No matter how carefully you compose your bracket, anything can happen during March Madness—from dominating defeats to awe-inspiring Cinderella stories. It’s been that way since the very first NCAA tournament in 1939. Take a look back at the good, the bad, and the most surprising moments that have occurred since the first game.
1939: The First Tournament
The tournament began back in 1939 as a Division I men’s college basketball tournament on suggestion of Ohio State University coach Harold Olsen. The first team to take home the NCAA championship was the University of Oregon, who beat Ohio 46-33.
1948: Kentucky Advances Into the Final Four
The University of Kentucky players line up before the Final Four game in 1948. The tournament is single elimination format and, at the time of its origination, only included eight teams.
1948: A Pool for Talent Scouts
A group of major league talent scouts—who are also former pro players—line up to watch the athletes compete in 1948.
1950: A Victory for City College
The City College of New York clenched the title over Bradley University in the 1950 tournament. Here, the winning team gathers around their coach with their trophy.
1952: Expanding the Tournament
The coach of the victorious University of Kansas basketball team prepares to kiss the winning trophy in their locker room. A year prior, the tournament was expanded to include sixteen college teams, instead of just eight.
1953: And Expanding Venues
As the tournament continued to expand, so did the number of venues. In the 1953, there were 21 teams and nine venues—three of which were built specifically for the tournament. Here, Kansas takes on Indiana in Kansas City.
1956: Bill Russell Wins a Title for USF
Future professional basketball star and Olympic gold medal winner Bill Russell sinks a basket to secure his team’s victory in the 1956 tournament in Chicago. He won back-to-back titles in 1955 and 1956 for the University of San Francisco.
1957: Tar Heels Win
The University of North Carolina Tar Heels won their first NCAA victory in 1957 under the guidance of coach Frank McGuire. The men’s basketball team has since won five additional titles.
1958: Kentucky vs. Seattle
University of Kentucky players attempt to foul Jerry Frizzell on Seattle University’s team during the championship game in 1958. Frizzell was later inducted into the Seattle U Athletics Hall of Fame.
1964: The Bruins Beat Duke
University of California Los Angeles guard, Gail Goodrich, takes the ball up court in the championship game against Duke. The Bruins ended up taking home the title this year.
1965: The Year of the Tiger
Welcome to “The Year of the Tiger,” a.k.a. the year Princeton University star Bill Bradley led his team to victory in the Ivy League and helped earn them a spot in the NCAA tournament—proving that a team without scholarship players could compete with state schools. Here, Bradley is carried off the court in celebration of the team’s 66-48 win against North Carolina State University.
1966: Texas Western Celebrates Their Win
Texas Western players are seen celebrating in their locker room after defeating the University of Kentucky for the 1966 championship title.
1968: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Wins MVP
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, scores against the University of Houston to advance his team, UCLA, to the championship against the University of North Carolina. UCLA went on to defeat the Tar Heels and Abdul-Jabbar earned the title of MVP of the tournament.
1970: Cutting the Net
The head coach of UCLA and Sidney Wicks, seen with the game-winning net around his neck, celebrate their victory. The tradition of NCAA champions cutting down the winning basket’s net was said to have originated at the 1947 NCAA Southern Conference by North Carolina State University coach, Everett Case.
1976: Indiana Celebrates Their Win
Indiana University Bloomington coach Bobby Knight celebrates with his players as they secure a victory against the University of Michigan in NCAA championship.
1978: Givens Makes 41 Points
1979: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
The 1979 NCAA championship game proved to be an astonishing matchup between two future NBA all-stars: Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The game ended in a 75-64 victory for Michigan State. Here, Magic cuts down the game-winning net.
1980: Louisville Victory
Louisville brought home its first title in 1980 after defeating UCLA in a 59-54 point game. Here, Darrell Griffith—who was later voted MVP—is carried in celebration by his teammates.
1981: Indiana Wins Once Again
Indiana guard Isiah Thomas scores against North Carolina’s Jimmy Black in the 1981 Final Four game. Indiana won with a final score of 63-50, resulting in their fourth title.
1982: Michael Jordan vs. Patrick Ewing
Michael Jordan scores despite a close guard from Georgetown player Patrick Ewing. The two future NBA stars faced off in the Final Four game, which North Carolina ultimately won.
1983: A Close Matchup
In a game that would decide who played North Carolina State in the championship, Houston defeated Louisville 80-68. Here, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon fights for the ball under the net with Louisville’s Rodney McCray. Louisville would later fall to North Carolina State, resulting in NC State’s second title.
1984: Georgetown Wins the Title
After losing out to North Carolina two years prior, Georgetown—as well as their star center, Patrick Ewing (left)—found redemption with a 84-75 victory over Houston for the title in Seattle.
1985: A 64-Team Tournament
The year Villanova beat Georgetown for the title was the first year that 64 teams participated in the tournament. After continuing to expand since its origination in 1939, the tournament put an official max on the number of competing universities at 64.
1985: Sold Out Stadiums
The 1985 Final Four, hosted in Lexington, Kentucky, saw back-to-back sold out games—one of which was the face-off between the Villanova Wildcats and the Georgetown Hoyas.
1987: The Sweet 16
North Carolina player, J.R. Reid, dribbles the ball down the court during the 1987 tournament’s Sweet 16 round. North Carolina had earned the title of Atlantic Coast Conference champions during the same year and made it to the top eight in the NCAA tournament.
1987: An Anthem
1987—the same year the Indiana Hoosiers won the championship—was the first time the tournament had an anthem. To this day, it’s a song called “One Shining Moment.” While it was supposed to air after the Super Bowl, game coverage ran long, so it premiered during March Madness instead.
1988: Big East Winners
The Big East Tournament started in 1983 and is one of the longest-running conference tournaments at any one site in college basketball history. And per the NCAA tournament rules, the winners of the Big East Tournament earn an automatic bid to March Madness. Hence part of the reason why Syracuse University is so excited to have won the Big East trophy in 1988.
1988: An Unexpected Victory
The University of Kansas defeated Duke in the semi-finals and went on to play against the University of Oklahoma in the championship game. Kansas was considered a long shot against the Oklahoma Sooners, due to regular season stats, but went on to clench the victory anyway.
1990: Another Cinderella Story
The University of Connecticut beat Clemson University in the Sweet 16 round, which advanced them to the top eight for the first time since 1969.
1991: The Burge Twins
No, that isn’t a player looking into a mirror, it’s Heidi and Heather Burge—twins who took the college basketball world by storm. Here, their University of Virginia Cavaliers face off against the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers at the Women’s NCAA tournament. They lost the championship game 67-70.
1991: Duke Wins
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski celebrates with his team and the National Championship plague after defeating Kansas for the title.
1992: Christian Laettner’s Impressive Record
By 1992, Duke’s Christian Laettner had already played in a whopping 23 NCAA games. He also became the player to score the most points in a NCAA tournament career whit 407 points between 1989 and 1992.
1993: A Future Partnership
After a major loss in the Final Four, University of Kansas coach, Roy Williams—who would go on to coach the opposing team in 2003 until present day—shakes the hand of North Carolina’s head coach, Dean Smith. The game ended in a North Carolina victory.
1994: Dedicated to Roger Crawford
The University of Arkansas dedicated their NCAA tournament victory to their injured guard and star player, Roger Crawford, who hurt himself earlier in the season. Here, Crawford is seen celebrating in the winning basket.
1995: UCLA Makes History
The UCLA Bruins defeated the Arkansas Razorbacks 89-78, something that turned out to be historic. It was the Bruins’ 11th title, making them the team with the most NCAA men’s basketball national championship wins.
1996: The ‘Elite 8’ is Coined
The term Elite 8 was officially adopted by the NCAA in 1996. Broadcasters began using it in years prior, as it had already been coined by the Illinois High School Boys Basketball Championship. In 1996, the term was trademarked by the March Madness Athletic Association, which was established by the NCAA and the Illinois High School Association.
1997: An Arizona Championship
The University of Arizona mascot celebrates the team’s first NCAA title by climbing onto the winning side’s basket in 1997.
1999: UConn’s First Title
University of Connecticut coach, Jim Calhoun, cuts the net after his team’s first tournament win in 1999. The team has gone on to win three more NCAA titles, making their program the sixth best of all time.
2001: Duke’s Big Comeback
In 2001, Duke made a comeback for the ages, beating Maryland after being down by 22 points. It was a major moment for the school, after blowing an 18-point lead back in 1989.
2005: A Major Victory
In 2005, West Virginia surprised fans and upset a few brackets when they made it all the way to the Elite 8.
2008: Steph Curry Makes Waves
Future Golden State Warriors player, Steph Curry, nearly lead his college team, Davidson, into the Final Four in 2008. After defeating both Gonzaga and Georgetown, Davidson matched up against the number one seed: Kansas. Curry’s team ended up losing to the Jayhawks, but the close game and the 128 points Curry scored throughout the tournament secured him national recognition.
2011: ‘The First Four’ Shakes Up the Tournament
In 2011, the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams and added the First Four, which are a series of four games between the eight lowest seeded teams who face-off for a spot in the coveted 64 teams who compete in the first round. One of the teams in the First Four in 2011, Virginia Commonwealth, ended up advancing all the way to the Final Four.
2017: North Carolina Reclaims a Championship
After a firestorm performance during the 2016 tournament, North Carolina lost the title to Villanova in the final seconds of the game. However, the team staged a massive comeback the following year, facing off against Gonzaga in the finals and brining home the title.
2018: A Chance at the Title
Kansas player Silvio De Sousa celebrates his team’s Elite 8 victory over Duke by cutting down the net. The team made its way into the Final Four, but would eventually lose the title to Villanova.
2019: Sweet, Sweet Victory
The Virgina Cavaliers faced off against the Texas Tech Raiders in 2019 and secured their first NCAA title. Even more incredible: Virginia was coming off of an infamous NCAA tournament defeat from the previous year, when they lost by 20 points to the number 16 seeded team, despite being the favorite for the tournament.
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