U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2010 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE

FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
Inside the Room: NCAA Tournament Selection Process
John Akers, Basketball Times

INDIANAPOLIS They've been inside the room.

That's the common thread that ties together the 79 men and two women who have served on the men's NCAA Tournament selection committee over the past 70 years. Prior to 1974, the members were "inside" the room in spirit only, since the selection process was conducted by a six-hour teleconference. Some served for three days in Kansas City, others for six days behind security on the west wing of the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis. They have voted according to the data, and they have voted on instinct, presiding as judge and jury over decisions that will validate and tarnish coaching and playing careers. They have exited that room on Selection Sunday of every March certain of the criticism they are about to receive.

Literally or figuratively, they've all been inside the room.

They represent a Who's Who of athletic administrators and not only from the basketball section of that directory.

Wayne Duke, a former Big Ten commissioner, started out as a sports writer. Willis Casey, a former NC State athletic director, was a swimming coach. Gene Corrigan, a former AD at Notre Dame and commissioner of the ACC, played lacrosse at Duke. There's Jake Crouthamel, a former Syracuse AD who coached football at Dartmouth. Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner, was a golfer and basketball manager at Saint Michael's College. Tom Butters, a former Duke AD and major league pitcher, was among the first to suggest during the NCAA's cloak-and-dagger days of the mid-1990s that the process didn't need to be so secretive.

They are all considered among of the most influential committee members of the past four decades. They also had their equals among the basketball crowd.

Dave Gavitt, a basketball visionary and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, is credited for coming up with the tournament's "S" curve that once drove the seeding process and the current pod system designed to keep teams closer to home during the first two rounds. Vic Bubas, a former Sun Belt commissioner who played for Everett Case at NC State and coached at Duke, is considered the father of the data-driven process, if not the RPI. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany played for Dean Smith at North Carolina. C.M. Newton, played for Adolph Rupp and became a basketball coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt and the AD at Kentucky. Terry Holland played for Lefty Driesell at Davidson and coached there and at Virginia.

These, too, are among those names that come up often in discussions of past committees.

Judy Rose, the AD at Charlotte, was the first woman selected to the committee, in 1996, two years after her school had hosted the Final Four. When told she had received a fax nominating her to the men's committee, she insisted that her assistant must have gotten her genders mixed up. Even after learning she had indeed been nominated, Rose suspected that hers was a token nomination. Yet she filled out the lengthy form, only to be told of her rejection by Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who nominated her.

"Just not ready for a woman yet. Sorry," Dodds told her.

"Oh, that's OK," Rose said.

"No, it's really not," Dodds said.

Newton took notice of Rose's original nomination and suggested that she become a member of the board for USA Basketball, strengthening her resume when she was nominated for the selection committee again in 1999. After being chosen to serve from 2000-04, she can vividly remember her flight to California for an informal introductory summer meeting that included spouses.

"My husband grabbed my hand and said, 'Honey, are you nervous?'" Rose recalled. "And I said, 'Yeah. I never want to fail at anything I do, but I can't afford to fail. If I fail as the first woman, they'll never put another woman on the committee.

"My husband leaned over and said, 'If it makes you feel any better, I'm the first male spouse.'"

She must have been successful. Bill Hickey, husband of UT-San Antonio athletic director Lynn Hickey, is the second male spouse among the selection committee.

"There were some eyebrows raised: This is a men's club, and there's a woman coming in," recalled Bill Hancock, the current BCS director and a former director of the NCAA Tournament. "Well, my goodness. With Judy Rose, there wasn't any difference. She was just another top-flight committee member: a deep-thinker and a fun human being."

There are others, too, who rolled up their sleeves and impressed others with their preparation, though they never stood out front as committee chairmen. Carroll Williams, the former Santa Clara coach and AD, is one. So is current member Stan Morrison, the 71-year-old AD at UC-Riverside, is both navigating the economic crisis facing California schools while watching four games a night as a committee member without even the benefit of his own secretary.

Some of the most influential folks inside the room have never offered an opinion on a team or cast a vote. NCAA executive director Tom Jernstedt, one of the most powerful men in basketball, has witnessed every selection since 1973 and has watched most committee members enter the room for the first time as terrified rookies and exit for the final time as confident voters. Hancock ran the selection process with dignity and grace for 13 years. Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president in charge of basketball and business strategies, is credited with making technological advancements in the selection process and furthering the era of openness that began with Butters.

Which leads us to fourth annual mock selection exercise, held for sports writers, broadcasters and athletic administrators at the NCAA offices during two days in February, something that might not have happened without Butters, Shaheen, Jim Sukup, Billy Packer and the legions of cynics and critics within the media.

There isn't a Bubas or a Butter among the 18 persons simulating the 10-member selection committee, though Jernstedt and Shaheen are there to monitor the exercise. Butters sent Jernstedt a text message while we were there, saying his time on the committee was the highlight of his career. And there is a Gavitt. Dan Gavitt, the son of Dave and the Big East director of men's basketball, said he doesn't want it to sound like he's discrediting his father's genius, but he's amused to think of him sitting among the bank of computers and screens along the committee's roundtable.

Each member has his own computer, plus three other large screens nearby. Color-coded comparisons of multiple teams are available with a few clicks of the mouse. The committee members endure a repetitive, mind-numbing series of votes to select the 34 at-large candidates and then seed the 65 teams in the field.

Though the mock members were satisfied with their results, they never had to explain to Packer why there were as many conference teams from the Atlantic 10 as the Atlantic Coast (six apiece) or how a team with an RPI rating of 25 (California) could be ignored.

But by now, you've either been interested enough to learn about the principals and procedures that dictate the selection and seeding process or found there's too much detail to swallow. You either believe that the committee members disregard affiliation as they make their choices, or you'll dismiss the stories you're about to be told as folklore coming from inside a room closed to the outside world.

That Corrigan once asked this his own Notre Dame be removed from the board of at-large contenders, knowing the Fighting Irish didn't belong there. That former West Virginia athletic director Fred Schaus, who died last month, did the same. That while Bob Bowlsby was the AD at Iowa, he would dismiss himself from the room every time Northern Iowa came up in the discussion, voluntarily, just because he had previously worked there.

"They really do try to get it right," Rose said. "I know people don't believe this, because they just can't fathom that you take off your hat when you go in that room for your university and your conference. You take it off.

"Is it 100 percent? I'm sure it's not 100 percent of the time. But I'd say it's in the high 90s."

You might not believe any of that, but believe this: The evolution of the process has been both pronounced and constant since 1973, when a 28-year-old Jernstedt left an administrative job at Oregon to become director of events. In his first year on the committee, the selection was conducted by teleconference.

His first chairman was Tom Scott, a gentleman A.D. at Davidson who was the head coach at North Carolina before Frank McGuire. Everyone warned Jernstedt that the man who really ran the call was powerful UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan, an intimidating man who had to be moved from the Bruins' bench for berating officials during basketball games.

"People said he's a big bully, and I knew enough coming from Oregon that I tended to believe that," Jernstedt said. "And my takeaway from my first couple meetings was, it's true. But it was a compliment to J.D., because he is so well-prepared that every time something came up, he had more data than the others."

The meetings were held during the 1980s and 1990s in Kansas City. Velcro held most of the school names to 12-20 large boards spread across the room. During his years on the committee, no one but Hancock touched the board.

"That was one of the rules," Williams said. "It wasn't among the principles, but that was the rule."

Back then, there simply was a fraction of the information available to the committee than there is now, but that began to change. Bubas was an analytical thinker who joined the committee in 1980. The RPI was introduced to the process a year later.

"He was a magician for studying things in minutiae," Delany said.

Jernstedt said Bubas assigned interns to help him keep up with data that's now commonplace on the committee.

"Vic was the first member that I can recall that, when he came to the meetings, he had been working on it the entire basketball season," Jernstedt said.

With Bubas' guidance, Delany joined the committee in 1986. One late night following one of his first years on the committee, he discovered the value of victories on the road over top-50 teams. It was a revelation that would be his guiding light in future evaluations.

"We didn't have computer screens in front of us, but we had printouts with the teams ranked 1 through however many teams there and had the wins categorized 1-50," Delany said. "I was always trying to figure out of all the data we had had, what was the most valuable. What I stumbled across was that there was a category of games that separate the great from the good."

Delany found that among about 1,000 games played at the homes of teams ranked in the RPI's top 50 each season, visitors would win only about 100. Great teams might win three or four such games. Good teams might win one or two. Teams that had not won a single game against a good team away from home the type of game they would play in the NCAA Tournament were the teams that had not shown Delany that they belonged in the tournament.

"To me," he said, "that was the toughest math test available."

Even in the pre-committee era of the late 1980s and1990s, committee members had plenty of data available.

"By the weekend, every committee member had a two-foot stack of paper that we would recycle on Sunday," Hancock said.

Recent committee members are universal in their agreement that the greatest advancements in the past decade were the technological improvements brought to the committee in recent years by Shaheen. Even in the early 2000s, a committee member's request for side-by-side comparison of teams could literally be a discussion-stopper.

"The committee members would say, 'Give us a sheet that compares Marquette, UCLA and Tennessee,'" Hancock said. "And the meeting would adjourn and the staff would research the data and bring it back on a legal-sized piece of paper, in longhand, on photocopies, and distribute it to the committee members.

"What now takes seconds took a half hour, 45 minutes, at best. Having that instant data was such a wonderful change. It was evolutionary."

Similarly, the voting process has taken on a new speed. That mind-numbing process of selecting and ranking, selecting and ranking, is at least enhanced by the use of computers. Just a few years ago, when votes were taken on 3x5 slips of paper, the process also could produce a dull ache in the wrist to go with the one in their frontal lobe. Today, the process is sped up not only by a vote that is registered and recorded in seconds, but by a history that allows members to refer to their previous votes.

"The difference between my first years and seven or eight years later was light years," said Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference who served on the committee from 1999-2002.

However, the new technology has not sped up the completion of the final bracket, still typically about an hour before the CBS Selection Show.

"(The technology) probably slowed things down," said Craig Littlepage, the Virginia athletic director who served as the committee chair in 2006. "We wound up having more discussion."

A roomful of analytical minds, given access to greater amounts of data, looks for new ways to dissect them.

"When seven teams look alike and you've got to get out your microscope and look for little tiny blemishes or beauty spots," Hancock said, "Now there's plenty of time for those discussions. It's clear to me that the committee has more time to evaluate more teams carefully.

"Having said that, I don't remember more than once or twice coming away from Sunday evening thinking the committee had made a mistake."

The advancements in technology have not made the committee immune from controversy. That's the nature of a thankless job that can't be won.

There's the old story about the sports writer who asked 1988 committee chairman Arnie Farrin why Iowa State had not been selected to the tournament. Farrin pointed out that Iowa State was chosen as a No. 12 seed, despite the Cyclones' 6-8 record in Big Eight Conference play. "Well, why are they in the tournament?" the writer asked.

Delany, then the commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference, found himself at the center of controversy when Louisville was left out of the tournament in 1987 despite winning the national title the year before. Denny Crum, beside himself, pointed out that the committee had given an at-large bid to Middle Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley, suggesting that favoritism was given to a member of Delany's conference. In today's world of bracketology, Crum's rationale would have been shot down as quickly as it was raised: Crum made the point that the Cardinals had played a tough schedule that included 10 top-50 teams in the RPI. The problem: The Cardinals had beaten only one and six of the nine losses were by 10 pointes or more. Middle Tennessee, 2-0 against top-50 teams, got the edge.

"I remember Denny coming in to see the committee the following summer, and he wanted an explanation," Delany said. "He didn't accept the explanation, but he got one."

No committee was thrown a greater curve than when it was announced that Kenyon Martin's broken leg about 16 minutes into a quarterfinal game of the 2000 Conference USA Conference tournament. Cincinnati, a lock for a No. 1 seed, suddenly was without the national player of the year.

"I said, 'Real funny. Real funny, guys,'" said Rose, who later felt the criticism from Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins for handing the Bearcats a No. 2 seed.

"It was shocking," Elgin recalled, "to think we had to evaluate a team on 24 minutes of a game without the best player in the country."

The most recent controversy came when George Mason and four Missouri Valley Conference teams were selected in 2006. Littlepage, the committee chairman, probably could have related to Farrin's can't-win dilemma with the selection of Iowa State in 1988. Littlepage fielded criticism from Packer and Jim Nantz on the CBS selection show, yet was asked in subsequent interviews why the Missouri Valley's Missouri State was not given a bid despite an RPI rating of 21, making the Bears the highest-rated team ever to be left out of the field. George Mason was selected ahead of Drexel, a team that beat the Patriots twice. Yet, the choices were justified when George Mason made its storied run to the Final Four and two of the four MVC teams reached the Sweet Sixteen.

By comparison, criticism of the past two tournaments has been relatively light. The 2007 tournament field that sent four No. 1 seeds to the Final Four and ended with Kansas' dramatic overtime victory over Memphis for the title was practically free of controversy.

"Someone gave me an article that I'll frame one of these days," said 2007 committee chairman Tom O'Connor. "It says: The biggest complaint that the media had was that the had nothing to complain about."

Morrison said there's a "Formula of Six" that serves as a rule of thumb for whether or not a Final Four was successful. If the seeds of the top four teams equals six or less, the committee is approaching genius level. Two of the past three Final Four fields met that criteria, and last season's field added up to seven. The last previous field to meet the "Formula of Six" criteria was in 1993.

Of course, the beauty in a Final Four field is in the eye of the beholder. The '06 field, which lacked a No. 1 seed and included underdog George Mason, seemed magical to O'Connor, the 11th-seeded Patriots' AD.

"I'm looking right now at a poster that says Eleventh Heaven," O'Connor said with a chuckle.

Morrison also estimated that criticism has declined "by 80 percent" since the NCAA has hosted about 10 mock brackets since its first for the media in 2007. (The NCAA actually held a mock bracket for the public earlier in the decade, but they used fake teams and records out of fear of influencing the actual selection in March. "It was a step," said Hancock, "but not as far as we should have. And now they've taken the extra step.") A mock bracket also will be held for coaches at the NABC meetings in May, though after the season has already occurred.

Committee decisions are still questioned, but Shaheen said the writers and broadcasters have shown a better understanding of the process in their reporting.

Even former committee members, particularly conference commissioners who must defend their membership, find themselves criticizing the selections from time to time.

"I can remember once in a recent year, I made some comments that I regretted, once I saw all the data," Elgin said. "That's one thing you have to remember about the basketball committee. They have the kind of analysis and the kind of data that the average person can't get their hands on unless they really, really work at it.

The process, secretive as it remains, wasn't nearly as open as it is now. Hancock remembers the day that it released its "principles and procedures." The RPI remained a mystery to the public until Jim Sukup figured out the formula on his own the early 1990s.

"(Sukup) took the formula and went through a lot of work to get the Rating Percentage Index," NCAA statistician Gary Johnson told The Sporting News in a story that appeared in 1992. "You need 100 percent of the Division I scores to do it."

Sukup's simulation of the RPI was the forerunner to the many RPI sites that appear on the Internet today.

"The NCAA did not like what I was doing way back then," Sukup said. "One of their contract lawyers sent a letter that I could not imply that I was receiving the RPI from the NCAA. It was clearly stated in The RPI Report that I received no input from the NCAA, so go figure."

Today, the NCAA works with folks like Sukup and Jerry Palm to make sure their ratings are the same.

Then came Joe Lunardi, aka Joey Brackets, a marketing director at Saint Joseph's who coined the phrase "bracketology" and has legions of followers of his projections of the tournament field for espn.com.

"I can't believe how accurate some of these guys are," Morrison said. "You'd swear they were spying in the room. And that's good. The more that people know about it, the better."

Despite all the new information, the committee found that Selection Sunday was like the first day of hunting season for sports writers and broadcasters. While many within the room believed that much of what they read was misinformed, but they knew that the secretive nature of the process was at least partly to blame for that. They arrived upon the solution of holding mock brackets for the media that no longer seems so radical.

"It doesn't take away from the confidentiality of any particular committee," Lunardi said. "It's less necessary to have this secret sauce, because the sauce isn't secret any more.

Just as the process is constantly being tweaked, there will always be points to debate. Talk of tournament expansion will provide plenty of that. The committee makeup could become an issue. Jernstedt admitted that qualified committee members are becoming harder to find, both because fewer basketball coaches are gravitating toward athletic administration and because fewer ADs and commissioners are willing to take on the time commitment during the current financial crisis.

The committee is always subject to a qualitative/quantitative debate. While committee members are never told how to do their jobs, there is more talk about the "eye test," as opposed to a reliance on data. Committee members also are careful to say they are searching for the "best" available teams rather than the "most deserving."

That raises the question of whether Arizona, a controversial choice last season, was chosen despite a 19-13 record largely because of the two future first-round picks in the Wildcats' lineup. Or if Air Force, another hotly debated pick in 2006, was picked primarily because it used a Princeton offense that few coaches would want to face in a first-round matchup.

Were teams that had posted better seasons left out of the tournament in favor of teams that had were deemed to have a greater potential to win a tournament game?

But when committee members inadvertently used the words "most deserving" a few years ago, they found that those two words also can have a misleading connotation. For example, would Northwestern, which has never played in the NCAA Tournament, be "more deserving" than a tournament regular under consideration?

"My second year on the committee, we really had a long discussion about the most deserving," O'Connor said. "And we really zeroed in on the word 'best,' because it's really about the best teams moving forward.

"The national champion is not the most deserving team. It's the best team in the country."

Similarly, there could be an eye test/data debate. Though Bubas was a notable exception, ex-coaches probably line up in side of the "eye test" that gives them a better feel for a team. The data-driven analysts would argue that the eye test distorts the image of a team depending on how it played that day.

"I'm almost unspeakably opposed to the eye test," Lunardi said. "I think it's far more likely to be misleading than leading."

That's the sort of discussion that can go on inside a room where only 79 men and two women have served.

"One of our staff members asked me if I really miss this time of year," Rose said. "Watching every game in America? No. I don't miss that. I really don't.

"The time of the year I miss is selection week."

That week when they gather inside the room.

Second place: Lew Freedman, Basketball Times Online
Third place: Scott Dochterman, Cedar Rapids Gazette
Fourth place: Scott Powers, espnchicago.com
Fifth place: Jack Styczynski, nytimes.com