Rocking the boat

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

About the only good news for Gary Walters, the chair of the basketball selection committee who probably has a raging migraine about now, is that it could have been worse.

If it wasn’t for Kevin Durant, even more hell could have broken loose this weekend and Sunday could have been even more stressful.

The Texas freshman broke a final minute tie to propel Texas over Oklahoma State on Saturday in the Big 12 semis, assuring the Cowboys weren’t still alive to steal an automatic bid and rock the tournament field that, in most years, is usually set by Sunday morning.

But that’s the good news, the only good news.

The bad is the unusual slew of conference tournament upsets that has pared down the available at-large spots to the point where Sunday promises to be the most bitter and bickered about selection process in recent memory.

And still looming are two potential conference shockers that would further wreak havoc with the tourney field – North Carolina State in the ACC, Arkansas in the SEC.

N.C. State can only get into the NCAA tournament by defeating North Carolina to secure the ACC’s automatic bid. Arkansas may now be in the at-large mix, but is by no means a lock as it matches up with Florida.

Regardless, if either wins Sunday then some team that thought it was in, will suddenly, just hours before the field is announced, be out. If both win, then two teams are out.

Which is why teams on the edge of the NCAA field – Purdue, Illinois, Florida State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Drexel, Old Dominion, Stanford and Missouri State, among others – will be rooting as hard for North Carolina to nail N.C. State and Florida to finish Arkansas as actual Tar Heel and Gator fans. Probably even harder.

The only certainty as the committee continues its meetings Sunday in Indianapolis is that the field is still in flux.

“I can never recall the committee needing two contingency plans before,” said Jerry Palm of, who over the past decade has annually predicted an average of 33 of the 34 at large selections.

“It’s making it very (difficult),” Palm said. “What they’ll do is have 34 teams on their board in order and, if say, N.C. State wins, they’ll take the bottom one off. They’ll have a bracket for either scenario.”

They’ll do the same if Arkansas can beat Florida in the SEC final too. And, presumably, they’ll have a third scenario if both the Razorbacks and Wolfpack win.

Generally, the Sunday games are used only to shift seedings since most years the participants in the ACC, Big Ten and SEC title games will be selected into the NCAA tournament win or lose.

The committee would look to today’s Big Ten tournament – either Ohio State or Wisconsin – and plug the winner into a No. 1 seed and the loser into a No. 2. But it wouldn’t affect much more than that.

But this is no ordinary year. Sunday is just the culmination.

Palm calls it “bid stealing” and this has been a year for thieves. It is when teams that can only reach the NCAA tournament by winning a conference tournament do so, knocking the favorite into at-large status, thus shrinking the number of available at-large bids.

For all the talk about the tourney “bubble” the process is more like an accordion, with the number of available at-large bids expanding and contracting like the musical instrument.

When Wright State beat Butler in the Horizon League final Tuesday, it meant the conference would get two bids – the automatic (Wright) and now an at-large bid (highly qualified Butler). Had Butler won the automatic, the Horizon would have just gotten one bid, freeing up an additional at-large.

The same happened in the Atlantic 10 (Xavier is now an at-large) and the WAC (Nevada). According to Palm, there hasn’t been three bid stealings since 2001. On Sunday that number could expand to five.

Which is why everyone is worried.

One thing that has changed is the detailed attention the process now gets. Due to the growth of the Internet there are scores of websites dedicated to this, allowing every fan to have the access to the statistics the actual committee has, including the once mysterious Ratings Percentage Index.

Mock brackets have become a cottage industry and appear even before the season has begun. ESPN begins playing “In or Out” on the air in mid-February. It may be good for ratings, but there is simply no accurate way of predicting the number of truly available bids until the conference tourneys play out.

So a team such as Texas Tech, which has been universally “in” for weeks, now has to sweat out a couple more Sunday afternoon championship games because nothing is as it was.

The list of potential “last teams out” is diverse. There is Tech, which boasts three combined victories over national title contenders Kansas and Texas A&M and features the winningest coach of all-time, Bob Knight. There are Big Ten schools Purdue and Illinois, which in most years, based on conference record (each went 9-7), would be in.

There are the Colonial Athletic schools, Old Dominion and Drexel, both of which own impressive non-conference victories and come from a league where just last year an at-large selection (George Mason) reached the Final Four.

One or all of those teams could find themselves on the outside looking in. Which is why the CBS Selection Show might actually be interesting this year.

Generally there are three never fail, guaranteed, take it to the bank parts to the show. 1) The announcement of the actual field. 2) The part where the entire CBS panel picks Gonzaga to go to the Final Four. 3) A predictably inane and ill-informed comment from Billy Packer designed to draw attention to Billy Packer and keep CBS renewing Billy Packer’s contract.

This year you’d have to be on mushrooms to take Gonzaga and Packer already stirred things up calling last week’s Duke-Carolina game.

So the focus might actually be on the tourney field, which at this late hour still isn’t set and promises to deliver real controversy, real surprises and probably a real tired Gary Walters with an icepack on his head.

This year you don’t have to wait until Thursday for the madness to begin.

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