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A 2024 March Madness vocabulary: How to sound like you know what you're talking about

If the phrase "One Shining Moment" means nothing to you, let us help prepare you for March Madness.
Gregory Shamus
Getty Images
If the phrase "One Shining Moment" means nothing to you, let us help prepare you for March Madness.

For basketball lovers, March is a time to live and breathe the sport.

For others, March can turn conversations at the office or a party into a moment of bewilderment: McWhat State? Caitlin and Angel who? What did that hand gesture mean? What on earth is NET?

If you don't know a buzzer beater from a bracket buster, let us help. Here's some terminology and names to know as the men's and women's NCAA Division I tournaments tip off:

March Madness vocabulary and names to know, from A to Z

Angel Reese — Nicknamed the Bayou Barbie, she's the undisputed star of last year's champion LSU squad whose pop culture power goes far beyond the court — including a cameo in a music video with Cardi B and Latto.

at-large bid and auto bid: Between the end of the regular season and the start of the NCAA tournament, each conference holds their own postseason mini-tournament. Teams that win are automatically granted a berth in the NCAA tournament; there are 32 such "auto bids." The rest are "at-large bids" given to other teams the tournament selection committee deems worthy.

The Big Dance — The tournament itself, and a federally registered trademark owned by the NCAA. See also: Cinderella — The unexpected belle of the ball, i.e. the lower-seeded teams that succeed despite the odds.

blue blood — A storied program that has played at the highest levels consistently over a long time. Use with caution: It's a matter of hot debate to say exactly which programs qualify for this designation, but the safe picks include Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA in the men's game, along with Tennessee and UConn in the women's.

bracket buster — An upset, but not just any pedestrian upset. A bracket buster takes out a team that was expected to make a deep run, thereby "busting" many people's brackets.

buzzer beater — A shot that goes through the basket after the buzzer marking the end of a half has sounded. So long as the ball has left the player's hand before the buzzer rings, the shot counts — it's a buzzer beater.

bubble team — A team that was on the edge of qualifying for the tournament.

Caitlin Clark The biggest star in college basketball. You know her already.

chalk — The boring way to fill out your bracket; going "chalk" means you've picked the higher seed for every matchup.

cupcake — An easy team to beat (in theory), usually used in the context of a team's strength of schedule during the regular season.

cut down the nets — A synonym for "win the big game." Winning teams get to literally cut down the basket's nets (piece by piece, with each player taking home a small bit as a souvenir) after making it to the Final Four or winning the title game.

Dawn Staley — The head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks women's team. Perhaps the best active coach in women's basketball, seemingly always the Coach of the Year these days, grew up imagining herself as the next point guard of the Philadelphia 76ers.

DJ Burns Jr. — The charming 6-foot-9, 275-pound forward with a soft touch on the ball who just led his North Carolina State Wolfpack to five victories on five straight nights to win a highly improbable ACC tournament title. We always love a big fella playing basketball, especially one who says "we need a massage" in his post-game Q&A.

First Four — A set of four "play-in" games in which teams compete for the right to participate in the full Round of 64.

Florida Gulf Coast — The Eagles are a Cinderella candidate in both the men's and women's tournament. In 2013, the men's team became the first 15-seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen, and the women's squad has pulled off Round of 64 upsets in each of the past two years.

Hilltopper — The mascot of 15-seed Western Kentucky. We may never understand it, but we will always respect it.

Jared McCain — The charismatic freshman guard for the Duke men's team, who tied the school's freshman single-game scoring record and also polishes his fingernails and models for Kim Kardashian's loungewear brand. You've probably already heard of him if you're on TikTok; his social media presence is almost as big as his stellar play.

JuJu Watkins — The freshman phenom who has helped to propel the USC women's team back to renewed prominence and their first top seed since the 1980s. Already she's got an iconic hairstyle: a perfectly round bun perched on top of her head.

Keisei Tominaga — The Japanese-born star of the Nebraska men's team whose skill with the three-point shot has commentators calling him the Japanese Steph Curry. See also: Nebraska Cornhuskers — The only Power 6 men's team to have never won even one NCAA Tournament game. They're an 8-seed this year. Tominaga could help make history!

Kim Mulkey — The head coach of the Louisiana State women's basketball team; known for her spirited outfits and spirited demeanor during games.

McNeese State — Perhaps the trendiest Cinderella pick in this year's men's tournament. The Cowboys entered the tournament 30-3 and ranked No. 60 by KenPom (see below), and they match up well against their first opponent (Gonzaga), and their potential Round of 32 opponent, Kansas, has been dogged by injuries.

NET — The NCAA Evaluation Tool, aka a rating system used by the NCAA as a numbers-based way to help rank teams for tournament seeding. There's no need to get into details; all you need to know that it is widely complained about. Example use: "Did you know that New Mexico got stuck with an 11-seed even though they're ranked #22 in NET?"

See also: KenPom — An independent college basketball ratings site run by statistician Ken Pomeroy that takes the form of a wall of inscrutable numbers and acronyms. Example use: "It's a joke that Virginia got in. KenPom has them at #69."

"One Shining Moment"The anthem of March Madness, a musical ode to basketball glory that sounds like the theme song to an '80s sitcom. Played after the end of the championship game over a montage of the tournament's best moments.

Power 6 — The six conferences that have traditionally fielded the highest-level teams: The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Big East, the Pac-12 (rest in peace) and the SEC (Southeastern Conference). See also: mid-major — A term that generally refers to any other conference, or a team that comes from any other conference. Notable mid-majors in this year's tournaments include San Diego State (Mountain West Conference), Richmond (Atlantic 10 Conference) and Drake (Missouri Valley Conference).

Stetson — A hat, and also a school named after the man who made the hat. This 16-seed is making its first-ever appearance in the men's tournament.

UConn — Short for the University of Connecticut. A modern-day powerhouse and the class of this year's tournaments, with a 1-seed in the men's bracket (hoping to become the first team since 2007 to repeat as champions) and a 3-seed in the women's event, which it has won 11 times.

Zach Edey — The Purdue center who is one of the best players in men's college basketball and, at 7-foot-4, the tallest player in the 128-year history of the Big Ten conference. See also: Purdue — A team that is always very good but also somehow always disappoints.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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