Each March, even those that are not fans of college basketball find themselves mesmerized by what has become known as March Madness, the Big Dance, the NCAA’s end-of-year tournament that decides the national champion. It’s a far cry from the game of basketball at its beginnings.
Founding of Basketball
The game of basketball traces its roots back to what was then as a YMCA training school. Today, it is Springfield College located in the city that bears its name. There, a young physical education teacher was put in charge of finding a way to keep track athletes in shape during the winter. James Naismith came up with basketball.
The original game was nothing like what it is today. Naismith used a peach basket, with the bottom still intact, as the hoop. Eventually, the metal hoop and backboard replaced the peach basket. The earliest games were also played with more than the current five players per side. The first recorded game between two college teams came in 1895 when Hamline University lost 9-3 to Minnesota A&M (which later became part of the University of Minnesota). Prior to 1895, many teams would play with up to nine players per side
The Rise of College Basketball
Naismith was also very important in the establishing of college basketball. In addition to developing the games basic rules, Naismith became the first coach at the University of Kansas. He coached for six years before giving way to the legendary Phog Allen. It was Allen who coached the very successful Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) and Dean Smith (North Carolina). All three programs remain successful to this day.
In the early 1900s, injuries in the game football led to the creation of what would become the NCAA. The organization would oversee all intercollegiate sports including basketball. It wasn’t until 1938 that the NCAA organized a national championship for its teams. The original national championship was the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) which was held in New York (and still is to this day). One year later, the NCAA established its own tournament to determine a national champion.
The NCAA Tournament
Before the NIT in 1938, there were a few different organizations that held postseason basketball tournaments. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held a national championship tournament every year beginning in 1898. The tournament featured non-college teams. The first tournament with only college teams was the 1904 Summer Olympic Games held in St. Louis, Missouri. Hiram College won the Olympic gold that year.
In 1922, the National Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament became the first postseason tourney exclusively for college teams. At the time, there were six major conferences and the champion from each participated. The first organization to hold an annual national collegiate championship was the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). It was played in 1937, but was overtaken by the NIT the following year.
The NCAA adopted its tournament in 1939 and quickly it became the most prestigious of all postseason tournaments. Prior to 1950, teams could play in multiple tournaments. In 1950, the NCAA ruled that no team could participate in both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments in the same year. When a gambling scandal rocked the NIT, the NCAA tourney became the elite of postseason tournaments by 1960.
The original NCAA tournament had just eight teams but expanded to 16 in 1951. Two years later, the field increased to 22 and eventually to 25 in 1969. In 1975, the tournament increased in size again to 32 teams and in 1979, the year that pitted Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans against Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, the field was 40 teams.
A year later in 1980, the number of teams increased to 48 and 1983 went to 52. A year later, one more team was added until finally in 1985 the NCAA tournament field was set at 64. It remained that way until 2000 when one more team and a play-in game was added. The 65-team field lasted until 2010. In 2011, the current 68-team model was instituted.
Currently, there are 353 colleges and universities playing NCAA Division I basketball. There are a total of 32 conferences in which all of the teams play. Conferences as of 2018-19 are:
Colonial Athletic Association
Metro Atlantic Athletic
The NCAA also oversees tournaments in Division II and Division III as well as women’s tournaments at all three levels.
The impact of Naismith on the game is still seen today as the three winningest programs – in terms of both wins and winning percentage – are Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Along with Duke and UCLA, these five programs are known as the “bluebloods” of college basketball. UCLA holds the NCAA record for most national championships with 11. The Bruins won those titles under legendary coach John Wooden.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is now the winningest of all-time. Now in his 38th season, Krzyzewski has 1,048 wins (as of February 14, 2019) in his career. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas have been perennial favorites to play for the NCAA national championship for the last several seasons.