basketball-men-d1 flag

Daniel Wilco | | March 23, 2023

March Madness history: A comprehensive guide to the men's tournament

Go ahead, pick your bracket based on mascots — here’s how

Here is a comprehensive guide to the NCAA tournament and its history, for college basketball fans of every level.

First, the TL/DR version:

  • The first NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament was played in 1939. 
    • It had eight teams. 
    • Oregon is the first NCAA tournament champion, beating Ohio State for the title.
  • The NCAA tournament field grew to 16 teams in 1951, doubled to 32 in 1975 and expanded to its current size of 64 teams in 1985. 
    • An opening-round game was introduced in 2001. Three more games were added to that round in 2011 for the inaugural First Four.
  • The term 'March Madness' was first used in reference to basketball by an Illinois high school official, Henry V. Porter, in 1939. 
  • March Madness wouldn't become associated with the NCAA tournament until Brent Musberger used it during coverage of the 1982 tournament.
  • One Shining Moment, the anthem of March Madness, was first aired following the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1987. 
    • It was initially scheduled to run after Super Bowl XXI but the game coverage ran long.
  • Believe it or not, the NIT (1938) was actually founded before the NCAA tournament. 
    • The NIT field is now usually made up of teams that miss the NCAA tournament.
  • UMBC owns the biggest upset in March Madness history, becoming the first 16-seed to win against a 1-seed. The Retrievers beat No. 1 Virginia 74-54 in 2018.
  • Duke owns the largest comeback and second-largest lead blown in NCAA tournament history
    • The 2001 Blue Devils stormed back to beat Maryland after being down 22 points while Duke’s 1989 team lost despite leading Seton Hall by 18.
  • Christian Laettner (Duke), is the NCAA tournament’s all-time leading scorer with 407 points. Only nine players have more than 300 points in March Madness.
  • Notre Dame’s Austin Carr is not among the nine, but he holds the NCAA tournament’s single-game scoring record with 61 points in a 1970 game against Ohio.
  • Loyola Marymount is part of the three highest scoring games in NCAA tournament history. The Lions’ 149-115 win over Michigan in 1990 is the highest scoring game in March Madness.
  • There have been 80 NCAA tournaments between 1939 and 2019. Kentucky has the most NCAA tournament appearances (58) and NCAA tournament wins (129).
  • UCLA has the most NCAA men's basketball national championships with 11, including a stretch of seven titles in a row between 1967 and 1973.
  • Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has the most NCAA tournament wins by a single coach (97).

MORE: Browse every NCAA bracket since 1939

When did March Madness start?

The first NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament was in 1939.

Who won the first March Madness?

In 1939, the Oregon Ducks went 29-5 on the season and beat Ohio State 46-33 to win the national title in the first NCAA tournament.

When did March madness expand to 64 teams?

The 1939 tournament featured just eight teams. In 1951, the field doubled to 16, and kept expanding over the next few decades until 1985, when the modern format of a 64-team tournament began. In 2001, after the Mountain West Conference joined Division I and received an automatic bid, pushing the total teams to 65, a single game was added prior to the first round. In 2011, three more teams were added, and with them, three more games to round out the First Four.

1939-49 Brackets: 1939 |1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946 | 1947 | 1948 | 1949
1950s: 1950 | 1951 |1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959
1960s: 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964 | 1965 | 1966 |1967 | 1968 | 1969
1970s: 1970 | 1971 | 1972 | 1973 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 
1980s: 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 19841985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989
1990s: 1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999
2000s: 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
2010s: 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014| 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 
COVID-19 and college sports: Latest updates and schedules


Where did the phrase “March Madness” come from?

March Madness was first used to refer to basketball by an Illinois high school official, Henry V. Porter, in 1939, but the term didn’t find its way to the NCAA tournament until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger (who used to be a sportswriter in Chicago) used it during coverage of the 1982 tournament. The term has been synonymous with the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament ever since.

What is One Shining Moment?

One Shining Moment is the anthem of March Madness. The song was written by David Barrett in 1986, and first used for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1987. After each tournament, the song accompanies a montage of the best moments of March Madness, from every buzzer beater and major upset to reactions of the fans themselves.

Barrett wrote the song as an ode to basketball, but it was first scheduled to run after Super Bowl XXI. After the coverage of the game ran long, the song never aired for the Super Bowl, but CBS producer Doug Towey used it in the following March Madness, where it has lived ever since. 

RELATED: The man behind One Shining Moment

Is the NIT part of March Madness?

No. While the National Invitation Tournament (or NIT), is operated by the NCAA, it is separate from the Division I men's basketball tournament. The NIT was actually founded before the NCAA tournament, in 1938, but did not become as popular as the NCAA tournament. The NIT's field is usually made up of the top Division I teams that did not receive an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

What is the biggest upset in March Madness history?

This one isn't close. That'd be 16-seed UMBC's 74-54 win over 1-seed Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament. It was the first time in the history of the tournament that a 16 seed beat a 1 seed, after the 1 seeds were a perfect 135-0 through college basketball history. Hard to find a bigger underdog than that.

The 16-seed upset was seen as virtually impossible, and not only did UMBC pull it off against the top overall seed of the tournament, the game wasn't even close, with a final margin of 20 points. That'll get you to the top of the list of March Madness upsets.

Full replay: UMBC's historic 16-over-1 upset vs. Virginia in 2018

What is the biggest March Madness comeback?

With 6:37 left in the first half of a 2001 NCAA tournament game, Duke trailed Maryland 39-17. The Blue Devils would rally to win 94-84. That 22 point comeback is the largest in the history of the tournament.

Strangely enough, Duke is on the other side of the runner-up, as the Blue Devils blew a 18-point first-half lead against Seton Hall in 1989, as the Pirates eventually won 95-78.

Who has scored the most points in March?

Christian Laettner is the player who has scored the most points in an NCAA tournament career, with 407. From 1989 to 1992, Laettner played in an unprecedented 23 NCAAT games (reminder, one team can only play six games per year if they make it to the title game, i.e. 24 total throughout a four-year period), while averaging 17.7 points per game.

Only nine players have eclipsed the 300-point mark during NCAA tournament play:

Points Player Team Years Games PPG
407 Christian Laettner Duke 1989-92 23 17.7
358 Elvin Hayes Houston 1966-68 13 27.5
328 Danny Manning Kansas 1985-88 16 20.5
325 Tyler Hansbrough North Carolina 2006-09 17 19.1
324 Oscar Robertson Cincinnati 1958-60 10 32.4
308 Glen Rice Michigan 1986-89 13 23.7
304 Lew Alcindor UCLA 1967-69 12 25.3
303 Bill Bradley Princeton 1963-65 9 33.7
303 Corliss Williamson Arkansas 1993-95 15 20.2

Oscar Robertson's entry on that list is especially impressive, as Robertson played less than half the games that Laettner did, but finished with 80 percent of Laettner's point total.

What is the highest scoring March Madness game ever?

The highest scoring game in NCAA tournament history came on March 18, 1990, when Loyola Marymount beat Michigan by a final score of 149-115 to total 264 points. That score is miles ahead of the second place total of 234, also set by Loyola Marymount.

RELATED: Breaking down the highest scoring games in NCAA March Madness history

Here is the full leaderboard:

Points Winning team Score Losing team Score Year
264 Loyola Marymount 149 Michigan 115 1990
234 Loyola Marymount 119 Wyoming 115 1988
232 UNLV 131 Loyola Marymount 110 1990
227 Iowa 121 Notre Dame 106 1970
225 Houston 119 Notre Dame 106 1971
223 (OT) Arizona 114 UNLV 109 1976
221 Arkansas 120 Loyola Marymount 101 1989
220 North Carolina 123 Loyola Marymount 97 1988
216 UNLV 121 San Francisco 95 1977
216 (2OT) West Virginia 111 Wake Forest 105 2005

Who scored the most points in a March Madness game?

Notre Dame's Austin Carr holds the record for the most points in an NCAA tournament game, with 61 against Ohio in 1970. Carr was a machine for the Fighting Irish and owns three of the top five single-game NCAA tournament scoring performances.

To get an idea of how impressive his performance was, we rewatched that game to see how Carr scored every one of his record-setting 61 points.

Here is the list of the top 10 single-game scoring performances:

Points Player Team Opponent Year
61 Austin Carr Notre Dame Ohio 1970
58 Bill Bradley Princeton Wichita State 1965
56 Oscar Robertson Cincinnati Arkansas 1958
52 Austin Carr Notre Dame Kentucky 1970
52 Austin Carr Notre Dame TCU 1971
50 David Robinson Navy Michigan 1987
49 Elvin Hayes Houston Loyola Chicago 1968
48 Hal Lear Temple SMU 1956
47 Austin Carr Notre Dame Houston 1971
46 Dave Corzine DePaul Louisville 1978

What team has the most NCAA tournament appearances?

There have been 80 NCAA tournaments since 1939, and there are five schools that have been to more than half of them. Kentucky has the most NCAA tournament appearances with 57, followed by North Carolina with 49.

Here is the full list of the top 10 teams:

Appearances Team First appearance Most recent appearance
58 Kentucky 1942 2019
50 North Carolina 1941 2019
48 Kansas 1940 2019
47 UCLA 1950 2018
43 Duke 1955 2019
39 Indiana 1940 2016
39 Louisville 1951 2019
38 Syracuse 1957 2019
38 Villanova 1942 2019
36 Notre Dame 1953 2017

Which team has the most NCAA tournament wins?

Again, it's Kentucky leading the way. The Wildcats have 129 NCAA tournament wins, for an average of 2.2 wins per appearance. The Tar Heels are right behind with 126 wins, or 2.5 per appearance.

Here is the full top 10:

Wins Team
129 Kentucky
126 North Carolina
114 Duke
108 Kansas
101 UCLA
69 Michigan State
66 Indiana
64 Syracuse
61 Louisville
61 Villanova

Who has the most NCAA tournament championships?

In the 81 years since the tournament’s inception, 36 different teams have won a championship, but no team has won more than UCLA, which has 11, 10 of which came a span of 12 years from 1964 to 1975.

Who has won every NCAA tournament?

Here is the list of every men’s basketball national championship since the NCAA tournament first started in 1939.

How can I find more March Madness records?

You can find the most recent March Madness record books on The Final Four record books are here and the NCAA men's basketball records are here.

10 lessons learned in this year's men's college basketball attendance numbers

Attendance numbers are out and they are telling a different side of the story that was the 2022-23 men's college basketball season.

Every HBCU player ever selected in the NBA Draft

A complete history of HBCU players in the NBA draft, including the 351 HBCU men's basketball players selected since 1950.

Remembering Denny Crum, from Wizard’s apprentice to the hall of fame

Denny Crum and Louisville are forever paired, writes Mike Lopresti, but it could have been different for the guard who played for John Wooden in the 1950s and coached alongside him through the 60s.

Subscribe To Email Updates

Enter your information to receive emails about offers, promotions from and our partners