March Madness and Other Basketball Idioms


March Madness and other Basketball Idioms

My favorite annual sports event is March Madness (that’s the NCAA basketball tournament for you non-sports fans), and it’s particularly exciting when my alma mater’s team is in the running. I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1988, and for the first time in a long time they have a good team (ACC champs and seeded #1 in the East). That means I might be a bit distracted from work starting Wednesday. But today at least I can channel some of my athletic fanaticism into a blog post. Let’s talk about how basketball terminology has influenced American English.

I did the same for baseball several years ago, and perhaps it won’t surprise you, but basketball’s contributions to common parlance are far less significant than that of America’s pastime. For whatever reason, basketball idioms have not caught on quite so readily as baseball idioms.

Still, there are a few that you’ve probably heard once or twice:

full court press

A full court press in basketball is an aggressive defensive strategy, so it has come to represent any all-out effort.

If the company is going to hit our revenue goals for the quarter, it’s going to require a real full-court press from the sales department.

slam dunk

A slam dunk is a hard shot to miss in basketball, so the expression is used for sure-thing opportunities — something certain to be accomplished.

After that presentation, getting Jefferson to sign off on the agreement will be a slam dunk.

on the rebound

After a missed shot in basketball, there is still the opportunity to get a rebound and score. Thus, if something or someone is on the rebound, it means they are recovering or improving after a difficult time.

After the record decline last week, the stock market seems to be on the rebound.

buzzer beater

A shot that goes in just before the buzzer to end the game is a buzzer beater, so the expression is often used for anything that gets accomplished just before a deadline.

I filed that report on time, but it was a real buzzer beater.

That’s all I could come up with for basketball. If you can think of others, please list them in the comments.

Even if not many terms have entered the mainstream, basketball jargon is still rich and evocative. Below are some of my favorite basketball coinages.

The Basket and Ball

Basketball is a simple game — a ball and two baskets. We all know the story of the original game that used actual peach baskets as goals. Later, they figured out that it was easier to remove the bottom of the basket. What I enjoy are the varied and colorful synonyms that have emerged for basket: net, goal, hoop, bucket, hole, iron, rim, and can, to name a few. The backboard is often called the glass or window. The ball is sometimes referred to as the rock.

Tournament Terms

The NCAA Tournament has spawned several clever terms:

March Madness: A popular alliterative reference to the final tournament that always takes place in March.

The Final Four: It is a particular honor to be among the last four teams in the NCAAs. The teams that make the Final Four compete in a separate venue and get lots of media attention.

The Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight: Basketball folks love alliteration (“elite eight” is technically assonance, but you get the idea). If you win the first two games of the tournament, you make the Sweet Sixteen; survive one more and you are in the Elite Eight.

Bracketology: College basketball fans get obsessed about the tournament brackets. Teams are placed in the bracket based on their seeding by the tournament committee. A good placement improves the chances of a team making it to later rounds. The “science” of determining bracket placement has come to be known as bracketology.

Selection Sunday: The seedings and brackets are announced on the Sunday before the tournament begins. Since every team wants a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, it has become a big event when the tournament selections are announced.

Bubble Teams: Some teams are certain to make the tournament because of their excellent records during the season. Teams that have played well, but not well enough to be sure of garnering a tournament invitation are said to be on the bubble or bubble teams.

Cinderella Teams: Virtually every year some team gets an unexpected win or two and becomes the Cinderella story. Everyone loves when small, unheralded teams surprise the perennial powerhouses. The fairy tale allusion is clear enough, I guess.

The Big Dance: Another nickname for the NCAA Championship Tournament is the Big Dance. Everyone wants an invitation to the big dance. I wonder if the dance and the Cinderella allusions are related?

Other Terms

And to wrap this up, here are some of my favorite evocative basketball terms. I won’t bother defining them:

  • pick and roll
  • screen
  • flagrant foul
  • and one
  • zone defense
  • air ball
  • free throw
  • swish
  • dribble
  • outlet pass
  • alley-oop
  • box out
  • post up
  • paint
  • pump fake
  • double pump
  • perimeter
  • drive and dish
  • take a charge
  • technical foul
  • teardrop
  • layup
  • run and gun
  • trap
  • double-team
  • jump ball

One final word: Let’s GoHoos!


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Paul Schwarz
    Paul Schwarz03-19-2014

    Another fun hoops term is “from downtown,” as in making an especially long three-pointer. Let’s Go Orange!

  2. Robert

    One of the great things about having been a Laker and Dodger fan my whole life is that I was treated to two of the best wordsmiths ever to yap into a microphone: Vin Scully and Chick Hearn. I thought you might not know that many fun and descriptive basketball terms like slam dunk, air ball, triple double, finger roll, dribble drive and ticky-tack foul were all original “Chickisms.” Here’s a link to some of his most famous:

  3. Grammar Nut
    Grammar Nut03-17-2014

    Do you like football? I would love to see a whole post on how football has influenced the English language.

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