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The excitement surrounding college basketball comes to a head in March, when 68 Division I teams lay it all on the line for the chance to win the NCAA Tournament.

Held annually since 1939, the frenzied postseason competition—also referred to as March Madness—is one of the most popular sporting events in the U.S. Diehard and casual fans alike spend much of the month glued to the TV watching hard-fought showdowns, inspiring Cinderella stories, and shocking buzzer-beaters.

Many of them also fill out a tournament bracket following Selection Sunday and compete in office, family, or online pools to see who can accurately predict the outcome of college hoops' most prestigious competition.

It’s estimated nearly 70 million brackets are filled out at tournament time, and more than $10 billion is wagered on the event. That number could be even higher in 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of last year's tournament, thereby heightening anticipation for this year's edition.

We’re here to help you navigate the madness. Be sure to return to this space on Monday, March 15 for a complete downloadable bracket.

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Here are some key dates to circle on your calendar as the 2021 NCAA Tournament approaches.

2021 March Madness Key Dates

EventDate
First Four
March 18
First Round
March 19-20
Second Round
March 21-22
Sweet 16
March 27-28
Elite Eight
March 29-30
Final Four
April 3
National Championship Game
April 5

A Brief History of March Madness

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament features 68 college basketball teams from the D-I level competing in a single-elimination tournament for the title of national champion.

The tournament was created in 1939 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen spearheaded the effort to form an eight-team tournament as a counter to the National Invitation Tournament, established one year earlier.

Olsen’s Buckeyes appeared in the first national championship, where they lost to Oregon 46-33 in Evanston, Ill. Since then, the NCAA tournament has expanded from just an eight-team format to a field of 68.

As of 2011, the tournament opens with four “play-in” games, known as the First Four. These games determine four low-seeded teams who will go on to play in the round of 64, or the "first round" of the tournament.

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Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels cuts down the net as he celebrates the victory in the Elite Eight round of the Division I Men's Championship. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

The tournament is divided into the East, West, Midwest and South regions, each comprised of 16 teams seeded from Nos. 1-16 and announced on Selection Sunday. Of the 68 teams in the tournament, 32 receive automatic bids upon winning their respective conference tournaments. The other 36 are granted at-large bids, as determined by the NCAA selection committee.

The NCAA tournament is completed over the course of three weekends in the spring on neutral sites throughout United States. The Sweet Sixteen, or regional semifinal, and Elite Eight, or regional final, make up the second week of the tournament. The closing round, the Final Four, is typically held in April.

UCLA has won the most NCAA titles with 11. Kentucky comes in second with eight, followed by North Carolina at six and Indiana and Duke, each tied at five.

The tournament has been televised since 1969. Currently, the games are broadcast by TNT, TBS, CBS and truTV.

A brief history of the Final Four

The NCAA Final Four wasn’t always the Final Four we know today. The tournament’s inaugural year was won by Oregon in 1939 and found itself as a much less prestigious event than the NIT Tournament. Not only did the championship clash against the NIT, but the NCAA Tournament regions consisted of only the East and West.

Two teams from the East and two teams from the West would contend in the original NCAA Final Four. The East vs West two team encounter didn’t change until 1956, when the NCAA added the Far West region. The Far West region was added mainly because legendary future Hall of Fame member Bill Russell played for San Francisco at that time. In the same year, the NCAA would also add the Midwest as a region to round out to four regions total.

1956 was definitely a key year with the regional expansion for NCAA Final Four History, but not the most pivotal. The most pivotal year was 1979. The 1979 NCAA Final Four National Championship pitted Michigan State against small Indiana State with historical implications emerging.

This tournament featured the two of the best players in NBA history battling on the pinewood for college hoops glory: Magic Johnson with Michigan State and Larry Bird with Indiana State. No doubt, Magic vs. Larry in 1979 ushered in the modern-day NCAA Final Four.

Notable Final Four Games

1975 National Championship: UCLA 92, Kentucky 85 The great John Wooden won his final championship. It was the Wizard of Westwood’s 10th title.

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Larry Bird and Magic Johnson address the media about the 30-year anniversary of their two teams meeting in the NCAA Championship. (Photo by Detroit Free Press/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

1979 National Championship: Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64 Magic and Bird started one of the most important rivalries in NBA history while still in college.

1983 National Championship: NC State 54, Houston 52 NC State upset Phi Slamma Jamma with a last-second shot, handing Jimmy Valvano the NCAA Final Four trophy. Valvano would end up starting the Jimmy V. Foundation, one of the most important cancer research non-profit organizations in the world.

1985 National Championship: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 Villanova beats Georgetown in one of the biggest upsets in Final Four history. 1991 National Championship – Duke 72, Kansas 65 Coach Mike Krzyzewski wins his first of five national championships by beating Roy Williams coached Kansas. The Blue Devils upset heavily favored UNLV in the semifinals. Today, Williams coaches North Carolina, which means Coach K and Williams have continued the rivalry that started in 1991.