INDIANAPOLIS — A wise man, Dan Akroyd if memory serves, once said, “We mock what we don’t understand.”
Well, none of us understand the process of selecting the field for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as well as we think we do, unless we’ve actually been here the second week of March in the selection committee room.
So, to try to improve understanding for all of us who have ever filled out and crumpled up a tournament bracket, the NCAA invited 20 of us media types to Indianapolis to mock. Not to make fun of the NCAA and its bureaucratic ways (there’s always time for that later), but to try to learn more about the process that will ultimately deliver us an unpickable bracket on Selection Sunday (this year, that’s March 15).
We meet in the Brand Building, a recent addition to the NCAA headquarters campus in downtown Indy, early Thursday afternoon. The building, essentially built with money from TV commercials that play on 12 days a year during the men’s tournament, is named for late NCAA President Miles Brand, who preceded former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert in that job.
You have to have done something pretty significant in the NCAA’s eyes to get your name on or in the Brand Building. There are rooms named for Jesse Owens, Pat Summitt and John Wooden. Our meetings take place in a ballroom named for Christine Grant, the first women’s athletics director in the country at Iowa.
The actual selection committee meets at the nearby Conrad Hilton in downtown Indianapolis, on a sealed off upper floor of the hotel. No one is that worried about security for this group.
There are two media members per actual committee member, a group that includes ESPN announcer Mike Tirico and Fox Sports college writer Stewart Mandel, who is one of the two people filling the role of committee chairman Scott Barnes, the athletic director at Utah State.
I filled the role of LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva, who is in the fourth year of his five-year term on the committee, along with Jason Lisk of the USA Today-affiliated website TheBigLead.com.
“You’re really going to enjoy it,” Alleva assured me more than once before I went to Indy. I was sure of that as well, though there was more “homework” involved than I expected.
Each committee member is typically required to monitor four conferences across the country. Like Alleva, we had to monitor the Big Ten, Patriot, WAC and Ohio Valley conferences. Jason and I split up the latter three conferences, paying most attention to the Big Ten when it became clear the other three would likely be “AQ” conferences (only their tournament champions would get bids).
The NCAA folks are keen on inviting the media in for this exercise every year (this is the ninth year they’ve done it) to shed light on what has long been a secretive and conspiracy-inspiring process.
“We want people to know there are no conspiracies,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships. “This is about a bunch of hard working people trying to do the best job they can.”
We settled in at 2 p.m. Thursday for a nearly eight-hour session in a room filled with long tables at the center for the media and tables around the edges for support staff and basketball committee members. There were groups of four monitors in front of every group of four mock committee members, on which were projected different reports on teams that could also be viewed side-by-side, along with a large projection screen at one end mostly for showing which teams are in which stages of selection.
After some instructions from David Worlock, the NCAA director of media coordination and statistics, we dived in.
The first step was to click through a ballot of all the teams in Division I basketball and decide which ones are in as locks and which should receive consideration. Some teams were blocked from our ballots, like LSU for us and Southern and Syracuse, since the latter two are ineligible for postseason competition.
After that vote, there were votes after votes on teams that we thought should be in the tournament as at-larges. Gradually, typically four teams at a time were added to the tournament field like layers in a cake.
LSU didn’t come up for discussion until Friday morning. Jason and I left the committee room (as Alleva would have to do) as Tirico led a discussion on the Tigers. After we returned, LSU was in based on its résumé as of Thursday night. All that remained to see was where the Tigers would be slotted into the field.
Based on when LSU was voted in, the Tigers were the No. 38 overall seed (the field is seeded 1-68). That put the Tigers on the No. 10 seed line. Eventually, LSU was paired with No. 7 seed Ohio State in a second-round game (the first full round of the tournament) in the East Regional in Pittsburgh.
One could write a decent-sized book on the whole process, but I thought it best to talk of some of the misconceptions about the tournament selection process and how the exercise shed light on them:
Debunked Misconception No. 1: It matters how many teams get in from each conference.
Our deliberations were quickly stuffed with every conceivable statistic about a team: their record against the top 50 RPI, the top 100, below 200, etc.; their road records and home records and conference records. One detail quickly became conspicuous by its omission: which conference teams were in. I didn’t even know how many SEC teams we had selected (five) until after the bracket was filled in.
In fact, the first and only time conference affiliations became part of the process was when we were placing teams in the bracket. That’s because of a bracketing rule that the first four teams from a conference must be separated if they’re going to be top four seeds in a regional.
All rules are made to be broken, however, and that one was quickly broken out of necessity when we had to match Oregon and UCLA from the Pac-12 together as No. 11 seeds in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio.
Debunked Misconception No. 2: The networks tell the selection committee what to do.
At this, we had to take the NCAA’s word to a degree. Worlock admitted that at some point during the actual meetings there is a representative from CBS/Turner present, as there was during our meetings. But he never became part of our selection process (I believe he spoke up once besides introducing himself at the start) and Worlock said no one from the network is present during the team selection or seeding process on Sunday.
Debunked Misconception No. 3: Other than automatic bids, records count the most.
Tough schedules count. A lot. Especially for teams that played other good teams away from home. That’s how a team like 17-7 Oklahoma could wind up with a No. 3 regional seed and a team like Murray State, which as of Thursday had won 20 straight games against a light schedule, barely merited any discussion at all.
LSU got into our bracket in large part because despite the Tigers’ middling RPI as of Friday morning (No. 57), the Tigers had four wins over Top 50 teams. That included two road wins at No. 30 West Virginia and No. 37 Ole Miss.
Debunked Misconception No. 4: Regionals are set up to make it harder or easier for certain No. 1 seeds.
When it came to placing teams in each of the four regionals, much more consideration was given to proximity to a regional site than making it easier for Kentucky to get to the Final Four because it was the No. 1 overall seed. Nor was there consideration for making it tougher for the last No. 1, Wisconsin, to get there. There was discussion about the fact that Louisville came in as the No. 10 overall seed and would theoretically have a tougher time getting to the Final Four past Kentucky than would No. 11 overall seed North Carolina, which was sent to the West Regional with Wisconsin, but the closeness of Louisville to the Midwest Regional in Cleveland was a factor. Whether the actual committee might decide to avoid the criticism of setting up a potential Final Eight showdown between the two Bluegrass bluebloods remains debatable.