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While basketball gains much of its popularity through spectators watching professional competition, the sport flourishes worldwide at amateur levels for both men and women. Most organized amateur play takes place at the high school and college level, where the season runs from November through March.

High school basketballís governing body, the National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS), is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. The NFHS does not crown a national champion. Instead, high school teams compete to win their state championship, with each state having its own guidelines for determining titles. Most states have several state champions, each in a category determined by school size.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), located in Indianapolis, is the most important organization governing major college competition. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, oversees competition for smaller four-year schools. The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, governs play for two-year and community colleges throughout the country. Under the jurisdiction of these national governing bodies are individual conferences and leagues. Well-known NCAA conferences include the Atlantic Coast and the Big East, on the East Coast; the Big Ten, in the Midwest; and the Pacific-10, in the West.

The NCAA, the NAIA, and the NJCAA all sponsor postseason national championship tournaments. The menís and womenís NCAA national championship basketball tournaments are the most high-profile of these tournaments. They are also two of the premier sporting events in the United States. Both tournaments are held in March and early April, using the same format to determine a national champion. Each tournament involves 64 teams in a single-elimination competition, meaning that one loss disqualifies a team from further play.

The selection process for deciding which teams will participate in the tournament is complex. Teams are invited to the tournament either as automatic qualifiers or as at-large teams. Automatic qualifiers gain admission by winning their conference tournament at the end of the season, or if the conference does not hold a tournament, by finishing the season with the best conference record. After the automatic qualifiers are determined, a special committee fills out the 64-team field by choosing at-large teams, using a number of factors. These include a teamís final record for that season, its performance in past championship tournaments, and the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which uses statistics to analyze the teamís strengths compared to other teams. In some years, such as in 2001, the tournament will choose several schools to play special qualifying games to fill out the field.

The 64 teams are placed into four regional tournaments: East, West, South, and Midwest in menís play; East, Mideast, Midwest, and West in womenís play. The 16 teams assigned to each regional draw are a mix of colleges and universities from across the country. In each region they are seeded, or ranked, from 1 to 16 according to their strength and season schedule (with the 1 seed the strongest team). A seeded team assigned to a specific region should be on par with its corresponding seed in the other three regional draws. For example, a team ranked as the 10 seed in the Midwest regional draw should be of equal strength to the 10 seed in the East regional draw.

In each region, the higher ranked teams play the lower ranked teams: the 1 seed plays the 16 seed, the 2 seed plays the 15 seed, and so on. Winning teams advance and continue to play until only one unbeaten team remains. This team then advances to the Final Four, the national semifinals. There is no seeding in the Final Four. Instead, it is predetermined which two regional winners will meet in each semifinal game. The championship game pits the victors of these two games against each other. The team that triumphs in the Final Four is crowned the national champion.

Fan support is intense throughout the tournament, and visiting fans provide an economic windfall for the various cities hosting tournament games. Cities therefore bid for the right to host games, and the sites are chosen several years in advance to allow the cities time to prepare for the tournament. The tournament has produced a unique vocabulary over the years. The excitement generated is referred to as March Madness, while the entire event is often called the Road to the Final Four or the Big Dance.

In the menís tournament, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has won the championship 11 times, with John Wooden coaching UCLA to 10 of those victories. The University of Kentucky has 7 championships, and Indiana University has 5. Other teams that have had a significant impact during the tournamentís history include the University of North Carolina, the University of Louisville, and Duke University. The University of Tennessee has dominated the womenís NCAA tournament. Coached by Pat Summitt, Tennessee has won six titles since the womenís tournament began in 1982. Several other schoolsóthe University of Southern California (USC), the University of Connecticut, Stanford University, and Louisiana Tech Universityóhave won two titles each.

Although the NCAA tournament is the most widely recognized of collegiate postseason tournaments, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) is the oldest and was originally the most prestigious. The NIT was first held in 1938, with Temple University winning. At first, college teams could compete in both the NIT and the NCAA tournament. Beginning in the 1950s, however, teams began participating in either the NIT or NCAA tournament, based on their season record, with the better teams generally accepting invitations to the NCAA tournament. This tendency became stronger over time, and now the NCAA tournament winner is regarded as the national collegiate basketball champion. The NIT, however, remains an important postseason activity for teams that do not qualify for the NCAA tournament. The City College of New York (CCNY) is the only school to win both the NIT and the NCAA tournament in the same season, accomplishing this feat in 1950. Shortly after this the rules were changed to make it impossible for a team to play both tournaments.