March Madness Terminology Explained

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The excitement of March Madness continues to grow, but new fans may struggle to understand why if they don’t have a grasp of the March Madness lingo. Take a look at our list of terminology to improve your understanding of this popular college basketball event.

Basketball fans that are new to the NCAA tournament scene may be left scratching their heads when their friends and long-time fans start talking about things like BPI and Selection Sunday. In this article we unpack the jargon that is used during this part of the college basketball season.

The need-to-know list of March Madness terms

At-large bid

This is one of the two ways that teams can secure a spot in the March Madness tournament. An at-large bid is awarded to 36 teams who performed well enough to grab the attention of the selection committee, even if they didn’t win their respective conferences. The selection committee is free to choose whichever teams they see fit, as there is no limit on how many teams can be chosen from a particular conference.

Automatic bid

This is the second of the two ways teams can get a spot in the tournament. An automatic bid is awarded to the 32 teams who won their conferences. No other aspect of their play is taken into account, so if a team has a terrible season but still manages to win their conference, they will be awarded a spot in the tournament.

AP ranking

AP News defines the AP ranking as:

“The Associated Press college basketball poll started on Jan. 20, 1949. The original poll had 20 teams, with Saint Louis the first school to hold the No. 1 ranking. From the 1961-62 season through 1967-68 only 10 teams were ranked. It expanded again to 20 teams from 1968-69 through 1988-89. The Top 25 began the next season, and it has stayed at that number ever since. The AP’s final poll is released after the field for the NCAA Tournament is selected.”

The Big Dance, or The Dance

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The Big Dance, or The Dance, is another name for the tournament.

BPI

The College Basketball Power Index (BPI) is a ranking system invented by ESPN. ESPN describes the BPI as:

The College Basketball Power Index (BPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of performance going forward. BPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Strength of Record (SOR) is a measure of team accomplishment based on how difficult a team’s W-L record is to achieve. Game predictions account for opponent strength, pace of play, site, travel distance, day’s rest and altitude, and are used to simulate the season 10,000 times to produce season projections. Numbers update daily.

Bracketology

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The activity or process of predicting which teams will take part in the March Madness tournament, where they will place in the tournament brackets, and how they will rise (or fall) throughout the entire tournament. Once considered a very informal area of analytics, some universities are now offering students courses that include bracketology.

Bracket buster

A bracket buster is a weaker team that manages to defeat a stronger, higher ranking team, thereby causing an upset. Since higher ranked teams are expected to go further during the tournament, a statistically stronger team losing to a weaker team “busts the bracket”.

The bubble

Teams that have not had the best performance and are unsure whether they will get a spot through an at-large bid are considered to be “on the bubble”.

Cinderella

A lower seeded team that performs beyond what is expected of them is sometimes called a Cinderella or Cinderella team. These teams are considered to be a part of Cinderella stories, a very popular part of sport culture and tournaments. They are also deeply connected to people’s love of underdogs.

Cutting down the net, or Taking down the net

It has become tradition for the team that wins the March Madness tournament to cut down the net and take it home with them. This is also a ritual practiced in other major basketball tournaments, and is believed to have begun in 1947. Everett Case, the coach for North Carolina State Wolfpack, climbed upon his team’s shoulders and cut off part of the net as a souvenir after they won the Southern Conference tournament.

Elite Eight

The Elite Eight are the last eight teams that remain in the tournament by the fourth or quarterfinal round. The next round leaves only four teams remaining, and it also has its own special name.

Final Four

The Final Four is the last four teams that remain in the tournament by the fifth or semifinal round. The two winners of this round will face off for the tournament title.

First Four

When the number of teams participating in the tournament was increased from 64 to 68, a new set of matches were introduced to decide which four out of eight teams would claim the last four spots in the bracket and advance into the first round of the tournament.

First Four Out

The four teams that do not make it past the First Four matches fall into the 69th to 72nd spots in the rankings. While they will not be able to take part in the tournament, they will be automatically placed as the top four seeds at the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).

Hook and Hold

Serhii Pavlov attacks the basket fouled by opponent
The Hook and Hold is a new rule that was introduced after the 2017-18 season. Sports Illustrated describes the rule as “a new rule change that bans players from clamping an arm onto another player’s arm and restricting freedom of movement during a rebound.” It was introduced after Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the 2018 tournament.

KPI

KPI Sports is a sports analytics site operated by Michigan State University Assistant Athletic Director Kevin Pauga. These statistics are used to provide teams and fans with a better understanding of each team’s performance for each game.

The KPI website describes how the formula for their ranking system works:

The KPI formula is designed to assign a value to every game played during a season for each team. The formula assumes nothing and there are no preconceived notions or numbers assigned in the preseason. Each team’s value for each of their games is averaged over the course of a season for each team – meaning that every game played counts the same (unlike the weighted RPI). Values for the games adjust as more data is compiled.

Everything is based on the number 1. The worst loss possible is worth approximately -1.0, while the best win possible is worth approximately +1.0 (the best winning percentage a team can have is 1.000). The best loss may be worth -.01 while the worst win may be worth +.01. A hypothetical tie is worth 0.

NET

The NET is another ranking system. The NCAA discusses why they introduced this new system in an article from their official website:

The NCAA has developed a new ranking system to replace the RPI as the primary sorting tool for evaluating teams during the Division I men’s basketball season. The new ranking system was approved in late July after months of consultation with the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, top basketball analytics experts and Google Cloud Professional Services.

The NCAA Evaluation Tool, which will be known as the NET, relies on game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses. To make sense of team performance data, late-season games (including from the NCAA tournament) were used as test sets to develop a ranking model leveraging machine learning techniques. The model, which used team performance data to predict the outcome of games in test sets, was optimized until it was as accurate as possible. The resulting model is the one that will be used as the NET going forward.

One and done

One and done is not specifically a term used for March Madness, but may come up during this tournament period. It refers to the rule where players who have completed one year of college basketball become eligible for the NBA draft.

One Shining Moment

One Shining Moment is the official song of the March Madness tournament and is played to bring the tournament to a close, alongside a number of key video highlights.

POM, or KenPom

KenPom.com is another advanced statistics site. It is named after its creator Ken Pomeroy.

Quadrants

Quadrants are a part of the team sheets that the selection committee uses to evaluate a team’s performance. These quadrants make use of a number of metrics, including whether games are played at home, neutral courts, or away. Games played on neutral or away courts count more heavily in the evaluation.

Regional

There are four regions that make up the tournament bracket: the South, East, West, and Midwest. There are a number of factors that affect a team’s placement in a regional including seed and other teams in the event.

RPI

Teamrankings.com states the Rating Points Index (RPI) “were created by the NCAA, and used to be considered by the NCAA tournament selection committee during the selection and seeding process”. RPI has since been replaced by the NET rating.

SAG

The Sagarin (SAG) rankings are one of the metrics used to score a team’s performance on a team sheet. This ranking system was developed by American sports statistician Jeff Sagarin.

Selection Sunday

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This is the Sunday where the selection committee announces the 68 teams that will be taking part in the tournament.

Sweet 16

Before teams make it into the Final Four or the Elite Eight, they must first get into the Sweet 16, the top 16 teams that make it into the third round of the tournament.

Team sheet

All teams in Division I have a one page document (team sheet) that contains in-depth details about their performance from multiple sources.