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The NCAA Menís Division I Basketball Championship is contested each year via a 65 team elimination tournament. As it is always held in late March, after the individual conference tournaments, the competition is often referred to as 'March Madness'.

Christian Laettner hits 'The Shot' against Kentucky in 1992

Apart from perhaps the Super Bowl, no sporting event captures North America's attention quite like the semi finals of the tournament affectionately known as the Final Four. All games are broadcast on national television, and it is one of the busiest times of year for online sportsbooks, who take bets on all games played.

The betting interest in the March Madness tournaments stems from the popularity of basketball, the quality of the matches, the potential for seeing up-and-coming stars and one other important factor Ė rivalry between colleges. Most American college graduates will tune in to support their alma mater school and they will often have a light wager too. As well as the usual types of basketball bets, office-pools and bracket contests are also popular.

For many schools, it is a major achievement to simply be invited to play in the tournament. Team qualification for the tournament is either earned by winning a conference tournament, winning the Ivy League championship, or by being granted at-large bids by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Selection Committee. At-large bids are granted by invitation, rather than being granted as a right due to a conference tournament win, and are granted based on perception of how competitive a team will be in the tournament.

Once the competing teams have been selected, the NCAA Selection Committee also decides where to seed teams and the brackets they will be assigned. Due to the tournament being single elimination, there is no reseeding and no consolation games. Low seeded teams are expected to be eliminated in the early stages of competition, but every year there will be at least one 'cinderella' team' who performs better than expected.

As 65 teams compete, obviously one team must be eliminated in order to even the numbers before pool play starts. This has resulted in a play-in game being played prior to the March Madness tournament proper. Two teams square off, with the winner advancing to the regular tournament rounds. The play-in was introduced in 2001 as the NCAA did not want to have to drop one of the at-large bids and instead opted for a play-in opening round game.

After the opening round, the March Madness tournament then runs in standard single elimination format, with winners advancing to the next round and losers eliminated from the competition. When sixteen teams remain, it is known as the 'Sweet Sixteen'. When eight teams are left they are the 'elite eight' and when just four remain, they are of course the 'Final Four'. Many sportsbooks will allow you to bet on your team's chances of making it to one of these rounds.

The Final Four national semifinals are some of the most exciting games in college basketball and in US sports. Recent changes have meant that the Final Four teams are set up against one another based on their seed ranking, to better ensure that the final will really be the most heavily contested game of the tournament.

There is a lot of history behind the Championship, as the tourney dates back to 1939. Originally conceived by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the NCAA quickly took over. It had competition from the NIT college basketball tournament to begin with in terms of which tournament truly decided the champion team each year, but the NCAA eventually became dominant. Visit our Final Four Winners page to see which schools have participated over the years.

The format of the March Madness tournaments has changed over the years, starting with only eight teams contesting it from 1939 to 1950. This number has gradually increased as more tournaments have been held, with the number having settled at 65 teams from 2001 onward. Itís likely that this number will increase further in the future, especially considering how little time the format has remained unchanged in the tournamentís history.

An interesting piece of history for the March Madness tournament is how it got this nickname. When the tournament was first held in 1939, the nickname did not exist. It wasnít until the eighties that the March Madness moniker was popularly applied to the NCAA championships. Credit for this is partially given to Brent Musburger, a sportscaster who began referring to the tournament as March Madness in tournament broadcasts.

The term was actually used more generically for many years to simply refer to season-ending college basketball tournaments. The Illinois High School Association and the NCAA in fact hold dual ownership of the March Madness trademark, awarded by a court decision even though the IHSA had actually previously bought the trademark rights from a production company years before, as its own basketball finals had been referred to as March Madness for years.

March Madness has seen a good share of memorable basketball moments. Michael Jordan established his career by scoring a difficult last-minute shot in the 1982 Championship game against Georgetown. This helped catch the attention of talent scouts and he went on to become the most legendary name in the sport. The tournament also has a reputation for Cinderella teams who seemingly have no chance ending up moving onto later stages and winning the tournament. For instance, while the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks were an 11th seed team, this didnít stop them from taking the championship. Coached by Larry Brown, they beat the Oklahoma Sooners by a close 83-79.

Check out the BetUS College Basketball section or our own live basketball odds page for the latest college basketball betting markets.

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