March Madness is one of the most exciting and beloved events in American sports. The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament has enthralled audiences every spring since 1939 with dramatic upsets and Cinderella stories, as well as crowning a national champion. As March Madness has grown into a major cultural phenomenon, its format and history have evolved over the decades.

March Madness History

The tournament began in 1939 with just 8 teams participating. Oregon claimed the first NCAA basketball championship with a 46-33 victory over Ohio State. Over a decade later in 1951, the field doubled to 16 teams. Further expansion came in 1975 with the introduction of at-large bids, opening the door for more schools to have a shot.

The tournament bracket took shape in 1979 when seeding of teams was implemented for the first time. That year also marked another expansion, to 40 teams total. Just a few years later in 1985 came one of the most impactful developments, as the Big Dance grew to 64 teams with four even regions of 16 teams apiece—the format we all know and love today.

More tweaks came along the way, like the unveiling of the "First Four" play-in games in 2011 to bring 68 teams into the field. Over 8 decades, March Madness grew from an 8-team tournament to the massive nationwide spectacle it is today, culminating each spring in the dramatic Final Four showdown.

Of course, no history of March Madness is complete without the unprecedented event of 2020, when the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the entire tournament—the only time that's occurred since its founding. Fans eagerly awaited the return of March Madness in 2021 and were thrilled by Baylor's triumph.

March Madness Timeline

Here is a timeline of key events in the history of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament:

  • 1939: The first NCAA tournament is held with 8 teams participating. Oregon wins the first title.
  • 1951: The field expands to 16 teams.
  • 1975: At-large bids are introduced, ending the rule that only conference champions could participate.
  • 1979: The first seeding of teams occurs. The bracket expands to 40 teams overall.
  • 1985: The tournament expands to 64 teams, featuring four regions of 16 teams each. This is the modern format we know today.
  • 2011: The "First Four" play-in games are introduced as the tournament expands to 68 teams.
  • 2020: The tournament is cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marking the first time it is not held.
  • 2021: The entire tournament is played in Indiana as a precaution, with teams housed in a "bubble" environment.
  • 2024: The field remains 68 teams. March Madness continues to captivate the nation every spring as a beloved American sports tradition.