How Do NCAA Division II Basketball Playoffs Work?

How Do NCAA Division II Basketball Playoffs Work?

The NCAA Div. II Basketball Tournament whittles down a national champion from a field of 64 every March.

Sep 7, 2023 by Kyle Kensing

Nova Southeastern etched its name into hoops lore to cap the 2023 season, successfully navigating the latest edition of the NCAA Div. II Basketball Tournament. 

The Div. II Tournament has existed for as long as the NCAA created the delineation between Div. I and Div. II in the 1973-74 academic year, but the championship playoffs date back almost two decades earlier. 

In 1957, Wheaton beat Kentucky Wesleyan in the inaugural Championship Game, then under the College Division label, 89-65. The loss was a temporary setback for Kentucky Wesleyan, which became a Div. dynasty spanning multiple decades not long after. 

More that on, and much more, in this primer on the NCAA Div. II Basketball Tournament. 

How Many Teams Make The NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament? 

While not as old as the Div. I NCAA Basketball Tournament, which dates back to 1939, the Div. II version could stake a fair claim to be the original incarnation of March Madness. The Div. II Tournament featured more teams from 1957 through 1974. 

Today, the Div. II Dance includes 64 teams, and has consistently since 2003 — with the exception of the 48-team field in the COVID-impacted 2021 playoffs.

Which Teams Qualify For The NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament?

Champions from 23 Div. II conferences reach automatic bids for the Tournament. Each of the 23 leagues are grouped into one of eight different Regions: 

Atlantic: CIAA, Mountain East, PSAC 

Central: Great American, MIAA, Northern Sun 

East: CACC, East Coast, NE-10 

Midwest: GLIAC, GLVC, G-MAC 

South: Gulf South, SIAC, Sunshine State

South Central: Lone Star, RMAC 

Southeast: Conference Carolinas, Peach Belt, SAC 

West: CCAA, GNAC, Pacific West 

What If You’re Not A Conference Champion? How Can You Qualify?

The NCAA Div. II Basketball Tournament offers up more at-large bids than its Div. I counterpart, with 41 such berths available. A selection committee determines at-large invitations by applying criteria that include RPI, the strength of schedule, Div. II winning percentage and regional winning percentage. 

At-large invitees are placed in the same regions coordinated by the conference. That means an eight-region bracket in which the team that emerges from each advances to the Elite Eight, Div. II's counterpart to the Div. I Final Four. 

Where Is The NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament Held?

Before reaching the Elite Eight, each Region is played at the home site of the No. 1 seed. 

Meanwhile, though the Final Four emanates from a new city each year, the Div. II National Championship has been held in one of 12 cities all time with two primary homes. 

The 1957 edition was the first of 20 straight Championship Games held in Evansville, Indiana, and 27 overall. Both the 2024 and 2025 NCAA Div. II Basketball Tournaments conclude in Evansville's Ford Center before going to Pittsburgh in 2026.

In 1977, Springfield, Mass. — home of the Basketball Hall of Fame — hosted the Championship Game for the first of 22 times. The most recent was in 2011. 

Other host cities include Lakeland, Florida; Bakersfield, California; Atlanta; Frisco, Texas; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. 

Which Teams Have Won The NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament?

Kentucky Wesleyan's defeat in 1957 was a rare title-game loss for the Panthers, winners of a Tournament record eight Div. II national championships. Kentucky Wesleyan claimed its first title in 1966, beating Southern Illinois, and its last in 2001. 

Schools with multiple national championships are: 

Kentucky Wesleyan: 8 

Evansville: 5 

Northwest Missouri State: 4

Virginia Union: 3 

Cal State Bakersfield: 3 

Central Missouri, Florida Southern, Metro State, North Alabama, Winona State: 2 

Thirty-three programs have won one NCAA Div. II Basketball Tournament (or it's forerunner). Nova Southeastern's 2023 win added it to the crowd, and the Sharks became the first one-time champs since Ferris State in 2018. 

In 1967, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe led Winston-Salem State to its only championship.