Opening the curtain on NCAA selections

INDIANAPOLIS – Put me in a toll booth and I’ll count quarters. Get me to Mexico and I’ll push a popsicle cart in the August heat. Give me a nightstick and I’ll work security at a concert.

Just don’t stick me on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

Among America’s most taxing tasks, selecting the schools for 68-team bracket may rank as the toughest of all.

Trust me, I know.

Tubby Smith and Minnesota may not be hurt by their struggles down the stretch.
(Michael Heinz/US Presswire)

Last week I was one of the 20 media members who took part in the NCAA’s mock selection process at the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis. According to committee chair and Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith, the reason for the gathering was simple.

Transparency.

Tired of being ripped on an annual basis, committee members want the public to know how teams are really selected and seeded for the tournament.

“The selection process,” Smith said, “isn’t what people think it is.”

Indeed, each March, coaches, analysts and fans engage in the annual tradition of bashing the selection committee for excluding one team from the field while including another. The group will get shredded for sending a particular team across the country to play a first-round game while a less-deserving school opens the tournament closer to home.

The committee favors Duke, people often say, and many of its decisions are based on money. Teams with high-profile coaches get preferential treatment and mid-major schools don’t have any clout. For years, I took part in – and often led – such discussions.

Not anymore.

After experiencing the same routine the committee will repeat in three weeks, I left Indianapolis with two opinions about the selection process.

1. It’s really, really tough. So tough, in fact, that …

2. I wouldn’t want to put myself through it.

There are so many schools with identical records, so many ways to measure good wins and bad losses and so many factors to consider when analyzing a team’s resume. Strength of schedule, opponent strength of schedule, RPI and wins vs. top 50 programs. At times it can be overwhelming.

If anything, that’s what was “transparent” during last week’s meetings. Much like game officials, members of the 10-person committee have a thankless job that evokes far more criticism than praise. Honestly, I can’t understand why anyone would want to take on such a chore, but I’ll definitely view those who do in a different light from this point forward. And I certainly believe the NCAA should be commended for its attempt to shed insight into the selection process.

Here are the main things I learned during the two-day session:

• If you’re hot … so what? – Before last week I’d always heard that teams who finish the regular season on a high note were looked upon more favorably by the committee. Not true. One of the first things we were told last week was that a school’s results in its final 10-12 games aren’t any more important than the scores from its first 10-12 games.

“It can be visually deceptive,” said David Worlock, the NCAA’s Associate Director for the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. “We want basketball to be on people’s radar in November. Those games that you see in November are all important games.”

I’m not sure what to think about this. Minnesota, for instance, opened the season on a high note with wins over North Carolina and West Virginia. The Gophers also tout a victory over Purdue. But the loss of wing Devoe Joseph (midseason transfer) and point guard Al Nolen (injury) has Tubby Smith’s squad in a tailspin, as Minnesota has lost six of its last seven games. To be fair, one of those setbacks came after our meeting. Still, my opinion is that Minnesota – a 17-win bubble team – shouldn’t be in the tournament mainly because of its recent play and the assumption that things aren’t going to get much better unless the Gophers’ trainer pulls a Mr. Miyagi on Nolen’s injured foot.

Still, because of its overall “body of work” – we heard that term a lot – Minnesota made the mock field as a No. 10 seed. So again, whether you’re hot or cold at the end of the season clearly doesn’t matter.

• Conference record – and conference strength – are irrelevant – At the time of our meeting, Alabama was 17-8 overall and 9-2 in the SEC, but the Crimson Tide didn’t make our mock bracket. Nearly a week later it’s still unbelievable to me that a team could be 9-2 in one of the Big Six leagues – with wins over Kentucky and Tennessee – and still not make the 68-team field. Time and time again, though, we were told not to even consider a team’s position in the conference standings.

Anthony Grant and Alabama still may have work to do despite a gaudy record in the SEC.
(Kelly Lambert/US Presswire)

In the case of Alabama, the Crimson Tide had suffered a handful of “bad” early season losses to schools such as Seton Hall (when it had Jeremy Hazell, mind you), St. Peter’s , Iowa, Providence and Oklahoma State (both on the road). Because of those losses, the fact that Alabama has turned around its season and won the SEC West title meant nothing. The Crimson Tide is 13-2 since Dec. 18, but a few early letdowns by a team that was starting a freshman point guard ultimately cost Anthony Grant’s squad.

The strength or weakness of a conference is also not supposed to be considered or discussed. Teams are judged on an individual basis.

• Conference tournaments carry very little weight – As we were selecting our bracket, mock results from league tournaments came pouring in from around the country, just as they will when the committee goes through the real thing in a few weeks. When it was announced that Washington had won the Pac-10 tournament, someone suggested that the Huskies be moved up a spot from its position as a No. 8 seed to a No. 7 seed. The idea made perfect sense to me – especially since the team seeded No. 7 was a team from a mid-major conference (George Mason). But it didn’t happen. We were told that conference tournaments shouldn’t be the determining factor in a seed.

“The entire body of work is more important,” Worlock said.

Maybe I’m missing something but, to me, a conference tournament is part of a team’s body of work. A big part. That Washington was able to emerge with a tournament title from one of the country’s Big Six conferences was impressive and definitely worthy of a reward. For the most part, though, the idea was dismissed and we moved on. If the conference tournaments are so irrelevant, why play them? The whole scenario made me think back to one of my favorite all-time Roy Williams quotes.

“Conference tournaments,” he said, “are nothing more than a big cocktail party for the alumni.”

Guess he was right.

• The selection process almost seems too formulaic – At one point during the meeting, Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis joked that ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi – who was present – didn’t even need to see a game to fill in the brackets. Based on our meeting, the statement seemed true. So much emphasis is placed on strength of schedule, quality road wins and victories over teams in the top 50 that nothing else seemed to matter. Every time we started discussing a particular team or situation, we were always directed back to the numbers on the computer screens before us.

Example: Texas and Pittsburgh were both awarded No. 1 seeds in our bracket. I argued that Texas should be seeded ahead of Pittsburgh – as the No. 2 overall seed, with Pittsburgh at No. 3 – because, at the time, the Longhorns looked better than any team in America. (This was before the loss to Nebraska). All but one of their Big 12 wins had been by double digits, they had become the first team in 69 games to defeat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and they had quality wins away from home against Illinois, North Carolina and Michigan State.

Pittsburgh had two things working in its favor: It had just two losses compared Texas’ three, and it owned a two-point, head-to-head victory over the Longhorns on Nov. 19. In the end, that’s all that mattered. Never mind that the Longhorns had two freshmen starters playing in the fourth game of the careers that day or that Texas – with three potential first-round draft picks on its roster compared to zero for Pitt – had been the more impressive team the last few months. Pitt beat Texas head-to-head three months ago. Period. End of story.

Look, I don’t know if I was right or wrong. I honestly didn’t feel strongly enough about my position to argue it passionately. What bothered me was the knee-jerk reaction to point toward numbers instead of taking the discussion a little bit deeper. Not just with the Texas-Pittsburgh situation, but with Minnesota and the Nolen injury, and Alabama and the high conference finish. Each time, the answer was to look at a computer screen and make a decision.

I also realize it’s entirely possible that not all of our actions that day mirror how the actual committee would’ve handled each scenario. Then again, we were following the guidelines set before us.

“The beauty of the committee,” Smith said at the beginning of the session, “is that the debate will occur and the answer will emerge.”

I didn’t see enough debate. But again, maybe the process is different during the real thing. I certainly hope so.

• There are no biases or backdoor politics – I honestly believe the committee’s genuine intent is to award berths to the most-deserving teams and to seed them in the best order possible.

“One of the greatest satisfactions was in 2008, when all the No. 1 seeds made it (to the Final Four),” Smith said. “A lot of people didn’t like that, but I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is cool.’”

The committee may make mistakes from time to time, but it does everything possible to make sure the right teams are selected.

One example: A school such as Utah State has amassed a gaudy record mostly by whipping up on no-name opponents – but it’s not as if Stew Morrill’s squad hasn’t tried to schedule good teams. The problem is that no one wants to play Utah State. Because it seems unfair to penalize the Aggies for their predicament, a committee member may request copies of e-mails between Utah State and other schools that clearly show an attempt by Utah State to schedule tough opponents – as well as the returned e-mail in which the potential opponent declined the opportunity. Such evidence may cause the committee to look more favorably upon Utah State.

As far as the voting, here’s how it goes: At the beginning of session, each committee member is given a list of Division I teams. That member is then asked to check the names of the schools that he/she believes should be “locked” into the field. This year, for instance, that list would include schools such as Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Duke, Florida, BYU, San Diego State, Purdue, Texas and Wisconsin. Then they’re asked to check schools that should also be considered. That list would include the likes of Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Alabama, Georgia, Boston College, Marquette and others.

Any team that receives more than one vote on either list will be place on the “under consideration list.” Teams are then discussed and scrutinized between numerous rounds of voting, which is done by secret ballot. To avoid bias, any time a discussion involves a team from a conference a certain committee member represents, that person must leave the room. Gene Smith, for example, is not present for any discussion involving Ohio State, and he can’t take part in any vote involving the Buckeyes.

“I’m in the other room eating chocolate pretzels, man,” Smith said.

• Potential ratings and headlines aren’t considered when filling out the bracket – In other words, Baylor – a bubble team – isn’t getting into the tournament just because it features the potential No. 1 draft pick in Perry Jones. Attempts won’t be made to pit Bill Self and Kansas in a second-round game against Illinois, Self’s former employer.

“Butler won’t get in this year’s tournament based on them getting to the championship game a year ago,” Worlock said. “Gonzaga won’t make it because they’ve been a nice little story the last few years.”

The most deserving teams get in, regardless of school, coach, star player or fan base.

• The new format will be interesting – With 68 teams now in the field, the NCAA tournament will actually begin a few days earlier when the last four teams to get in play one game each in Dayton along with four teams from smaller leagues who earned automatic berths. The winners of each of those four games will advance to the 64-team bracket.

The NCAA Tournament Selection Show airs March 13 and the games in Dayton begin two days later. Even though things could change, the NCAA will reserve planes and flight crews in the cities of schools who will likely open the tournament in Dayton. That way the players and coaches could fly to Dayton as early as Sunday night or as late as Monday morning to begin preparations for their game.

“This first year is going to be studied and evaluated in more ways that we can even describe,” Smith said. “We’re going in eyes wide open. This is new. If we do some things that might not be good for the future, we’ll change them.”

• This seminar needs to continue – On Monday, three days after the seminar had concluded, I listened as three ESPN analysts critiqued a handful of NCAA tournament bubble teams such as Illinois and Virginia Tech. They used five criteria to determine whether the Illini and Hokies would get into tournament. One of them was conference record and one of them was the teams’ record in the last 10 games. I chuckled.

As I learned the previous week – and as you now know – neither of those factors are considered in the selection process. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, oftentimes in very high places. Hopefully more people will have the opportunity to experience what I did last week in Indianapolis.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Feb 23, 2011