Being a former player and a little bit of a coach, the eyeball test is important to me. I want to watch teams' tempo and style. I want to see athleticism and style . . . I think it's important to see what they've done on the road. I think it's important to see what they have done against the top 50 and top 100. —Scott Barnes, Utah State athletic director
LOGAN — Each fall, almost 350 Division I college basketball teams begin the season with one goal: to make the NCAA Tournament.
After months of hard work, the fate of every team lies in the hands of the 10-man NCAA men’s basketball committee that selects and seeds the field of 68.
Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes is in his third year as one of the 10 men in the room where bubbles are popped and wishes are granted. Barnes is involved in every conceivable aspect of the NCAA Tournament, from visiting and selecting future sites to selecting officials, setting ticket prices and negotiating a television contract.
Ticket prices and referees are undoubtedly important, but nothing the committee does gets as much attention as the selection of the NCAA Tournament.
The margin between the final few teams selected and the first few left out can be razor thin. For teams that make the field, a fortunate draw can mean the difference between going out in the round of 64 or making the Final Four in Atlanta.
“We are stewards of one of the most popular sporting events in the world,” Barnes said. “We want to get it right. It’s not all science. We need to make sure we do our homework and that we are prepared going into the room.”
To do his part in the selection process, Barnes watches hundreds of basketball games. As the committee designated expert over the Big East, West Coast Conference, Ivy League and Summit League, Barnes keeps an eye on games in every time zone. He stays up late to catch the late-night West Coast games and gets up early to finish committee work before going about his day-to-day duties as athletic director.
“The assignments are great, but by halfway through the season it’s time to widen that lens. You need to be an expert on everyone,” Barnes said.
By March, Barnes and the rest of the committee have narrowed down their focus to a group of 60 to 70 teams that will be considered for the 37 at-large bids available. Those teams will eventually be paired with the 31 teams that qualify for the tournament automatically by winning its conference championships.
Every member has his own criteria for decisions. For Barnes, a forward at Fresno State back in his playing days, decisions are made by both what his eyes see and what the stats say.
“Being a former player and a little bit of a coach, the eyeball test is important to me. I want to watch teams' tempo and style. I want to see athleticism and style. I think it’s important to see what they’ve done on the road. I think it’s important to see what they have done against the top 50 and top 100.
“I’m a stat guy," he said. "I’m always looking at team stats. Not only to help me understand what kind of team they are, but their effectiveness. I look at everything from assist-to-turnover ratio to field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. There are a lot of things they look at to see how the team is made up.”
Choosing who makes the field is just half the battle. Seeding teams is another huge piece of the puzzle. In a season that lacks elite teams, deciding the difference between the seeds is going to be the most difficult part of the job this year.
“This is a peculiar year. You can call it flat or deep, but there is a lot of parity in that middle grouping,” Barnes said. “Even at the top, how many number ones have gotten beat? A ton. Then as you go down to the middle seeds it’s going to be very difficult. We are going to be splitting hairs.”
For Barnes, it is a time-consuming but rewarding process, one that is born out of a lifelong love for the game of basketball.
“It’s very time-consuming. One ex-committee member said when he was all done he took a pencil to it and calculated that five years on the committee equated to one year of your life,” Barnes said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Utah State and the NCAA Tournament
There are rules and procedures in place that keep Scott Barnes from influencing the vote when it comes to Utah State, but that doesn’t mean the Aggie athletic director hasn’t picked up some tips on how to improve his school’s chances of selection in the future.
In 2011, Barnes’ first year on the committee, Utah State made the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the WAC Tournament, but even with a 30-3 record, the Aggies were given just a 12-seed. Had the team not won the WAC Tournament, there was a chance it could have been on the outside looking in.
“Old Dominion was an 8 seed and some of our student athletes and coaches thought that should be our seed,” Barnes recalled. “The reality is they had a tremendous number of wins in the top 50.”
Among the top things Barnes looks for when comparing teams are wins against teams ranked in the top-50 and top-100 of the RPI and a rigorous non-conference schedule, two areas the Aggies have been criticized for in the past.
Both of these issues will likely be resolved next season. The Aggies are challenging themselves with scheduled games against USC and Mississippi State in the non-conference schedule. In conference, Utah State will move to the Mountain West, which finished this season as the top ranked league in the NCAA, according to RPI. Barnes says the committee doesn’t factor conference affiliation or strength into the selection process, but being in a stronger conference will mean a lot more chances for wins against quality opponents.
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter at DesNewsKraig.