The method to the madness

Posted: March 15, 2011

Not long after the NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket was announced on Sunday night - touching off the great annual power surge as copiers and printers nationwide shuddered into action - the chairman of the selection committee, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, picked up the telephone to explain himself.

This is an annual rite as well. The committee hunkers down in its meeting room in Indianapolis for a week or so, picks the teams that will make the field, seeds them and places them in the bracket, and then the chairman has to pretend they got this monstrously difficult task exactly right.

It goes the same way each year. Local reporters on the conference call badger the chairman about why the team they cover did not make the tournament or did not receive a better seeding. Sprinkle in a few questions about the top teams, give the chairman a new buzzword - this year it was the verb "scrub," as in "we scrubbed that team thoroughly, and looked at its record very closely" - and there's nothing to do after that but forget the committee and play the games.

None of the games will include Virginia Tech, Colorado, Alabama, or St. Mary's, which appear to have been the four teams on the at-large bubble that came closest but did not make the tournament. Virginia Commonwealth, Alabama-Birmingham, Southern California, and Clemson went through the washing machine and came out just a little cleaner, although determining the difference, for instance, between the 23-11 VCU team and 21-11 Virginia Tech requires an electron microscope.

Smith is all about accountability and transparency, but he would not reveal which was the last team to make the tournament and which was the first team to be left out. It's hard to know exactly why. There were 37 at-large slots to be filled to go with the 31 automatic bids to conference champions, and some school had to be No. 38. Revealing that would just be more hassle, so the NCAA doesn't bother. In fact, according to Smith, no teams are really left out of the tournament. There just aren't enough spots for them, which is sort of like saying that no one ever really loses at musical chairs. There just aren't enough chairs.

"We didn't really exclude them," Smith said, when someone who covers the SEC was wondering how Alabama, which had 12 regular season conference wins, second-most in the league, could be left out. "We just didn't have enough slots for them to be in. Alabama was under serious consideration."

That must be a great source of comfort in Tuscaloosa this week, especially as that team from the other end of Highway 59 prepares for Tuesday night's opening-round game, when UAB plays Clemson.

"UAB was one of the last teams to get in. We scrubbed them, looked at them very, very hard," Smith said. "They played a good schedule. They executed well within that schedule. When we compared them with the others, considering all the different criteria we looked at, we felt they were a team that should be in."

At some point of the rinse cycle, it didn't matter that Alabama was 4-4 this season against teams with RPI rankings among the top 50, or that UAB was 1-4 in those opportunities. That's water down the drain now, and it's unlikely any school will remove itself from consideration for next season's tournament because it doesn't think the process is fair.

A little bit of unfairness is part of the deal, because it is so hard to distinguish among the merits of the four teams that slipped in and the four teams that didn't. Theoretically, it should have been easier, or more fair, this season because 68 teams made the field as opposed to 65 in recent tournaments. All that does, however, is shift the complaints three spots down the line, and any coach whose best argument is that his team is the 68th best in the country and not the 69th doesn't have much of an argument for inclusion anyway.

Amid all the mini-controversies, the NCAA was able to successfully implement its expanded bracket without much of a fuss. There were six No. 16 seeds announced, five No. 11 seeds, and five No. 12 seeds. The Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders will get the field down to 64 teams again - not to mention add some days to the television viewing schedule, which might be the whole point.

The NCAA committee denies it, but it wouldn't be surprising if the tournament expanded again somewhere down the line. Anything is possible, although there is a fable about slicing open the magic goose to get all the gold at once. It's risky.

In a way, this is actually a 345-team tournament and the elimination games begin in November. Some teams, like Houston Baptist of the Great West Conference - which had the dubious distinction of having the lowest RPI among Division I teams this season - are eliminated faster than others. Some teams, like Alabama, hang around until the final selection.

It hurts either way, just as it feels much better to be included, even if for only a brief time. There is never any consolation in being put to bed, even if you got a good scrubbing before being patted on the head and tucked in.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/bob_fords_post_patterns/

 

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