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Inside 'the bunker'

How the selection committee's work may unfold

Posted: Wednesday March 9, 2005 2:13PM; Updated: Wednesday March 9, 2005 4:52PM
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B.J. Elder
B.J. Elder's injury is part of Georgia Tech's "story" the selection committee will consider.
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NCAA tournament selection committee
Name Position
*Robert Bowlsby Iowa AD
Christopher Hill Utah AD
Craig Littlepage Virginia AD
Gerald Myers Texas Tech AD
Karl Benson WAC commissioner
Michael Slive SEC commissioner
Floyd Kerr Southern AD
Gary Walters Princeton AD
Thomas O'Connor George Mason AD
Jonathan Le Crone Horizon commissioner
* Committee chairman

On Wednesday night, inside an Indianapolis Italian restaurant named Iaria's -- a 72-year-old joint with an exterior of bricks and neon-signage -- the work of the 2005 NCAA tournament selection committee will begin.

The evening, however, is not spent marking up tourney brackets with bubble teams and bolognese-sauce thumbprints. Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's vice president of Division I men's basketball, says the committee goes to Iaria's, which bills its spaghetti as famous, to "carbo-load."

It's a nutritional strategy -- wolfing down a belly-full of pasta -- employed by distance runners on the eve of a race, and although Shaheen uses the term somewhat in jest, the selection committee members are in fact gearing up for a grueling, four-day mental marathon. Wednesday is their last supper before hunkering down in a suite on the 15th floor of The Westin Indianapolis and emerging Sunday, with the much-awaited -- and, once revealed, much-scrutinized -- tournament bracket.

Shaheen, who doesn't vote but guides the committee through the process, gave Sports Illustrated writers and editors an inside look at the selection committee's process last week. Seth Davis detailed some of Shaheen's revelations about its selection criteria -- from RPI to victory margin -- in Tuesday's Hoop Thoughts. Here, I'll look at what could possibly transpire in the committee room during the days following the Last Supper -- everything from actual screen images of computerized seeding and bracketing tools, to hypothetical scenarios that are likely to arise. The order of events is based on a framework laid out by Shaheen, but any mention of actual teams or players is merely my own speculation -- not Shaheen's or the NCAA's.

In the eyes of the public, the committee's labor has always been shrouded under a veil of secrecy -- the athletic equivalent of the Papal Conclave. Outsiders aren't allowed on the 15th floor of the Westin, and there are no plans to open the doors in the near future.

The committee often refers to its temporary headquarters as "the bunker" -- and with 10 committee members, six NCAA staffers and a fleet of laptops fighting for real estate, "there's not a lot of extra space in the room," Shaheen says.

Shaheen sits next to chairman Bob Bowlsby, Iowa's athletic director, who is at the head of a long table alongside NCAA basketball president Tom Jernstedt. The rest of the committee lines the sides of the table, with additional NCAA staffers situated at the other end. The computers have reduced the massive amount of paper the committee accumulates -- once about 10,000 sheets is, according to Shaheen -- and distractions are kept to a minimum. Cell phones aren't allowed. Land lines are password-protected. The floor has security. TVs with conference-tourney action are kept down the hall. It's serious business. And while I'm not going to forecast it step-by-step -- the procedure list reads like the rest of the NCAA manual (tedious and boring) -- here are key scenes that might occur in the bunker:

Thursday afternoon, March 10

Steps in the selection committee's process
Gathering info on teams in person, on TV, via game tapes and analysis
Timetable: All season leading up to March 10
Filling out the 34 at-large bids
Timetable: Thursday-Sunday
Ranking the field 1-65 on an S-Curve
Timetable: Friday-Sunday
Pairing up the 65-team field and selecting regional and first- and second-round sites
Timetable: Sunday afternoon

Time to start burning carbs, lest they manifest themselves in the form of unwanted weight. Each committee member is responsible for "reporting" on at least three conferences -- suggesting which teams are worthy of consideration, and explaining special circumstances affecting those teams. Direct lobbying of committee members is not acceptable, but teams are encouraged, in Shaheen's words, to "tell their stories" through their conference offices, which pass along the info to the committee.

The selection process is not based entirely on the cold, hard numbers. A human element allows observation and gut feeling to come into play (in other words, it's not the BCS). Describing how a team has dealt with injuries, losses and other adversity isn't considered brown-nosing; it's a vital part of the debate. Expect the committee to hear pleas such as these:

"Texas notes that, after losing leading scorer P.J. Tucker and freshman starter LaMarcus Aldridge in January, it did fall under .500 in the Big 12 [at 4-5], but regained its balance to finish 9-7 in the league. The team was able to establish a new identity."

"Georgia Tech was forced to cope without B.J. Elder -- the top scorer on its '03-04 Final Four team -- for nine of its 26 games, including its first meetings with Wake Forest and Duke, and its only matchup with UNC. Elder now back and healthy."

Mid-major team X could also claim here that while its strength-of-schedule rating is terrible, it tried to schedule games against a host of RPI-friendly powers, but didn't find any takers. The committee would then take it upon itself to investigate whether this was actually true -- seven of its members are well-connected athletic directors -- and lying probably won't gain any points in the impending bubble battles.

Thursday night, March 10

Tools the committee uses to evaluate teams (via Greg Shaheen)
listed in no order of importance
• D-I record
• Overall RPI
• Non-conference record
• Non-conference RPI
• Conference record
• Conference RPI
• Road record
• Record in last 10 games
• Record against teams sorted by RPI
• NABC regional advisory committee rankings
• Record vs. other under-consideration teams
• Head-to-head results against other under-consideration teams
• Results against common opponents with other under-consideration teams
• "Good wins," "Good losses," "Bad Wins," "Bad Losses"
• Quality of competition throughout the season
• Injuries, scheduling quirks, travel problems and any other circumstances that could have affected results

The committee's "selection" process -- picking the teams to fill the 34 at-large spots -- requires hours upon hours of open discussion, but is officially decided by secret ballot, the first two of which are due at 8 p.m. Thursday. On the first ballot, members list the 34 at-large teams they think should be included. If a team is listed on all but two of the eligible ballots (either seven or eight, since committee members can't vote for their own teams), it earns a spot on the at-large board. It's effectively in the dance.

Typically, anywhere from 18-24 teams are awarded at-large berths by the end of Thursday night, Shaheen says. Now, it's not as if Illinois, UNC or Wake Forest -- or for that matter, five-seed-types such as Michigan State and Syracuse -- have reason to fret, but I'm sure they'd be happy to know that before they've played a single conference tourney game they're already officially in the field of 65. On the second ballot, members list all the teams that should receive consideration for at-large bids. If a team receives more than one vote here, or more than one vote on the first ballot, it goes onto what's called the "at-large nomination board." That's the NCAA's fancy term for the bubble. And this is where schools such as Minnesota and Iowa State -- and even, initially, teams such as LSU, Southern Illinois and Texas Tech -- will reside until they are either ruled in or out by a series of votes conducted from Thursday through Sunday. Oh, to be a fly on the wall ...