The 1955–56 season was the last in which only one NCAA Tournament was held. Effective in 1956–57, the NCAA divided its membership into two competitive levels. The larger and more competitive athletic programs were placed in the University Division, and smaller programs in the College Division. Accordingly, that season would see separate tournaments contested in the University and College Divisions. In 1973, the University Division would be renamed NCAA Division I, while the College Division would be split into today's Divisions II and III.
This was the first NCAA tournament in which the four regionals were given distinct names, although the concept of four regional winners advancing to a single site for the "Final Four" had been introduced in 1952.
For the second time, the city of Evanston, Illinois hosted the Final Four. For the first time, a repeat host city used a different venue, this time using McGaw Memorial Hall, the second replacement for the original Patten Gym, home of the 1939 final. The tournament saw two new venues, both in the state of Kansas, and both of which would join in rotation with Ahearn Field House as host of the Midwestern final for most of the next decade. In its first year of operation, Allen Field House on the campus of the University of Kansas hosted tournament games for the first time, acting as the West regional site. And also in the West region, the University of Wichita Field House, also in its first year of operation, hosted the first-round game. This tournament would also mark the final tournament to include the Allen County War Memorial Arena; neither the arena, which is still in operation, nor the city have hosted since.
Canisius's first-round victory over the second-ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack, considered by many to be among the top ten upsets in tournament history, set a record for most overtime periods in a Division I Men's tournament game with four, a record that still stands as of 2015 (tied once, in 1961).
Northwestern University previously hosted the first ever NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game on March 27, 1939, in the first Patten Gym.