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Monday, February 23, 2009
Inside ESPN's mock bracket selection room


Selection Sunday is less than three weeks away, and a consensus is building for selections and seeding.

Well, if a Sunday snapshot within the basement of ESPN's Building 4 is any indication, some teams can sleep a bit easier.

For the third year in a row, the NCAA's men's basketball tournament selection committee conducted a mock bracket session to show the transparency of the process. The mock bracket sessions have been held in Indianapolis for conference administrators and print, Internet and TV media all three years. One was held two weeks ago.

But for the first time, the NCAA took its act on the road, bringing with it tournament chair and SEC commissioner Mike Slive as well as one of the nine other members of the committee, Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway. You can listen to both on Monday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast.

Greg Shaheen ran this session. As the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball and business strategies, he coordinates the tournament and its selection weekend.

Committee members voted in each team on a private computer program. Only the NCAA staff could see the results. A committee member couldn't vote or discuss his own school. In the case of a conference commissioner such as Slive, he couldn't vote for or discuss any of his member schools. A commissioner or athletic director of such a school had to leave the room when that school was being discussed.

On the first ballot, the committee voted on up to 34 teams. This list eventually could include automatic qualifiers of major conferences, thus eventually creating more spots as the selection weekend of March 11-15 nears.

The teams that made our cut on the first ballot were:

Arizona State
Clemson
Connecticut
Duke
Illinois
Kansas
LSU
Louisville
Marquette
Memphis
Michigan State
Missouri
North Carolina
Oklahoma
Pitt
Purdue
Syracuse
UCLA
Villanova
Wake Forest
Washington
Xavier

Putting 22 teams into the field on the first ballot was par for the course, according to those on the committee.

The next order of business was to come up with teams under consideration. We had 42 teams for 12 spots, as the committee had already begun to pick automatic qualifiers to win tournaments such as the Colonial and MAC. Some curveballs were mentioned during the discussion, such as the possibility of Siena, Davidson and Utah State failing to win their respective conference tournaments.

The new wrinkle for the committee is that it will start seeding the top few lines from its first ballot Thursday morning of selection week rather than waiting until Thursday night.

Our top four based on voting came out like this:
Pitt
Connecticut
Oklahoma
North Carolina

This kind of scenario could hold through the first few days of selection week. But if Oklahoma loses to Kansas in the Big 12 title game (as was predicted in our mock session), the committee will reserve the right -- and most likely will proceed -- to drop the Sooners down a line or at the very least swap them with the Tar Heels if UNC wins the ACC tournament.

The next four were:
Louisville
Memphis
Wake Forest
Clemson

Keep in mind this ballot was completed before Wake Forest lost to Duke on Sunday night. We voted on teams based only on games through Saturday night.

An interesting discussion took place and could be revisited during the real selection session. The voting put Memphis behind Clemson, but there was a motion to move Memphis to a higher No. 2 slot. That discussion that could occur again once voters see the results.

The next foursome was:
Marquette
Michigan State
Villanova
Duke

The fourth foursome was:
Kansas
Florida State
Missouri
Purdue

The committee will move back and forth from seeding and selections during the first few days while a group of committee members, called the fourth quadrant, works on seeding the automatic qualifiers from No. 65 upward to save time when it comes time on Sunday afternoon to fill in the bracket.

Some of the most interesting conversations that we had might come up as issues again in a few weeks:

• The overall No. 1 seed is looking more like Pitt, barring a collapse by the Panthers. Pitt has two more golden opportunities -- at home against Marquette and UConn -- to make its mark for a No. 1 seed even before the Big East tournament begins. In our scenario, Pitt didn't win the conference tournament but still secured the overall No. 1 seed.

• Say the Panthers land the top seed. Because Dayton is closer to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia is and Indianapolis is a shorter drive away than Boston, the road to Detroit for the Panthers may very well go through Dayton and Indianapolis.

• If our mock selection were to hold true at the top, Pitt and Connecticut could be set up for a potential fourth meeting in Detroit because those two regions would meet. The last time two teams played each other four times in a season occurred in 2001, when Duke and Maryland played twice in the regular season, once in the ACC tournament and again in the national semifinals in Minneapolis.

• There's no way to get around the lack of top-seeded teams from the West. In our scenario, Washington was the top team from that part of the country, and the Huskies didn't come up until No. 18. That put UW as a No. 5 seed, going to Portland and perhaps then the West Regional in Glendale. But no team from the West looks to be a high-enough seed to be protected, even though the committee will attempt to keep a few teams in their own regions. In our scenario, Washington went to Portland as a No. 5 seed and Arizona State was sent to Boise as a No. 5 seed (in the East Regional). It appears that a team such as Kansas, in our scenario a No. 4 seed, could end up being the highest-profile team in one of the two Western subregionals. (In our scenario, the Jayhawks went to Boise and fourth-seeded Purdue went to Portland.)

• Eight ACC teams made the field, while nine from the Big East made it. But as has been the case in the three previous years I've done this session, the conference affiliation was never mentioned until the bracketing principles kicked in for the committee. And yes, Notre Dame and Georgetown made the cut from the Big East, while Cincinnati and Providence did not. Boston College, Maryland and Miami made it out of the ACC, while Virginia Tech did not. Of course, in the real-world situation that will play out the next few weeks, the Hokies have more chances to make the field because they'll face Clemson, Duke, North Carolina and Florida State.

• Siena, Davidson and Utah State had better win their conference tournaments. This isn't breaking news, but if you slice the results apart, you'll see that none of the three have wins that could stack up against some of the high-major teams' best wins, even those teams that had long losing streaks. The committee has 10 varied personalities, and it may value regular-season championships in lower-profile leagues more than we did, while also believing those smaller programs pass the eye test. But it could be a hard sell if those teams don't win their leagues.

• Brigham Young will affect more teams than you can imagine because it doesn't play on Sundays. A few years ago, the NCAA committee made the mistake of slotting the Cougars in a Friday-Sunday regional. BYU lost in the first round, and it didn't become an issue. In our mock, BYU simply couldn't be in two regions. Because of bracketing principles, the Cougars had to be moved around in other regions, and that ultimately pushed a team down from a 10-seed to a 12-seed in the mock bracket. Although this scenario might be an extreme example, it's not out of the question.

• The good news for the committee is that if Pitt plays in Dayton, the opening-round winner could stay in for its first-round contest. The NCAA would like this to happen for cost-cutting purposes. The opening-round game is Tuesday, and the Dayton Regional is Friday-Sunday. This would be a good selling point for the two teams making the trip to Ohio.

• Another bracketing principle that may have to go is trying to avoid regular-season rematches. There are so many rules and regulations dealing with teams from the same conferences that regular-season rematches may be unavoidable in a few instances. With so many teams from super conferences such as the ACC and Big East, it's hard to find slots. So, in our bracket, no one noticed until it was too late that Wisconsin's only spot was as an 11-seed, opposite No. 6 Texas. If that matchup were to happen, it would be a rematch from a game earlier this season, which the Longhorns won in Madison. If the Badgers were to win this game in our fictional bracket, they could then head to Minneapolis for a second rematch, against No. 3 Marquette.

• Conferences will produce cheat sheets about their respective conference teams. The living document can be updated throughout the weekend on an internal Web site. This will be the one place for the conferences to shill for their teams instead of trying to politick in a variety of forms. It's how the Big Ten will explain that Michigan State had to play North Carolina in its fourth game in seven days after playing three games on consecutive days in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic. And injured forward Goran Suton didn't play that day. So that is the excuse for MSU's getting rocked by the Tar Heels at Detroit's Ford Field.

• If Saint Mary's says Patty Mills will be back for the NCAA tournament but he doesn't play in the WCC tournament before selection weekend, the Gaels probably won't be able to convince the committee that they can be the same team without him. One point Slive made was that even if the school said he would be back for the NCAAs, there's no way to know whether the Gaels would be close to the same team when Mills (who suffered a broken right hand) was healthy. So SMC will be judged on the body of its work -- wins and losses, who it played, when and where with or without Mills. If that's the case, and the Gaels don't win the WCC tournament, they'll have serious trouble earning a bid.