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Your Indispensable Guide to That Giant NCAA Basketball Tournament


(Photo: Pierre E. Debbas /

I wasn’t born into a sports-fan family. Earlier generations did not instill my devotion to the University of Connecticut Huskies, my antagonistic feelings toward Duke and Syracuse, or my idea of a perfect evening: NCAA tournament opening weekend, all-you-can-watch buffet of games on multiple TVs at a sports bar, preferably with a big platter of wings and an IPA in front of me. Back in the late 1980s, a friend and I watched as UCONN made an improbable run in the tourney, and that was it: I was hooked for life. And although you might find me on any given day in January or February quite happily watching any given regular-season game between any given opponents, the madness that is March represents the pinnacle of the year. The best thing? You don’t need to be a die-hard fan to enjoy it. (Case in point: our tournament-inspired topknot throwdown.) Here’s your guide to making the most of the most wonderful sports event ever. 

1. How does the tournament work? 

The NCAA tournament gathers the top 68 teams in college basketball to compete against each other. On Selection Sunday (this year it happened yesterday, March 17), the all-powerful selection committee announces the field, the following Tuesday 8 teams compete in what’s known as play-in games, or the first round, for bottom-seeded spots in the core field of 64, and that Thursday, things really kick off in a two-day frenzy of 32 games played in spots across the country. Each round, the losing teams are eliminated and only the winners advance.

2. What’s a bracket and what the heck are seeds?

Each team receives a “seed,” or ranking, by the committee. A team’s seed is based on its record, the conference it plays in (Big East, Big 12, SEC, ACC, etc.), and other teams it played against during the season. The more wins against other strong teams, the higher a team’s seed. And the higher seed a team gets, the more favorable its matchups. For example, #1 seeds are always initially matched up against #16s, #2s against #15s, #3 against #14s, and so on. The overall bracket is divided into four regional brackets of 16 teams each. When a team wins, it advances to the next round and faces the next opponent in the bracket. To get a spot in the storied Final Four, a team must win its regional bracket, which takes four wins. 

3. How do I fill out a bracket?

People much more learned than I have devoted entire books to what’s known as “bracketology.” But I’ve also seen people fill out brackets in office pools completely blindly and fare pretty well. Without getting into too much detail, a safe, easy strategy is to pick higher seeds in early rounds, always pick at least one 12-seed upset against a 5-seed, and as the bracket advances, mix it up with favorites and a couple of so-called Cinderellas. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just ask a coworker or friend to help. And be sure to check out our video on achieving bracket glory with the Brooklyn Nets’ announcer, David Diamante

4. How can I sound like I know what I’m talking about while watching games?

Ah, the sweet sound of basketball lingo. Here’s a rundown:

Positions on the court: There are five players per team on the court at all times. Guards are a team’s main ball handlers and passers, with the point guard running the team’s offense. Forwards are mainly responsible for shooting and rebounding, while the center is usually the tallest player, also focused on scoring, rebounding, and defending the basket. 

Zone vs. man-to-man defense: When guarding their basket, teams generally either play man-to-man defense, in which each player is assigned to defend against a specific opposing player, or zone defense, in which each player is assigned to a “zone” of the floor. “The Hoosiers aren’t penetrating the zone” = The Hoosiers can’t get past their opponents’ zone-based defense. 

The finer points of three-point plays: There are two ways players can score three points. First, if they shoot a basket from “beyond the arc,” the line on the floor that delineates a two-point from a three-point basket. The other way is if a player is fouled while shooting and still makes the basket: The team gets the regular basket plus the opportunity to shoot an additional free throw, which results in three points if they sink the free throw (if the player was shooting a three-pointer, then there’s actually the opportunity for four points). 

Speaking of free throws: If fouled in the act of shooting, a player always gets to shoot free throws: three if they were shooting a three-pointer, two if they were shooting a two-pointer (aka a “deuce”), and one if the shot was successful. If a foul is committed away from the basket, the foul is recorded, but no free throws are awarded. Once a team has committed seven fouls, however, the other team is “in the bonus,” where a player who’s been fouled shoots a “one and one”—if they make the first free throw, they get a second free throw attempt. Once a team is up to 10 fouls, any player on the opposing team who’s fouled gets two free throws no matter where the foul occurred (“double bonus”). 

The lane, the key, and the paint: All these terms refer to the same thing: the area of the court closest to the basket and delineated by the baseline, free throw lanes, and semi-circle at the top. “Points in the paint” mean points scored within this area, and offensive players can remain here for only three seconds at a time (“three-second rule”). 


Check out our interview with March Madness veteran and NCAA champion Maya Moore, now a WNBA star. 


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