Tom Frericks, athletic director at Dayton, left Thursday for Kansas City with his bags full and his mind overflowing.
Frericks was on his way to the Hyatt Regency to join the eight other college athletic administrators who make up the NCAA tournament selection committee, which after three days of deliberation will announce the 64-team Division I championship tournament field Sunday at 3:30 p.m. MST. Like many of the committee members, Frericks had one problem."I've got about 85 teams that I think are worthy of consideration," he said.
That is the dilemma of the not-so-simple arithmetic the selection committee must work each year. Simply put, 85 does not go into 64. Or, in most years - like this one - it is a case of squeezing almost 20 teams into five or six spots.
Welcome to the Bubble.
"The first 50 to 55 schools, you or I could sit down and throw that list together," said committee member Fred Schaus, West Virginia's athletic director.
It's those last six to 10 spots that makes life on the bubble such a strange phenomenon. What's the difference between the 64th and 65th teams? Strength of schedule? Margin of their last victory or defeat? Will one school bring more fans to a neutral site than another? Was one team's good loss better than another's victory?
On it goes until sometime Sunday afternoon when the committee emerges, satisfied with its job. Invariably, someone will not be satisfied. Last year, the committee got lucky. It was a nice and neat fit with no mess. But this season's parity and weekly parade of upsets in the Top 20 figures to make the bubble bigger - and the screaming louder - than normal.
"I've had nightmares on that since last year," said Cedric Dempsey, the committee chair and University of Arizona athletic director. "Last year went so smoothly. I'm just anticipating there's going to be about 25 upsets in conference (tournaments), and we're going to have a hellacious time this weekend. Hopefully, that will not be the case."
Dempsey said the committee will have just as many tedious decisions on the other end of the bracket this year. Because of the season-long parity, the first 16 seeds may take longer to select than usual. Top seeds? You can go with Arizona, Oklahoma and Georgetown to start. But what if Syracuse beats the Hoyas in the Big East final? What if the Sooners lose the Big Eight tournament final? Indiana won the Big Ten, but Illinois has a higher power rating and beat the Hoosiers twice.
And that's only the top seeds.
"Every year we think we are going to have an easier problem or a harder problem, and every year it seems to turn out the same," Dempsey said. "It's always a very difficult task for the committee on the last six to 10 teams that get into the tournament.
"What may be more difficult this year is the seeding of the first, second and third seeds. It seems to me we do have greater parity in college basketball at this point with the top teams in the country."
Jim Delaney, the Ohio Valley Commissioner and committee member who will take Dempsey's chair position next year, added: "If there is one single element of the tournament that gets quality attention, it's the selections of those final teams. ... Every bit of objective information is evaluated."
Dempsey said each committee member is told to have a list of top 48 teams when he arrives. The NCAA provides the rest, including:
- Computer strength of schedule ratings.
- A nationwide coaches' poll, broken down into regions, ranking the teams in those regions.
- A Rating Percentage Index (RPI rating) sheet on each team that shows its won-lost record against Division I, how the team played in the final one-third of the season, good victories, good losses and bad losses. The committee also considers the computer rankings by Jeff Sagarin, a former MIT computer graduate who formulates weekly rankings similar to the NCAA's RPI ratings.
"Sometimes it gets down to comparing four teams and it will jump out at you," Frericks said. "This team won more games against top 50 teams, so pick them. Or this one had a better schedule. In my mind, strength of schedule is the biggest thing."
It is a process with an infinite amount of twists and turns that can't be dealt with until they arrive. But there are some standards that fit each year. Earlier this week Dempsey talked about how they work, as well as dispelling some myths about the selection process.
Do conference tournament games mean more than regular-season games?
Yes and no. For teams on the bubble, it's always better to win than to lose. But mostly, Dempsey said, it can help - or hurt - a team depending on strength of the conference. In other words, a loss in a weak conference, or victory in a strong one, can affect a team's strength of schedule.
"That is always a problem that we have with conferences that are ranked quite low," Dempsey said. "It is imperative that they schedule non-league games against stronger teams."
What is the difference between a good loss and a bad loss?
"A bad loss would be to a lower-ranked team at home or to lose to a lower-ranked team by a significant score," Dempsey said. "A good win would be defeating a higher-ranked team or quality team either home or away, or a good loss could be a game that is played on foreign court or by a very small margin."
The committe has decided to use the no-homecourt rule this year. But how is it that Arizona cannot play in the West regional in Tucson, but Indiana may be placed at the Hoosier Dome, which is not the Hoosiers home court but a partisan setting nonetheless?
"The committee has wrestled with that issue, along with the home floor advantage, ever since I have been on the committee," Dempsey said. "We do not see an answer at this point of going to any kind of policy with home crowds. We feel it would reduce the number of sites available to us and it is somewhat impractical to us at this point."
How do special circumstances - such as the loss of Ohio State guard Jay Burson or Missouri coach Norm Stewart - affect whether a team gets in the tournament or where they are seeded?
"We'll probably discuss that," Dempsey said of the injury to Burson, which hurt Ohio State's finish. "We should not eliminate a team for something of that nature."
Of the effect on Missouri, which is 5-4 without Stewart, Dempsey said: "I don't see that as a determining factor in the seeding process. We would consider how they finished the year. We would not consider who's coaching the team at the time."