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Archive for Sunday, March 14, 2004

NCAA tourney brackets to be revealed today

March 14, 2004

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— Karl Benson came to Indianapolis with a full dossier.

He had watched the games, taken the notes, built up the files. He'd pored over computer printouts and debated behind closed doors about some of the best college basketball teams in the country.

Still, he wasn't sure he was ready to whittle the field down to 65.

"There's always a little nervousness on my part, wondering if I've studied enough and am I prepared enough," said Benson, one of 10 members on the NCAA Tournament selection committee. "It's somewhat like studying for an exam."

For Benson, commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, and the other committee members, this is the busiest time of year.

They'll fill out the bracket sheet only after considering many factors, including overall records, conference records, road wins, records in the last 10 games, schedule strength and a team's RPI.

If they need more information, there is computer help, experts on other conferences and the NCAA staff.

"The last 24 or 36 hours is a little bit like cramming for a test," said Benson, who has been on the committee for three years. "It's exhilarating. But there are tough calls to make and tough decisions to make."

In some cases, the choices are easy.

St. Joseph's is ranked No. 1 and was the nation's last unbeaten team before losing Thursday to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Still, the Hawks are most likely to get one of the 34 at-large bids and could be a top seed.

The more challenging decisions are those that are not so clear-cut -- taking Dayton or Michigan, Nevada or Missouri.

That's why Judy Rose, the athletic director at Charlotte, and her colleagues spend their winters scouting teams and taking notes.

"There's no way to prepare for it until you go through it," said Rose, a five-year veteran and the first woman on the men's selection committee. "You get a sense of what's important and what's not important and where you place your values."

It's a tough, sometimes thankless job -- and one that often draws plenty of criticism.

Last year's bracket had what many considered the nation's two top teams -- Arizona and Kentucky -- potentially meeting in the national semifinals instead of the title game. And the committee had scheduled BYU to play in a regional championship game on a Sunday -- when the Cougars cannot compete because the Mormon church observes it as a day of rest.

The NCAA has since put in safeguards to prevent such a mistake, as well as changed how the Final Four is set up.

Under the new system, the top four seeds will be ranked in order. Previously, the selection committee has chosen the top four seeds without declaring an overall No. 1.

The school that emerges from the region with the top overall seed will face an opponent from the region with the fourth No. 1 seed in one semifinal. Teams from the regions with the No. 2 and 3 seeds will meet in the other semifinal game.

Still, things aren't fail-safe, and the debates already have begun.

Some argue that two No. 1 seeds -- Mississippi State and Kentucky -- could come from the Southeastern Conference. Another that will be considered is Stanford.

St. Joseph's and Gonzaga also will make cases for top seeds.

"I think seven or eight or nine schools could make a case for being the top seed," said selection committee chairman Bob Bowlsby, Iowa's athletic director.

The six major conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC -- each expect to land at least a handful of bids. An upset winner in any of those league's conference tournaments would minimize the chances of a team from a mid-major conference getting an at-large berth.

The toughest part of the process isn't necessarily picking the teams, though; it's seeding them and then defending the process.

Rose, Benson and Bowlsby expect this year to be one of the diciest ever. Rose and Benson said they've already received more phone calls and endured more lobbying than in the past.

"I had a WAC coach call yesterday (Tuesday) who wanted to know if it would be helpful to put together a video clip and send it to the committee," Benson said. "I said, 'I appreciate the enthusiasm to support your team, but we have all the information we need."'

The process works like this:

--If eight of 10 committee members select an at-large team on the first ballot, that team goes up on the board.

--Everybody else is considered after that.

--Those like Bowlsby recuse themselves when their own team is being debated.

Behind the scenes, the discussions can get emotional.

"I wouldn't call it heated, but there may be differences of opinion in how you rank a team," Rose said. "Something may be more important to one person than another person."

Bowlsby said that if he were trying to decide between two evenly matched teams, he would look more harshly at road records. Someone else may prefer the RPI or schedule strength.

What makes this year especially difficult is that committee members expect fewer than the usual 18 to 22 teams to make it through on the first ballot. That means there will be more teams involved in the deliberations and most likely will test the camaraderie among committee members.

Bowlsby put it this way: "It's more art than science."

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