Committee criterion still in eye of beholder

February, 16, 2010
You can project who you think will make the NCAA tournament out of the Big East here on Feb. 16.

But whatever the numbers say now, or even in three weeks, still isn't a replacement for the subjective quotient of how teams are selected.

Sure, there are criteria, but how you follow the criteria if you're one of the 10 members on the NCAA tournament selection committee is still up to interpretation.

Just ask former committee members. I did. And I got totally different responses.

Take the case of Syracuse from 2007, the year the Orange were left out of the tournament with a 10-6 Big East record. SU won six of its final eight regular-season games, including knocking off then-No. 10 Georgetown. The criticism of the Orange centered on their nonconference schedule. Syracuse didn't leave the state of New York and lost to Wichita State and Drexel at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse then went to New York City and beat Connecticut in the first game of the Big East tournament before losing to Notre Dame to finish 22-10.

To one former member of the committee, Syracuse had finished strong enough, showed that it was a better team later in the season with more minutes from Andy Rautins and was an NCAA tournament team.

To another member of the committee, the Orange's body of work wasn't comparable. The nonconference schedule didn't stand out in terms of quality wins or road or neutral stops.

"At the end of the year, Syracuse was one of the 34 best at-large teams," said the first former committee member, who like the other didn't want to use his name. "I weighed more how they were playing at the end of the year. But some committee members were pissed off that Syracuse had refused to play out of the state.

"I know how important team chemistry is and figuring out roles and your best team and for some teams that doesn't happen until later in the year," he said.

To the other committee member, though, the nonconference work was too much to overlook and he expressed that view to Jim Boeheim, also telling the Syracuse coach that the unbalanced Big East schedule didn't help his cause.

The dilemma facing the 2010 selection committee will be figuring out what to do with teams in a situation similar to '07 Syracuse's, especially those in the Big East.

Connecticut certainly could make a case for itself if it were to continue to win in the final three weeks after beating Villanova in Philadelphia Monday night. Like it did against then-No. 1 Texas, on a given night UConn can look like one of the 34 best at-large teams. But there are other games, like Saturday against Cincinnati, when the Huskies don't even look like a top-50 team.

The same can be said of Louisville, which was awful in games against Western Carolina and Charlotte (albeit dealing with injuries) and then again at St. John's, but then went up to Syracuse and won this past weekend.

Cincinnati beat Connecticut twice and took down Vanderbilt and Maryland in Maui, but lost four straight road games in the Big East (including to St. John's) and suffered a 17-point setback to Syracuse at home.

In November at the Old Spice Classic, Marquette beat a Xavier team that wasn't half as good as it is now (but it still counts). The Golden Eagles also took down disappointing Michigan in the same event, but don't have much else on the nonconference résumé. Marquette lost in final possessions at West Virginia, twice to Villanova and at one-Big East-win DePaul. Yet, the Golden Eagles did win at Connecticut and beat Georgetown at home.

Notre Dame now has to win games without former Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody (out with a knee injury). The Irish have lost two in a row since Harangody went down, yet did beat West Virginia at home, swept South Florida and beat Cincinnati. The Irish had nothing to show (bad season to claim a win over UCLA) in the nonconference.

South Florida beat Virginia when the Cavs weren't the same team as they are now, but it's still a solid win for a profile that includes victories over Seton Hall, Pitt and at Georgetown.

Seton Hall? It can claim a win at Cornell and victories over Cincinnati, Louisville, Pitt and Notre Dame on its résumé.

So how do you distinguish among the candidates?

"I've always argued that you get in if you're deserving," said one former committee member. "We were always taught that you can't look at history, reputation or brand. If you deserve to be in the tournament then you deserve to be in the tournament. If we're just going to say who we think are the best teams, then why do we need a committee? If you're going to say that then you're going to gravitate toward the bigger, stronger and faster teams.

"Do that then a 6-10 team in the Big East with a great player or a great coach is going to get in. You have to reward the teams you think are the most deserving, who performed and live up to their potential. Isn't that what it's all about? If we start looking at the bigger, faster and stronger teams out there with the best reputations, then 14 teams from the Big East would get in. That would leave out a wonderful team like Saint Mary's."

Interesting the committee member would mention the Gaels. Late Monday night, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said he was watching the Saint Mary's-Portland game and didn't see two Big East teams playing.

And while he's right, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Tuesday that while those two teams don't have the size or athleticism or the ability to defend like a true Big East team, they are more skilled, especially shooting the basketball, than a number of Big East teams, making it a comparable factor in trying to beat them.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said late Monday night after Connecticut beat Villanova that the Big East turns NCAA tournament teams into bubble teams. He's right.

But if the charge -- as last season's committee chair, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, has said -- is to look at the overall body of work, then a Big East team that gets beat up in the conference without as many quality wins in the nonconference isn't going to be as marketable for a bid.

To confuse the process even more is to take the other committee member's point that you can't treat all stages of the season the same. The committee got rid of the hard-line criteria of "last 12 games." But it didn't erase the ability to look at how teams finish. That's why one committee member wanted to put Syracuse in the field in 2007. The Orange were playing well late that season, making up for lost ground in the middle part of the season.

"The chair sets the tone, but it's still 10 different people looking at each team and that's where the human equation comes into play," said the former committee member.

The committee member said he would look at the bid process as a horse race, putting certain teams one length or two lengths ahead in the process. And then as the conference tournament unfolded he would move the teams up and down his racecourse.

"That's why I would be against expansion," he said. "Look what expansion would do to the importance of late-season games."

Boeheim said Tuesday afternoon that separating the Big East teams will be a chore, but that a team like Cincinnati should be ahead of Connecticut because of two victories over Connecticut and wins over Maryland and Vanderbilt.

That doesn't mean UConn won't get in as well if it continues to win.

"I've said from the beginning of the year, we still may only get six or seven teams in," Boeheim said. "All these teams are viable. But it has to be the body of work, from the nonconference to the conference. But you can see in our league how many teams are really close."

And to separate them, each committee member has to decide what means the most to him or her during the selection process.

"Each person goes by what he [or she] thinks is right," Boeheim said.

Both the former committee members said that a flat rule of how many conference wins a team has to have isn't fair. A .500 record in the Big East wouldn't be comparable to, say, one in the Southern or Southland.

But on Feb. 16, is a 5-8 Big East team with a 15-11 overall record a tournament team?

Not yet, but it could be if it piles up wins over the final three weeks.

"If you deserve to be in the tournament," said one former committee member, reiterating an earlier point. "Then you deserve to be in the tournament."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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