It's conference tournament season in college basketball, one of the most overwhelming times in American sport. There will be 30 of these tournaments over the next week, and almost no one is going to try to keep track of them all.
For those who don't follow college basketball, nearly all of the 345 college basketball teams in the top division are part of a conference, a small regional grouping of 8-12 or so teams.
At the end of the regular season, 30 of the 31 conferences hold a tournament. The winner of each of these tournaments gets a berth in the national championship tournament (the "NCAA's"). (The Ivy League gives its berth in the NCAA's to its regular season winner instead.)
(One final note for college basketball novices: losing in the conference tournament does not eliminate a team from the NCAA's. After these 31 slots are filled, a committee selects 37 more teams based on their season-long performances for a field of 68.)
Most of the conference tournaments are fairly similar: all the conference teams are seeded based on their regular season conference performance. Then they play off in a single-elimination tournament, with all the games at a single site.
A 12-team tournament might look like this:
8 vs. 9 (winner plays 1)
5 vs. 12 (winner plays 4)
7 vs. 10 (winner plays 2)
6 vs. 11 (winner plays 3)
Now let's take a look at some of the variants currently used.
Some of the smaller conferences allow the better seeded teams to play their games at home. This is obviously a big advantage for the top teams and makes the chance of a weaker team winning it all much more remote than a neutral-site tournament does. This is intentional. The smaller conferences know that the committee is never going to pick one of their teams for an at-large spot, so their tournament champion will be their only team in the NCAA's. These conferences want a good showing in that event, and they know that a better teams has a much greater chance of playing well. So they stack the deck a bit, hoping to increase the chances of the better teams winning.
The smaller Patriot conference plays every match of its tournament at the home site of the better team. In the Big South, the quarterfinals are at home sites, both semis are played at the No. 1 seed's home (oddly enough, even if it lost in the quarter finals), and the final is hosted by the best remaining seed.
Not every tournament allows every team in. The Big Sky, for example, has nine teams, but only six make its tournament.
The SEC and Sun Belt are divided into divisions, and the teams' standings within those divisions determines their seeding in the conference tournaments. So early matchups, instead of being 5-12 or 8-9, might be E5-W4 or W6-E3.
The Horizon tournament is a 10-team affair that begins with the eight teams seeded 3 through 10 playing two rounds. The two survivors advance to the semifinals, where teams 1 and 2 await, having enjoyed not one, but two byes.
In the WAC, the first round games feature teams 5 through 8. The winners advance to meet 3 and 4, who got first-round byes, and the winners of those games make the semifinals, where 1 and 2 await after double byes.
The Big West uses the same system as the WAC, but with an additional twist: After the 5-8, 6-7 games, the teams are reseeded. Instead of 3 always meeting the 67 winner, it meets whichever surviving team is the lesser seed. And in the semifinals, No.1 also gets to play the weakest remaining team.
An upset-minded No. 8 in this conference has to beat, consecutively, No. 5, No. 3, No. 1 and (probably) No. 2. Should they manage that tough parlay, they'll be in the NCAA's. Only six or seven more wins away from a national title.