Selection Sunday promises as much controversy as secrecy
INDIANAPOLIS -- For all the foibles of superdelegates, hanging chads and George W. Bush over Al Gore, we generally understand how this country chooses its president.
The waft of smoke out of the chimney is a bit medieval, but we also get who can and can't be the pope (gotta be a man, gotta be Catholic).
In one month, when college hoops aficionados gather around the water cooler on a Monday morning, fists clenched around the grids in their hands, someone will ask, "How the #^!@! is Oh By The Way State in and the University of Whoozit out?"
Mark it down. On March 17, the day after Selection Sunday, an alumni constituency somewhere will be disconsolate. But this is one morning after without a pill. The NCAA Tournament selection process is one of the last mysteries of the world; you never ever will see how the sausage is made.
We know the criteria the selection committee considers -- strength of schedule, performance over the last 12 games, for example -- but how those criteria are applied on a case-by-case basis, who argued in favor of Team X and who didn't see its value that we will never know.
It is a system begging for the conspiracy theories and irate reactions it spawns. The people from upstate New York who clogged the voice mail of Gary Walters, last year's selection committee chair, weren't calling to wish him well. They wanted to know how a guy with a Princeton degree could keep Syracuse out.
Fans want Goldilocks -- this team didn't get in because its nonconference schedule was too soft, this team missed out because its league record was too putrid, and this squad was left off because its loss to Gardner-Webb was too stunning.
It will never happen.
Unlike in papal voting (there is no danger of immediate excommunication for blabbing), the committee takes the sanctity of the room seriously.
Made up of athletic directors and conference commissioners, the selection committee believes its members would be reluctant to voice honest opinions if they thought the world would learn those opinions. Despite a 300-plus roster of Division I schools, the athletic fraternity/sorority remains a small one. If SEC commissioner Mike Slive argued against Purdue (please don't call him; this is a hypothetical) and coach Matt Painter or athletic director Morgan Burke heard, it could make for downright frosty relationships.
"We want people who don't feel pressured by their local constituency," said Walters, who likened the committee's debates to a jury's deliberations. "We say when you walk into the room, you check your school and conference affiliation at the door."
So careful to protect its secrecy, the committee lets only CBS into the room once during the entire selection weekend. And when the cameras come in, the computer screens are shrouded and the paperwork stashed away. The little camera the network rigs in the corner to give live looks into the room has no sound.
Even if you understand how the process works, there's still going to be debate. I don't think there can be a perfect system.
-- Greg Shaheen
I floated the idea of adding a pool reporter to the room past Greg Shaheen, the NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies (or, as I prefer to call him, the bracket Dalai Lama). It sunk faster than the Titanic.
"I didn't come up through the ranks as a college administrator, so I understand what people are thinking," said Shaheen, who spent 18 years in the private sector prior to joining the NCAA. "Until I was in the room, I didn't appreciate how serious they are about their job. They need to be as open as possible. The notion that their votes or even their conversations would be revealed would really hurt that."
Two weeks ago, 20 sportswriters met at NCAA headquarters for a mock bracket session, or, as the NCAA ought to call it, the "OK, Smarty Pants, You Think This Is So Easy, You Try It" exercise. We listed, ranked, voted and argued, coming to consensus -- if not agreement -- on our 65 teams.
Because no one will play our bracket and since no one thinks we know what we are doing anyway, I can tell you which teams generated the most debate.
There was a lot of discussion about Purdue, with people trying to reconcile its standing at the top of a so-so Big Ten with no games against the top portion of the league (remember, this was done as if the season ended Feb. 5, so the Baby Boilers had yet to beat Wisconsin and Michigan State).
People also had a tough time making sense of Davidson. A dark horse favorite early in the season, the Wildcats fell off the map in December only to rebound with 11 consecutive wins by Feb 5. The catch? The wins were against low RPI teams but in blowout fashion.
We debated both Dayton and Louisville, trying to decide how much we could factor in each team's injuries, and also what to make of Rhode Island, a team that beat Syracuse and Providence but dropped two in its own league.
We had plenty of information at our disposal but no pecking order. Shaheen never told us to weigh one thing more than another, but rather to consider a complete résumé.
That's exactly why it's impossible to answer those day-after questions. It is not just because a team was going down in flames at the end of the season or didn't challenge itself in December. It's a season in totality, from November through March and all the warts in between.
And from my experience, even if we knew everything the committee discussed, we likely wouldn't understand how they voted. My voting partner, Frank Burlison of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and I listened to the debates but ultimately made our own decisions. The committee operates the same way.
"Bottom line, there's very little lobbying in the room," Shaheen said. "Everyone reaches their own determination, and in the end, each vote requires a substantial majority."
Is it a flawed system? Sure. Both Shaheen and Walters acknowledged the committee has made and will make mistakes. The NCAA allowed reporters to select a mock bracket in the hopes the exercise would "demystify" the process. But so long as there is cloak-and-dagger secrecy, there will be doubters.
Someday maybe that Skull and Bones secrecy that really gets fans' goats will go by the wayside. It doesn't seem likely right now, but Shaheen said if you asked him five years ago if the NCAA would invite a bunch of reporters to its headquarters and park them in front of the actual computer programs the selection committee uses, he would have doubled over.
"Even if you understand how the process works, there's still going to be debate," Shaheen said. "I don't think there can be a perfect system."
The alternative would be to ditch the committee, put a bunch of numbers into a computer system and see what it spits out.
Oh, wait, we do that already. It's called college football.
How's that working for you?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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