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The Final Four

Find out what the Final Four is and where this term originates from.

The Final Four refers to men's basketball finalists. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
The Final Four refers to men's basketball finalists.

The Final Four refers to the four semifinalist teams playing in the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I men's basketball tournament, to the games themselves and to the related events surrounding the games.

The tournament, which takes place over three successive weekends beginning in late March, culminates with a single team winning the national championship. The term Final Four is a registered trademark of the NCAA, a nonprofit association comprised of more than 1,000 universities and colleges that runs academic and athletic programs supporting about 400,000 student-athletes.


The tournament begins with 64 teams divided into four regional brackets of 16 teams each. Thirty of the teams earn automatic placement into the national tournament by winning their respective conference basketball tournaments or regular season schedules. The remaining 34 teams are chosen at-large on the Sunday before the commencement of the tournament by an NCAA selection committee. A 65th team usually is invited to compete against the 64th team in a play-in game prior to the start of the first tournament weekend.

Each team earns a placement or seeding within its respective bracket intended to designate its likelihood of advancing into subsequent rounds of the tournament. The first games of the tournament match each regions top-seeded team against the 16th-seeded team, the second team against the 15th-seeded team, the third team against the 14th-seeded team and so forth.

At-large bids and seedings are determined by the selection committee, using a computer ranking system called the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). This system tracks all teams' winning percentages against other Division I teams, their opponent's winning percentages and their opponent's opponent's winning percentages, along with an evaluation of home versus road victories.

Because the teams earn seeding based on their relative success, higher-seeded teams typically advance into subsequent rounds by beating lower-seeded teams. According to the NCAA, since 1979, when the number of teams in the tournament increased to 40, those with top seedings have advanced to the Final Four 49 times out of a possible 120. Teams seeded second have advanced to the Final Four 25 times, and teams seeded third have advanced to the Final Four 14 times. By contrast, no team ranked lower than 11th has advanced to the Final Four.

Officially, the tournament begins the third weekend of March, with the regional championships on the fourth weekend, and the Final Four on the following Saturday and Monday.

Tournament History

The tournament was first played in 1939 with just eight teams, and only the two finals teams advanced to the tournaments finals site that year. In 1946, for the first time, the final four teams advanced to the finals site in New York. The tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975, 40 teams in 1979, 48 teams in 1980, and the current 64 teams in 1985. That same year, the regions were reorganized into the current Southeast (now called South), Midwest, West, and East regions. Each region's champion advances to the Final Four.
UCLA and North Carolina have the most Final Four appearances with 18. Duke follows with 14 and Kansas and Kentucky have 13 each.

The tournament's championship game was televised locally in New York for the first time in 1946 to an estimated audience of 500,000 people. The 1979 championship game between Michigan State, led by Earvin Magic Johnson, and Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, ranks as the highest-rated college basketball game in television history, according to the NCAA. That year's game earned a 24.1 rating, and was seen in nearly 18 million homes. The largest audience ever was 1992's Duke vs. Michigan matchup, seen in 20.9 million homes.

Host Cities

The location of the Final Four varies from year to year. Kansas City, Missouri has hosted the Final Four 10 times, New York has hosted six consecutive times from 1943 to 1948 and Indianapolis has hosted the games five times.

The NCAA estimates that the Final Four creates an economic impact of $30 million to $50 million for the host city. The 2009 Final Four took place at Detroit's Ford Field and featured the hometown favorite Michigan State Spartans, who lost in the championship game to North Carolina. The 2010 event will take place in Indianapolis.

The entire tournament is also known as March Madness and The Big Dance, both of which have been trademarked by the NCAA.

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