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Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2008

Commentary: Mystery surrounds selection process

March 16, 2008

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How do you picture it?

The 10 members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee are huddled inside an Indianapolis hotel, crunching all kinds of RPIs and SOSes and head-to-heads. Downing Diet Cokes? Frazzled? Calm? Having lively discussions while waiting for conference tournaments to unfold? Picking out the differences between Villanova-Saint Mary's-Alabama State-UMass-Texas A&M and other bubble teams? They do use the term "bubble" in there, by the way, says Tom O'Connor, chairman of the committee.

No matter how the NCAA has tried to shed light on the selection process for its most popular postseason event, it still has an air of mystery. Wouldn't you love to be in the room as the 34 at-large bids to the 65-team field are determined?

The committee has been working since Wednesday afternoon, casting its first "no-brainer" ballots - of teams that shouldn't need discussion to be in the field - by dinner time. That means about 18 to 24 teams have been plugged in for days.

Who knows where things stand at this moment, but here are some guidelines or misnomers O'Connor let us in on during a conference call Wednesday morning.

First, you hear a lot of talk about teams getting in because of their conferences' strength. Stuff like, "The Big 12 deserves six teams in because it's the No. 2 league in the RPI." Or, "Saint Mary's is in trouble since the West Coast Conference would never get three teams in."

Not necessarily true.

"We don't really look at a conference in terms of selection," said O'Connor, who is the athletic director of George Mason, which is already in the tournament by virtue of winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. "We really look at the teams as independents. When we come in the room and do our initial ballot, everyone is listed in alphabetical order. You do your initial ballot based on if you think the institution should be an at-large or under consideration.

"Again, conferences do not play a role in the selection of teams."

O'Connor took umbrage at the term "soft bubble," which has been used a bit by television analysts. First, he said, he doesn't know what that means, but he defines bubble teams as ones that are "non-locks." He said a better way to label the field this season would be that there's a broader group of teams that deserve consideration.

That parity will make seeding a chore, O'Connor said.

If you pictured the committee working in front of a wall of TV screens airing tournament games, you'd be wrong. O'Connor said there are no TVs in the deliberation room, though the committee does tune in during meal breaks.

The seeding process started Thursday, but of course everything continues to be adjusted according to who gets their league's automatic bids and other tourney developments. The committee doesn't start bracketing - figuring out where it's sending teams - until today, often completing the process just in time for CBS' much-anticipated unveiling.

Of all the information the committee uses in its process - a wealth of information that goes far beyond RPI and includes committee members' subjective opinions and teams' nonconference results and performance in the last 12 games - O'Connor said that the most important consideration was obvious.

"A loss is a loss is a loss," O'Connor said. "A win is a win is a win."

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