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Glossary of Confusing Words: March Madness Explained

As the end of March approaches, so does a sporting event that captivates almost everyone in college (and many who have long graduated), March Madness. I got the inspiration for this post from the excitement of having my own school’s team – the University of Kansas Jayhawks - making the finals, to be played tonight. Now I guess I should explain what that means.

As you might know by now (or in case you don’t there is a post here about it: March Madness hits University of Kansas), March Madness is the most important college basketball tournament in the U.S. 68 Division I basketball teams qualify each year to play in the tournament.

But what exactly is Division I? The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is the body that rules over the competition of all the higher education institutions that participate in competitive sporting events in the U.S and Canada. There are over 1,200 schools involved, so they are divided into smaller groups called Division I, Division II and Division III.

NCAA rules state that Division I and Division II schools can offer scholarships to athletes while Division III schools may not do so. As you might assume, the numbers of the division indicate the relative competitive level of the schools participating on the divisions, I being the most competitive and III the least. These divisions apply to all the sports that an institution might have.

Furthermore, schools are divided in different conferences so that they can compete more easily with one another. Usually these conferences are divided by region, but they don’t have to be. Currently, the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team holds eight straight conference titles, which lead us this year to participate in the Division I tournament with a number 2 seed.

Now, let’s talk about seeds.

The NCAA Division I basketball tournament consists of 68 teams that are divided in 4 smaller tournaments inside the tournament called “regions.” Each of those 4 small tourneys has 17 teams ranked or “seeded” from 1 to 16 and playing for a spot in the Final Four; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Having 68 teams in total, there are preliminary games, officially considered the first round, only played by eight teams, which will qualify those teams to play in the regional tournament. Teams playing those pre-qualifier games are usually low seeds, from 12 to 16 selected randomly, matched against upper-ranked teams. Therefore a number 1 usually plays the 16, the 2nd seed plays the 15th and so forth. The way teams get seeded is based on a ranking made by experts based on how well each team doing over the regular season. The champions of each small tournament get a ticket to the Final Four, which represents the semifinals.

A stranger to the name might ask, why do they call it Final Four? Not having found an official response, I’ve settled with the idea of having clever names for different stages of the big tournament, emphasizing the semifinal since it is an accomplishment of having won a regional tournament.

So, are there more of these cute names in this basketball competition? Why yes there are. The first one is called the Sweet Sixteen, a play on the traditional party thrown for sixteen year old girls as well as the sixteen teams left in the competition; and the second one is called the Elite Eight, using wordplay where both words have the same initial and referring to the group of eight contenders remaining.

For the over 300 schools in Division I, getting to play in the tournament at all is a big enough feat, but getting to the Sweet Sixteen means winning three or four games and anyone who makes it to the Elite Eight has won four or five tournament games. Not to mention the Final Four – to get there you have to compete with five to six other schools, including at least one that is ranked among the first eight nationwide.

And after the Final Four? The final, obviously, which this year is going to have Kansas coming victorious!