March Madness: Terminology Explained

The NCAA college basketball tournament, also known as "March Madness", is a classic college basketball tournament adored by fans, particularly in the US. It has grown over time to be one of the major sporting events in the basketball calendar year.  It was a huge disappointment for sports fans when the 2020 men's and women's college basketball tournaments were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

March Madness is unique in many aspects, including some of the terminology used. If you are new to or unfamiliar with the tournament, you may have a rough time keeping up with the March Madness community.  When it comes to March Madness terminology, let us help explain some of the common terms you ought to know.



During the tournament draw, the 68 participating teams are divided into four regions, with each region carrying up to 17 teams. Most of the teams in each region are assigned specific "seeds" from 1-16. The number 1 seeds are considered the strongest teams, followed by the number 2 seeds, and so on. In the first round, the strongest seed (number 1) plays the weakest seed (number 16), while the number 2 seed plays the number 15 seed, then number 3 plays number 14, etc.  The idea is that the top seeds are "rewarded" for their regular season and conference tournament play by playing a weaker opponent in the first round.  

The First Four

Following the expansion of the NCAA March Madness tournament to 68 teams, the First Four terminology found its way into the NCAA matrix.  This refers to the first four games of the tournament, often played on Tuesday and Wednesday after the Selection Sunday.  The games are played between the four lowest seeded automatic bids and the four lowest seeded at-large bids.  One "First Four" game takes place in each region.  Although these are considered official tournament games, they serve more as "play-in" games, with the winner earning an official seed in the first round of the tournament.  

Sweet Sixteen

The Sweet Sixteen refers to the third round of the NCAA March Madness tournament, also known as the Regional Semifinals.  During this round, sixteen teams remain, four from each region.  Each team at this point has won two tournament games (three if the team played in the First Four).

Elite Eight

The Elite Eight refers to the fourth round of the NCAA March Madness tournament, also known as the Regional Finals.  During this round, only eight teams remain, two from each region.

The Final Four

The Final Four refers to the last four remaining teams in the March Madness tournament after the field is narrowed down through single elimination. Each of these four teams represents a specific region (i.e. East, West, Midwest, South) and are considered regional champions.



This sounds more like college slang, right? Yes, bracketology is akin to gambling. Before the tournament gets underway, fans gather to predict the teams that will make it to the 68-team competition.  Once the seedings are in place, fans fill out their "brackets" to pick who will win each game and which team will ultimately take the crown.  The process of filling brackets is factors in a lot in math, analytics, statistics and the likes. Pretty much everyone wants to make the right picks and win big!


Automatic bid

Division 1 comprises up to 32 basketball conferences ,with each conference having its own tournament. Each conference has their own tournament, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the 68-team NCAA March Madness tournament.

At-large bid

The remaining 36 slots are determined by at-large bids. This is where the selection committee uses various criteria to choose 36 teams that caught their eye throughout the regular season and conference tournament games but did not win the respective conference tournaments. There is no restriction on the number of teams of the same conference who can earn a slot via the at-large bid. It is fully dependent on the decision of the selection committee.

The Bubble

Much like a bubble that can pop at any instant, the bubble team is a team whose chance to qualify for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament is borderline, or "on the bubble". The team has a record that is good enough to qualify, along with other teams with similar records.  However, since there are only a certain number of at-large slots in the tournament, they have to wait until the brackets are revealed to find out if they will be a part of the March Madness tournament. Because no one knows which criteria the selection committee will use to fill the final open slots in the tournament, the bubble "bursts" for some teams on Selection Sunday when they find out their team was not chosen.    

AP Ranking

AP ranking stands for Associated Press ranking. A group of 65 sports journalists cast their votes to select their current top 25 teams that participated in Division 1 tournaments. This practice has been around since 1948 and is a relative ranking of the strongest teams, but does not determine the teams chosen to participate in the NCAA tournament.


BPI refers to the College Basketball Power Index created by ESPN. It represents the disparity of a team’s performance to the average performance. It technically quantifies whether the team is above or below average and gives a projection of the team’s performance going forward. By finding the difference between the BPI Offensive and BPI Defensive, BPI estimates are obtained.


No one hates this term like the higher-ranked teams that are considered the favorites in the tournament. The term upset is used when the lower-ranked teams, known as underdogs, surprisingly beat a higher-seeded or stronger team. If it happens in an early round of the tournament, it is commonly referred to as "bracket buster".


When the tournament starts, scores of fans bet on certain teams to do well while others flop. However, some teams shock the NCAA March Madness tournament by stringing together wins over higher seeds. This kind of team is what is referred to as Cinderella as they try to turn their tournament run into a magical fairy tale with a happy ending!

Cutting down the Net

If you have watched NCAA March Madness then you probably have seen a coach or player of the team that lifts the tournament trophy cutting the basketball net after the final whistle. The next time you see it, don't think it is mischief. No this is purely NCAA March Madness tradition!

Wrap up

We have certainly not exhausted the list of March Madness terminology, but these should help put you on the same wavelength with other fanatics of the tournament!
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