Where Did March Madness Come From?

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Fans of basketball know what March means. For those rooting for their favorite teams, it can be a time of triumph or despair, stress or excitement. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Championship Tournament spotlights the greatest college basketball teams across the nation. Somewhere along the line, the tournament came to be known as March Madness. We’re delving into all your questions about the greatest players, hair-raising games, and the history of March Madness.

 What is the tournament, and when did it start?

 The NCAA National Championship Tournament is a single-elimination basketball tournament held every March in the United States. It was created by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and was first held by the Division 1 NCAA in 1939, featuring just eight teams. The championship game was between the University of Oregon and Ohio State. The University of Oregon won 46-33, making them the first team to win a national title. Over the years it has expanded, and today features 68 teams from across the nation.  
The 68 teams are divided into four regions (East, South, Midwest, and West) and organized into brackets determining who they will play as they move through the tournament. After the preliminary teams have been eliminated, each team is ranked within its region from 1 to 16. The games following this happen for three consecutive weekends in March, and are held in neutrally located sites throughout the country. Slowly, teams are eliminated. The pools are narrowed down until two teams who will go head-to-head in the championship game are determined. 

Why ‘March Madness’?

The tournament was not considered “March Madness” until nearly 50 years after it had begun taking place. In 1908, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) started a statewide basketball tournament. It became so popular that by 1939, the games held at the University of Illinois stadium were packed with spectators. High school official Henry V. Porter wrote, “a little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” He was the first to refer to the tournament as “March Madness” and it stuck. When the tourney concluded that year, the IHSA wrote an essay in which they referred to the tournament as March Madness.

Mario Chalmers’ historic shot.
The term soon grabbed media attention, and became a widespread term used to describe March’s nationwide basketball tournaments. By 1982, CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger used the phrase during his coverage of that year’s NCAA tournament, giving it the name we recognize today.
The use of the name did cause some trouble within the league, however. In 1989, the IHSA trademarked the name, and sued the NCAA in 1996 to prevent them from selling a video game with the title. Musburger admitted that he grabbed the term from the IHSA, compelling the two sides to forge an agreement that formed the March Madness Athletic Association. The deal allowed the NCAA to use the term for college basketball, and the IHSA to use it for high school basketball.
On a public scale, the name has proven itself to be apt. Fans creating their own bracket to guess the tournament’s outcome have a one in 9.2 quintillion chance of being correct. Despite this, 40 million people still put in their bids in the hopes of having a right prediction. The total sum of money spent on bets comes to around $9 million.

What Are Some of the Best Moments in March Madness History?

 Perhaps the biggest upset the tournament has ever seen came in 2018 when the 16th-seed University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) handedly beat the number 1 seed Virginia. Virginia had maintained a perfect 135-0 record throughout the entire season, and lost to UMBC 74 to 54. The loss sent shockwaves through the league, both within fans and players. Virginia was expected to easily take the tournament. No one anticipated such a defeat, making it one of the most memorable moments in the history of March Madness.
Likewise, making a comeback in any sporting event is impressive. The ability of a team to gather their gumption and push through to victory after a falling behind wows any spectator. In 2001, Duke was trailing Maryland 39 to 17 with 6:37 left in the first half. By most accounts, Maryland had the win. However, when the second half started, Duke came out swinging. Their 22-point comeback was the greatest in March Madness history, and led to their victory 94 to 84. Curiously, Duke is one of the teams that lands in second place for the best comeback, but on the other side. In 1989 against Seton Hall, Duke lost their first half 18-point lead and ended up losing the entire game 95 to 78.

Historical Stats of March Madness

The player to have ever scored the most points during a single game in March Madness is Austin Carr. A player for Notre Dame, Carr scored 61 points during one game in 1970. His record is followed by Bill Bradley of Princeton in 1965 with 58 points. Scoring records for March Madness as a whole belong to different individuals. Christian Laettner of Duke scored an astonishing 407 points between 1989 and 1992. Trailing him is Elvin Hayes of Houston with 358 points between 1966 and 1968.
There have been almost 80 championship tournaments since the first in 1939. Kentucky has had the most tournament attendances with 57, and North Carolina is the runner up with 49. Following those teams are Kansas and UCLA with 47 each, and Duke with 42. When it comes to having the most tournament wins, the front runners are the same. Kentucky sits in the number one spot with 126 and North Carolina is in the number two seat with 124 wins. Duke, Kansas, and UCLA all follow in third, fourth, and fifth respectively. But most important are the overall tournament championship wins. Here, UCLA wins out with 11, Kentucky trails with 8, followed by North Carolina with 6, and Duke and Indiana with 5 each.
For nearly 80 years, March Madness has been the pinnacle of athletic competition in college basketball. After a light tussle between the high school and collegiate leagues, March Madness was officially established as the catch-all name for the national championship tournament. By the time March arrives, college basketball fans have placed their bets, ordered their food, and tuned into their television to see if their favorite team will take the championship title.