INDIANAPOLIS -- We were the first guinea pigs: 20 sportswriters tossed into a meeting room in the NCAA headquarters Wednesday, going through a simulated NCAA Tournament mock bracket. We had the same computer system, access to all of the NCAA's information on each team, and the same kinds of chicken, pasta and ice cream the 10-member selection committee will digest over four days at the Westin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis next month.
What we discovered over the course of 12½ hours -- before wrapping up at 2 a.m. -- is that this process hardly is a walk in the park.
All of us who cover the NCAA Tournament, and those who are bracketologists by trade, have attempted at some point to select, seed and bracket the field. But never before has the NCAA opened its doors on the entire process. We 20 members of the United States Basketball Writers Association got to go through the actual secret computer voting on teams, engaged in the lobbying that goes on within a committee room, handled the curveballs thrown when a team not in the projected field wins a conference tournament, and suffered from the overall fatigue that settles in when trying to hurriedly finish the bracket.
So, after dozens of Diet Cokes had been consumed, this is what we learned in finishing our bracket:
" Conference affiliation wasn't mentioned at all until the final step of putting teams in the bracket, so as to avoid pitting conference teams against one another prior to the regional final.
" The RPI was on the screen when teams were compared, but a team's RPI wasn't used in any argument that was discussed among the entire group.
" Geographic concerns among the top four seed lines and balance were critical in deciding on moving a few teams after the seeding of teams from 1-65 was done.
" Poor Mike Slive. The SEC commissioner will need a comfortable chair outside the meeting room at the Westin during March 7-10. In our simulated mock bracket, Tony Barnhart (Atlanta Journal Constitution) and Steve Wieberg (USA Today), who each played the role of Slive, had to leave a number of times when we discussed teams from the SEC, which seems to have its share of bubble teams.
That said, the word bubble wasn't mentioned one time, at least not audibly to the entire group.
It's worth noting that we tried to cram four days of deliberations into one, and as such, focused much more on inclusion than seeding beyond the top four lines. We voted on 28 ballots; the real committee will vote on over 100. We took four-plus hours just to get to 45 of the 65 teams. It's hard to believe how much scribbling and erasing must have taken place and what a mess the ballots must have been prior to the computer system being put in place within the past few years.
Let's step back for a second and set the table. Here's how the whole drill worked: The 20 of us were paired, with each pair playing the role of a specific committee member. We were given the task of fielding the bracket with the exact information available on teams through games played on Tuesday, Feb. 7. Results, like Michigan State's loss at Purdue Wednesday night, couldn't be included during the selection and seeding.
The pairings were:
1. Tom Shatel (Omaha World Herald) and me -- chair Gary Walters (Princeton AD).
2. Barnhart and Wieberg -- Slive (SEC).
3. John Akers (Basketball Times) and Rick Bozich (Louisville Courier Journal) -- Tom O'Connor (George Mason AD).
4. Bryan Burwell (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and Dana O'Neil (Philadelphia News) -- Chris Hill (Utah AD).
5. Mark Blaudschun (Boston Globe) and Pat Forde (ESPN.com) -- Craig Littlepage (Virginia AD).
6. Mike DeCourcy (Sporting News) and Blair Kerkhoff (Kansas City Star) -- Laing Kennedy (Kent State AD).
7. Randy Holtz (Rocky Mountain News) and Marlen Garcia (USA Today) -- Stan Morrison (San Jose State AD).
8. Vahe Gregorian (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and Joe Mitch (Missouri Valley) -- Gene Smith (Ohio State AD).
9. Robyn Norwood (L.A. Times) and Wendell Barnhouse (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)-- Dan Guerrero (UCLA AD).
10. Dennis Dodd (CBS Sportsline) and Mark Alesia (Indianapolis Star) -- John LeCrone (Horizon commissioner).
After hanging around for an hour or so, Walters left (the real committee had met the previous two days). It was then up to the 20 of us to forge ahead with the NCAA staff, led by Greg Shaheensenior, vice president of basketball and business strategies, and a savant staffer whose mind churns at breakneck speed.
This meeting was held as if we started on Wednesday night of championship week. We were told that the following 13 automatic qualifiers were in the field: East Tennessee State (A-Sun), Montana (Big Sky), High Point (Big South), Hofstra (CAA), Wright State (Horizon), Marist (MAAC), Oral Roberts (Mid-Con), Evansville (MVC), Central Connecticut State (NEC), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley), Davidson (Southern), Western Kentucky (Sun Belt) and Gonzaga (WCC).
Right away, the committee made our job difficult. Supposed locks Southern Illinois out of the Missouri Valley and Butler out of the Horizon were now in the at-large pool. VCU, the champ of the CAA, was tossed in there as well, while Winthrop, a team that would be discussed at length, also was thrown at our feet instead of getting the auto bid from the Big South.
The first ballot went out. The charge was to select up to 34 at-large teams. These were consensus picks to be in the field, regardless of what happened in the conference tournaments.
Twenty-two teams made the first cut (in no particular order): Duke, Kansas, Marquette, North Carolina, Pitt, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Air Force, Southern Illinois, Oklahoma State, Memphis, Butler, Nevada, Washington State, USC, Oregon, UCLA, Kentucky, Florida, Indiana, Ohio State and Virginia.
The next ballot was set up to continue to build consensus. Boston College (team No. 23) and Arizona (24) made the field.
This process continued, and the at-large locks kept growing, with our knowing that a number of these teams would move off of this list if they win their conference tournaments.
The next batch of teams to get in was UNLV (25), Creighton (26), Stanford (27) and Florida State (28). Round 4 produced Clemson (29), Tennessee (30), Villanova (31) and Virginia Tech (32). Then came Kansas State (33), BYU (34) and Missouri State (35).
Throughout the voting, there were open, frank discussions of teams, requests for teams to be put on the overhead screen against each other, and debate over the merits of wins, losses, and nonconference scheduling.
There was a lot of debate over the final team that should be included in the first batch of at-large locks. A few of us, including me as chair, pushed for Texas. The argument against the Longhorns at this point was that Texas' best win came at Texas Tech, a team not yet in the field. Still, the losses in triple-overtime at Oklahoma State, in overtime at Tennessee, and the fact this team passes the sight test of being a quality, troubling tournament team that, yes, includes the best player in the country in Kevin Durant, made it worthy of being in the field. We were told this is the type of conversation that could occur.
In the end, a vote was taken to choose between Texas and Georgetown. Texas got in as No. 36.
Winthrop's record was discussed and it was too hard to ignore, at least for most of us, that the Eagles have played four non-Division I teams: Limestone, Presbyterian, North Greenville and Virginia Intermount.
Just as we were done with the first batch of 36 "at-large locks," Dave Worlock, the NCAA associate director of the tournament, announced Penn just won the Ivy League title. That gave us 14 automatic qualifiers. We now had 50 teams in the field.
Then we moved on to seeding and that meant those duos representing Slive, Smith and Guerrero couldn't vote because they had teams involved in the mix for top-four seeds.
The voting was done in batches of eight teams on your screen, with the four highest vote getters getting slotted. The four No. 1s were chosen in this order: UCLA (1), North Carolina (2) , Florida (3) and Wisconsin (4). The process was repeated three more times:
The No. 2s were: Ohio State (5), Texas A&M (6), Kansas (7) and Marquette (8)
The No. 3s were: Pitt (9), Washington State (10), Kentucky (11) and Memphis (12)
The No. 4s were: Butler (13), Duke (14), Oregon (15) and USC (16).
The process was halted as Worlock announced a few conference tourney title games:
Big West: Pacific vs. Cal State Fullerton
C-USA: Houston vs. Memphis
America East: Vermont vs. Albany
SWAC: Jackson State vs. Alcorn State
A-10: Xavier vs. George Washington
MEAC: Delaware State vs. Florida A&M
Pac-10: Washington State vs. UCLA
MWC: BYU vs. Air Force
Big East: Marquette vs. Pitt
WAC: Fresno State vs. New Mexico State
Now it was getting interesting. This means that the at-large pool could change. Houston could take a spot away from someone if it beats Memphis. BYU and Air Force both were already in the field so it will open up another at-large; Marquette and Pitt were both in, too, so that opens another at-large, but neither Fresno State nor NMSU was in, so that would take away a spot regardless of the winner.
Worlock announces that Houston wins. The Cougars are in as an automatic qualifier and Memphis then takes up an at-large. Vermont wins the America East.
Next we voted to fill in the last at-large spots, knowing we needed to pick up a few more. We had a ballot based on our previous voting tallies of: Texas Tech, West Virginia, Alabama, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Xavier, Michigan State, Georgetown and Maryland.
Georgetown, Vandy, Michigan State and Notre Dame get the four spots, with Alabama next in line if one opens up.
George Washington wins the A-10; goodbye, Xavier. FAMU wins the MEAC. UCLA takes the Pac-10. Toledo beats Akron in the MAC. BYU wins the MWC. Marquette beats Pitt. NMSU beats Fresno State. The important thing here is that UCLA, Marquette and BYU all are likely to have better seeds now.
As four days are continuing to be compressed into one during this mock exercise, the Sunday tournament finals then are announced:
ACC: North Carolina vs. Virginia
SEC Kentucky vs. Florida
Southland: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi vs. Northwestern State
Big 12 Kansas vs. Texas
Big Ten Iowa vs. Indiana
Wow, that really could mess us up. If Indiana wins, Alabama gets the final at-large spot. If Iowa wins, Alabama is out because Indiana would then need a spot, too.
We start speeding up while Worlock announces that Indiana wins. So do UNC, Kansas, Kentucky and Northwestern State.
We're finally ready to furiously put teams in the bracket. This usually occurs in the final hour before the selection show and usually takes about 50 minutes. It takes us an hour and 40 minutes.
The top four seeds are dropped in: UCLA in the West (San Jose), North Carolina in the East (East Rutherford), Florida in the South (San Antonio, setting up a UNC-Florida national semifinal) and Wisconsin in the Midwest (St. Louis).
We start to pair the No. 2 seed lines: Marquette and UCLA, Ohio State and Florida (it's OK to have a rematch in the regional final from a regular-season game), Texas A&M and Wisconsin and North Carolina and Kansas. We didn't put Bill Self against Roy Williams on purpose. It was never discussed until it was already on the board and someone noticed the potential regional matchup. Kansas was the No. 7 team in the seed and had third choice of the second line. A&M was given a better choice to play closer to home in St. Louis than going to East Rutherford, N.J. Kansas was given the nod to play in the East rather than getting shipped West like Marquette.
The same thing occurred for lines three and four, with placements made and movements done based on distance, avoiding a team from the same conference (that's why Duke couldn't be in the East against the Tar Heels, and was sent West). With two Pac-10 teams on the fourth line (Oregon and USC), neither team could end up in the West or Midwest since UCLA was No. 1 in the West and Washington State was slotted on the third line in the Midwest. Kentucky couldn't go in the South because of Florida and Pitt had to be separated from Marquette (sent East).
In the end, even with all the movement, we ended up with four relatively even brackets if you add up "S"-curve numbers. Shaheen said we did quite well with the numbers, getting them close for balancing.
There were a few tweaks with the rest of the seed lines: BC moved over Virginia Tech, which the Eagles crushed; Gonzaga got a nod over BYU; Virginia moved up since the Cavs were in the ACC final against UNC, and Oral Roberts and Davidson, upon further review, were moved up a few spots.
When the bracket was finalized, the entire group was clearly drained. Still, we were pretty pleased with the result. Remember, this was all of our thoughts, not the selection committee's. Still, for one day -- one long day -- we had everything they have at their fingertips to put together the field. The mission of the NCAA was accomplished. We now know it's not easy, not at all.
But it was quite a lot of fun.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.