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NCAA Tournament FAQ: What you need to know before Northwestern makes history

What’s a bracket? How are teams picked? We’ve got answers to all the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Hello. Thank you for visiting, SB Nation’s home for all content related to Chicago’s Big Ten NCAA Tournament Participators* (otherwise known as the Northwestern Wildcats men’s basketball program). It has come to our attention that many of our readers or those potential readers who may visit this juggernaut of a website over the course of the day, week or month, may not know what being an NCAA Tournament Participator* entails.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’re all in this together as we venture into unseen territory.


What is an NCAA Tournament Participator?

Fantastic question. An NCAA Tournament Participator is a college basketball team that is selected to or has received an automatic bid into the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual tournament to determine which of the 68 — absolutely primarily academic — NCAA Participator institutions employs enrolls the finest group of basketball-playing 19-year-olds.

How does the NCAA Tournament work?

The NCAA Tournament is set up as a bracket-style, single-elimination tournament. Teams compete against each other until there is one team remaining. The remaining Participator must win six games to win the championship. It’s kind of like this scene from the 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, with Colin Firth’s character being the most worthy of all NCAA Tournament Participators.

(Warning: very bloody)

A bracket, what is that?

Ah, yes. Brackets. Brackets are used to format the NCAA Tournament. All 68 NCAA Tournament Participators are seeded roughly in order of best to worst and placed in one of four sections, each with 16 Participators (four Participators have to play an extra game just to fit into the bracket). The best Participators are matched up with the worst Participators in the first round.

Wait. Why do the best Participators play the worst Participators?

Great question. The best Participators play the worst Participators to reward them for their accomplishments during the regular season and conference tournaments. What happens sometimes, though, is that the lower-seeded Participators defeat the higher-seeded Participators. That’s called an “Upset.”

Oh! Upsets sound fun! Can I root for them?

Absolutely. That’s part of the fun of the NCAA Tournament. Many people use brackets to fill in who they think will win (or who they want to win) each NCAA Tournament game. Those people enter those brackets into competitions such as this one with the hope of picking more games correct than others.

And no, there is no shame in picking Northwestern to go all the way. Because why not?

So is Northwestern definitely an NCAA Tournament Participator?

Nope! But we’re pretty darn sure it will be. The only teams that are 100 percent NCAA Tournament Participators are the ones that win their conference tournaments. Northwestern did not do that. There are 36 teams that are selected at-large into the NCAA Tournament.

Who selects the Participators?

A super-secret committee that meets for hours in a crowded room to decide the fate of young men. Fun!


Yup. They pick the Participators and seed them based on a number of different criteria. Based on projections of what criteria matter most, every “expert” says Northwestern is an NCAA Tournament Participator.

If Northwestern is a projected 8 or 9 seed, why even worry? You just said there are 16 teams per region. That puts them in the middle, right?

Not quite. Remember those “at large bids” for teams that win their conference tournaments? They exist for teeny tiny conferences, too, like the Southland, which was won by the New Orleans Privateers, and a ton of others you can learn about right here. These teams also get automatic bids, but because they are so small, they’ll occupy lower seeds, like the No. 12 13, 14, 15 and 16 seeds. At-large bids usually go up to 11 or 12 before the smaller division champions come in. So Northwestern has some breathing room, but certainly not exactly “middle of the pack” breathing room.

When will Northwestern play? And what other Participator will it play?

All that will be determined Sunday afternoon in a live broadcast of the release of the bracket. Northwestern will play on Thursday or Friday in the first round. Many projects slot them as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, meaning that if the team won its first game, it would very likely play a No. 1 seed in the second round. See “Upset.”

How can I watch Northwestern participate?

You can get tickets through secondary market ticket providers such as Stubhub. It is also likely that Northwestern will offer some type of ticket deal for students and others. Stay tuned.

Why is this such a big deal?