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Inside 'the bunker' (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday March 9, 2005 2:13PM; Updated: Wednesday March 9, 2005 4:52PM
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Friday morning, March 11

Team sheet
An example of the selection committee's team sheet for Illinois. Follow the link in this story to see an enlarged version.
Greg Shaheen/NCAA

Bubble debates fill the gaps between official votes on at-large teams. Here's how a decision between two tightrope-walking bubblers -- Indiana (15-12, 10-6 Big Ten) and Buffalo (20-8, 11-7 in MAC) -- might be made:

Buffalo has thrived in the new RPI (it's ranked 35) while Indiana has not (it's No. 72). But the RPI is used as an organizational tool to judge a team's opponents -- not to judge the team itself. "The RPI is not a primary factor in an argument," Shaheen said.

He was not exaggerating -- on the "team sheets" the committee uses to judge a team's entire body of work (see an actual image of Illinois' sheet at right, or click here for an enlarged versionexternal link), a team's RPI is somewhat inconsequential. Its entire schedule, however, is organized by its opponents' RPIs -- with an emphasis on its controllable non-conference games, which are shaded in turquoise. The fact that Indiana, outside its Big Ten slate, played four top-50 RPI teams and three teams ranked between 50-100 -- even though it went 1-6 in those games -- will give the Hoosiers a boost, given that they recorded 10 conference wins. A team such as Buffalo, meanwhile, can only claim one top-50 RPI non-conference foe (a loss to UConn) and one 50-100 team (a win over Niagara).

Against common opponents, both teams lost to UConn on the road (Buffalo by 22, IU by 5) and beat Indiana State at home (Buffalo by 28, IU by 4). Neither team has a "good" non-conference win in the committee's eyes, and neither has a "bad" non-conference loss (to a sub-200 RPI team), either. What differentiates the Hoosiers is that they have "good" losses -- the close UConn game, as well as their controversial "non-buzzer-beater" loss to Charlotte (RPI 31) on Dec. 22. And while IU played three sub-200 RPI teams in the non-conference season, Buffalo played five.

The Hoosiers' RPI may be much lower than the Bulls', but IU looks to me like it has the edge. I'm not saying this is how it will play out -- but given what I know now, I like Indiana's chances.

Friday afternoon, March 11

Seed list
An example of the selection committee's seed list. Follow the link in this story to see an enlarged version.
Greg Shaheen/NCAA

Before there is a bracket, there is an S-Curve. Otherwise known as the "Seed List," this is where the tourney teams are ranked 1-65 in snaking fashion -- and it's never released to the public (see a blank copy provided by Shaheen at right, or click here for an enlarged versionexternal link). This represents the committee's full opinion on the field: for example, the difference between Illinois and Boston College in the bracket might be just one seed (a No. 1 and a No. 2), but the Illini could actually be seven spots higher (No. 1 to No. 8) than the Eagles on the S-Curve.

The committee will often start slotting what it calls the "first quadrant" -- the top 3-4 lines -- on Friday, while the final version, decided by a series of secret ballots, isn't finished until Sunday afternoon. A high-profile injury, such as Keith Langford's uncertain ankle situation at Kansas, won't affect a team's selection, but it will affect a team's seeding. If Langford isn't available for the dance, expect the Jayhawks to take a slight hit on the Seed List.

Friday night, March 11

The debate over the fourth line of the Seed List will inevitably involve Utah -- whose AD, Chris Hill, happens to be on the committee. If the Utes were to lose their Mountain West semifinal Friday night and become the topic of discussion, Hill will have to leave the room. He'll retreat down the hall, to the TV and dinner room -- "we don't have a cool name for it," Shaheen laments -- where he'll have sit and watch hoops until the Utah talk has ceased. So, conspiracy theorists, there go your suspicions about committee-affiliated schools like Iowa, Texas Tech and Utah ...

Saturday morning, March 12

The NCAA's advice to teams looking to earn at-large bids (via Greg Shaheen)
Take care of business -- win the games you are supposed to win.
• Make every effort to schedule the best possible non-conference competition in your situation -- and be willing to travel.
Tell your story through your conference office to the committee.

Some bubble teams choke in their conference tournaments by losing in the first round, while others make a late push and put themselves back on the committee's radar. If a team such as Virginia Tech -- an extreme long shot at this point -- were to down Georgia Tech in the first round of ACC play Friday, the Hokies may feel the need to remind the committee of their NCAA-tourney resume.

It's not uncommon, Shaheen said, for the committee to receive e-mails or FedEx packages in the bunker providing additional "story-telling" for a team. The Hokies, hypothetically, could overnight an envelope to Indianapolis on Friday, detailing previously unknown factors that may have affected their performance -- and reiterate the fact they have beaten four tourney teams (Duke, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Chattanooga) and possibly a fifth (N.C. State), and did happen to finish fourth in the ACC, the strongest conference in the nation.

I'm not suggesting that the committee could be wowed, or wooed, by express mail. But "storytelling," within the parameters of key wins and losses, conference play, injuries and adversity, does matter. "The information they send has to be relevant to our discussion," Shaheen said.

And hate mail from disgruntled castaways? That won't start arriving until after the committee's work is done.

Saturday night, March 12

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They don't watch games in the bunker. The task at hand is so demanding and gigantic in scope that they can't afford the distraction of one, let alone 10 conference tournament games on the tube. But the committee does monitor the weekend's scores in real time, and ... "if we're getting down to the final 4-5 minutes of a game that's close and consequential, we'll find ourselves taking a break to watch it as a group," Shaheen said.

The Pac-10 tournament title game will be winding down around 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, and should it feature a third duel between Arizona and Washington -- with both teams likely vying for a No. 2 seed -- the committee could relocate down the hall to watch the conclusion.

Their seed list, a partially filled-in palette by nightfall, could feature a spot on the second line that reads "Pac-10 tourney champ," and one on the third line that reads "Pac-10 tourney runner-up." Seeing that the Wildcats and Huskies have similar regular-season records (25-5 and 23-5, respectively) and split their season series, the winner of their conference tourney could earn a slot on the second line of the S-curve.

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