Basketball Terminology/The Language of March Madness

As college basketball's three-week national championship tournament expanded exponentially through the years, the event has spawned a jargon and terminology all of its own.

Jerry Mittleman
Jerry Mittleman

Though Shakespeare warned "beware the ides of March," this March 15th can be enjoyed as the start of the annual hoop fest known as March Madness.

As college basketball's three-week national championship tournament expanded exponentially through the years, the event has spawned a jargon and terminology all of its own.

The NCAA tournament has traditionally offered great drama often outdoing the hype and hyperbole. Some of the terms, like "The Final Four" and "March Madness," have become part of everyday sporting language. Others like "on the bubble" and bracketology can be seen as latter day conceits.

The event, also nicknamed "The Big Dance" as well as March Madness, started out as a little dance with eight participants in 1939. The field doubled to 16 in 1951 and by 1975 had doubled again to 32 teams. College basketball's present era of phenomenal great was fueled by the introduction of cable television in the 1980s and its effect on network broadcasting. The tournament field doubled again to 64 teams by 1985 and marketing of the event became increasingly slick and high-powered.

Television and the NCAA began using the term March Madness in the early 1980s to market the tournament, while Final Four was first used in 1978 for the final weekend's semifinal and championship round, and became its trademark by the 1980s. The term has since been widely borrowed by other sports as well as used in countries other than the U.S. Shortly after, the media continued promoting a party image of the tournament by dubbing the 16 finalists as the "Sweet Sixteen." This refers to the four semifinalists in each of the four regional championships, with an obvious reference to the tradition of lavish parties thrown for 16-year-old girls in North America.

Since nature - or certainly the nature of business - doesn't tolerate a vacuum, in recent years the championship contenders in the four regional finals are now known as the "Elite Eight."

This year the field increased to 68 teams. The NCAA has dubbed the four games to be played today and tomorrow, which consist of two play-in games and the last four teams to receive at-large bids as "The First Four," with all the requisite hype to boost television ratings.

The tournament's format has changed radically through the years. As the field has been enlarged the selection process has grown increasingly complex, with accompanying additional jargon. In earlier days, only regular season conference champions were invited with a precious 2-3 at large bids going to some of the many powerful independent schools. Unlike today, only two major conferences (the Southern and ACC ) at the time held post-season tournaments which determined their representative.

Today, more than 95 percent of all member schools are conference-affiliated, and every conference aside from the Ivy League has a post-season tournament. Conference champions are automatically invited to the big dance, but 37 - or more than half the bids - are awarded to also-rans determined by a designated committee on Selection Sunday, a nationally televised event held hours after the final conference championships are completed.

The huge amount of speculation around which schools will definitely be chosen, who won't be selected and who is "on the bubble" has developed into a fetish for college basketball junkies in recent years, and a cottage industry for media professionals. Joe Lunardi, a college basketball journalist, has termed the science of predicting the brackets of teams selected and their seeding the "science" of bracketology, and like many things that could only be found in America, offers an online college course on the subject.

For some these terms are trivial, for others sublime. For the uninitiated, the best advice may be, like when visiting a foreign country, ignore the language and just enjoy the fun.



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