Who was left out?
A bunch of smaller schools, which play in so-called "mid-major conferences" (as opposed to the high-profile Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac-12), definitely got boned. That means no Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, St. Mary's or Valparaiso – upset-minded squads that always seem to make March Madness great. But some bigger names were also denied tickets to the Big Dance, like South Carolina, BYU, Florida and San Diego State. Sorry guys, there's always the NIT. 

Wait, what's the NIT?
Oh, it's the National Invitation Tournament, made up of teams that failed to receive a berth to the NCAA tournament. It actually predates the NCAA tourney by one year, but that doesn't mean anyone actually cares about it. Let's move on.

OK, so who's going to win?
Historically speaking, UCLA has won the most championships, with 11, and though they came close to adding to that total in the aughts, it's been more than 20 years since the Bruins cut down the nets (and they didn't even make this year's tournament). Kentucky has eight titles under their belt, while Duke's Blue Devils earned their fifth title last year, tying them for the third-most in tourney history. But the wild thing about this year's tournament is that no one is sure who will win: If you're filling out your bracket today, the safest bet may be overall number-one seed Kansas, a 5/1 favorite to take home the title. Trailing just behind is Michigan State (11/2) and North Carolina (7/1). And if you're a masochist? Go with Weber State, Buffalo or Green Bay – just three of the schools getting 250/1 odds.

Who does President Obama think will win?
Funny you should ask. Barry released his bracket on Wednesday and went with Kansas. However, he hasn't correctly predicted a winner since 2009…so, uh, maybe go with Weber State?

Who are some players to watch?
All eyes are on senior Oklahoma shooting guard Buddy Hield, who could carry the Sooners to their first-ever title. There's also Providence's Kris Dunn (considered the best all-around guard in college basketball) and Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (whose game is nearly as smooth as his name.) Others to follow include Virginia's duo of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, Oregon's Dillon Brooks, Indiana's playmaking Yogi Ferrell, Texas A&M's Jalen Jones, North Carolina's Brice Johnson, Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, Kansas' Perry Ellis and Duke's imminently punchable Grayson Allen (or his teammate, Brandon Ingram, who can fly).  

Who has the best name in the tournament?
Unquestionably Scoochie Smith.

So when does all the Madness begin?
Well, technically, it began on Tuesday, when Florida Gulf Coast flattened Fairleigh Dickinson and Wichita State waxed Vanderbilt in the first of the tournament's "First Four" games. Last night, Michigan beat Tulsa and Holy Cross shocked pretty much everybody not named Bill Simmons by sneaking past Southern in the second set of "First Fours" – which were added to the tournament when the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, and pit the four lowest at-large teams against the four lowest automatic bid qualifiers (i.e., crummy conference winners). The winners of those games move on to face higher-ranked teams in the tournament's first round, which begins Thursday. Got it?

Wait. Holy Cross – a team that went 10-19 during the season, then rattled off four-straight wins to take their conference tournament – advanced to the next round?
Yeah! And it was their first NCAA tournament win since 1953. That's why they call it March Madness.

So who are some other popular upset picks?
As always, look to the 12 seeds – they've won 36 percent of their first-round games over the past 31 tournaments. This year, that makes South Dakota State a trendy pick to surprise No. 5 Maryland, and Ivy League champs Yale are getting good odds against No. 5 Baylor. But don't sleep on the 11 seeds, either. Gonzaga, Northern Iowa, Michigan and Wichita State are each talented enough to pull an upset.

When's the title game?
The entire tourney reaches a crescendo on April 4, when the championship game is broadcast on TBS from Houston. (Yes, the finals for March Madness are in April. Don't ask.) It's interesting to note that this is the first time the title game will be seen on cable; a sign of either dragged-out death of broadcast television, or a sagging lack of interest in the game itself. Probably the former.

Why should I care about this?
Did we mention it's an excuse to drink in the afternoon? Besides that, there's the widely held belief that the NCAA tournament is the greatest American sporting event ever created, a pressure-cooker where Cinderella teams dance past midnight, championship dreams live and die on buzzer-beating shots and legends are born. There's also a pretty good chance you filled out a bracket, which means you have (at the very least) a vested interest in the outcome of these games. So try to ignore the fact that the NCAA is pure evil and the players you're watching aren't being paid a dime and…shit, what was the question again?