UConn takes pressure off committee

Originally Published: March 12, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

The NCAA Tournament selection committee was watching Connecticut as closely as any team in the country the past 48 hours. No, the Huskies weren't on any bubble or playing for a No. 1 seed. But they were playing without Emeka Okafor, which was cause for extra scrutiny Thursday and Friday nights.

Odds are, the committee came away impressed with what it saw.

Connecticut blitzed Notre Dame and Villanova on the way to the Big East tournament title game Saturday night. All the while, Okafor stayed on the bench, resting his aching back after learning those back spasms were the result of a stress fracture.

Emeka Okafor
Whether or not Emeka Okafor plays a minute Saturday, the Huskies have shown the committee their seed shouldn't be based on one player's health.

Regardless of Okafor's status for Saturday's title game, the committee will likely not judge the Huskies too much on the past two nights. If UConn was deemed a No. 2 seed with a healthy Okafor, the Huskies could easily be a No. 2 with a limited Okafor. If UConn were a No. 3 in the same situation, the same rules apply.

Apparently, the selection committee -- sequestered, by the way, these days in a hotel room in Indianapolis -- will get a call from Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese at some point during the weekend for an update on Okafor's condition.

That's the way it has worked in the past, according to former selection committee chairman Lee Fowler. The NC State athletic director said it's up to the conference commissioners to give an injury report on their teams. The committee doesn't call on the coach or that school's athletic director.

"Now that they know what's wrong with his back they can pay attention to how he plays in the Big East tournament, if he plays," Fowler said before Friday's semifinals. "That's how they can judge them. They'll want to know how much the team uses him to determine how they should seed them. There will be a lot of discussion on how the team played without him."

Fowler said once Okafor plays, if he does in Madison Square Garden, then the committee has to judge what kind of team Connecticut is with him. But, in the end, it becomes a game of speculation to see how Connecticut should be seeded with their best player hurting.

"If I were arguing for our seeding spot, I would tell the selection committee that they should count on Emeka Okafor being there (in the NCAA Tournament)," said Dr. Jeff Anderson, the director of sports medicine at the University of Connecticut. "We've now verified with an independent opinion on what his injury is. So, they know that the person doesn't work for Connecticut."

The committee is well-versed in having to deal with intriguing injuries. And the NCAA's Bill Hancock said the selection committee will have lengthy discussions on the issue again this weekend.

Cincinnati lost Kenyon Martin to a broken leg in the Conference USA tournament heading into the 2000 NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats were as solid a No. 1 seed as there was that year with Martin. Without Martin, they lost to Saint Louis in the conference tournament. That's why the Bearcats were dropped from a No. 1 to a No. 2 seed. Cincinnati lost to Tulsa in the second round.

During that same tournament, though, Arizona was given a No. 1 seed despite a back injury to center Loren Woods. Woods' time had fluctuated in the final few weeks of the season. Yet, it ended up not being a determining factor.

"We still got a No. 1 seed," Arizona associate head coach Jim Rosborough said. "You've got to look at the body of the work, and that season, we had the body of the work to deserve a No. 1 seed. You can't penalize the rest of the guys on the team if one player is hurt at the end like that. The rest of the team has earned that seed."

But the selection committee still has to guess as to how good a team would be without its star player at full strength, or available at all. There is a subjective quotient.

Connecticut certainly lessened the importance of the issue by reaching the Big East title game for a third straight year behind freshmen big men Charlie Villanueva and Josh Boone. Had the Huskies floundered and failed to advance, the Okafor question could have dropped the Huskies a seed line. But they didn't.

Connecticut shouldn't suffer any penalty in the seeding process. The Huskies proved they're not just a one-man team, and shouldn't be judged as such on Selection Sunday.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com