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March 27, 1939: March Madness is Born

The University of Oregon defeats The Ohio State University 46–33 on this day in 1939 to win the first-ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Final Four, as the tournament became known, has grown exponentially in size and popularity since 1939. By 2005, college basketball had become the most popular sporting event among gamblers, after the Super Bowl. The majority of that betting takes place at tournament time, when Las Vegas, the internet and office pools around the country see action from sports enthusiasts and once-a-year gamblers alike.

1. Only eight teams competed in the first NCAA tournament.
Oregon, nicknamed the “Tall Firs” due to the height of its starting frontcourt, beat out seven other teams to win the first NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1939. The field began growing soon after, reaching 16 teams from 1951 to 1952 and varying between 22 and 25 teams from 1953 to 1974. It then steadily increased from 32 teams in 1975 to 64 teams in 1985. The most recent expansion came in 2011, when 68 teams were invited to participate.

2. The NCAA tournament used to take a backseat to the NIT.
The National Invitation Tournament, or NIT, which predates the NCAA tournament by a year, was once considered the preeminent college basketball event. It was especially attractive to teams that wanted the media attention of playing at Madison Square Garden in New York. As late as 1970, Marquette coach Al McGuire chose the NIT over the NCAA tournament because his team had been placed in the Midwest Regional rather than close to home in the Mideast Regional. After that, the NCAA barred any school that declined a bid in its tourney from playing postseason games elsewhere. An antitrust lawsuit ensued decades later, but the NCAA settled it in 2005 as part of a deal in which it purchased the NIT. These days, the NIT is a consolation tournament, open to those teams that don’t make the cut for March Madness.

3. A point-shaving scandal disgraced one NCAA champion.
In 1950 the City College of New York became the only school ever to win the NIT and the NCAA tournament in the same year. The following season, however, several of its players were arrested for taking bribes from gamblers to shave points. This scandal eventually spread to more than 30 players at seven colleges, four of them in New York City. College hoops in the Big Apple has never been the same since.

4. The 1966 tournament struck a blow to racial exclusion.
African-Americans played a prominent role on some early NCAA championship teams, including future Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who led San Francisco to back-to-back titles in 1955 and 1956. Nonetheless, many schools refused to integrate until after Texas Western (now UTEP) became the first team with an all-black starting lineup to win the tournament in 1966. In the title game that year, Texas Western beat Kentucky, an all-white squad whose legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, once reportedly asked journalists if they could put an asterisk next to the names of white high school players so he would know who to recruit. By 1970, in Rupp’s next-to-last season, even Kentucky had a black player.

5. UCLA has by far the most titles.
UCLA has won 11 NCAA men’s basketball championships, the most of any school. Ten of those titles came over a 12-year stretch from 1964 to 1975, when stars such as Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton dominated the competition. Kentucky is in second place with eight titles, followed by Indiana and North Carolina with five each.

6. The single-game tournament record for most points has stood for over 40 years.
In 1970 Notre Dame shooting guard Austin Carr scored a tournament-record 61 points in a first-round win over Ohio. He followed that up with 52 points in a loss against Kentucky, good enough for fourth all-time. Since then, the closest anyone has come to breaking his mark is when Navy’s David Robinson notched 50 points in his final collegiate game in 1987.

7. No. 1 seeds are a good bet to make the Final Four.
Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, at least one No. 1 seed has made the Final Four every year except for 1980, 2006 and 2011. But all four No. 1 seeds have only advanced once, when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA pulled off the feat in 2008.

8. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds have lost all 112 times they have played No. 1 seeds. Most have gotten blown out, but a few have come tantalizingly close to victory. In 1989, for example, Princeton lost 50-49 to the Alonzo Mourning-led Georgetown Hoyas when a last-second shot fell short.

9. A No. 11 is the lowest seed ever to make the Final Four.
Three No. 11 seeds have decimated brackets across the nation by advancing to the Final Four: LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. The lowest seed to win the whole thing, meanwhile, was No. 8 Villanova in 1985.