Five lessons from a fake selection committee

INDIANAPOLIS -- You can forgive the NCAA for worrying that fans don't understand its tournament selection process very well. They're right. We don't.

So, in the interest of education, the NCAA hosts a mock selection committee every year in which it invites 20 media members to a room designed to look exactly like the room in a downtown Indianapolis hotel where the committee meets. Monitors and a projector screen fill the space, as faux committee members like myself peck away on laptops, calling up loads of statistics to compare every possible team with its NCAA tournament -- or maybe NIT -- competitors. Argument abounds. Participants work late in to the night. Dinner is served, free time is minimal. Eventually, a bracket, built as though the season ended on Wednesday night, is born.

This process is grueling. It's also complicated. It's also very, very fun.

By the end of our two days, we had a 65-team tournament schedule built out of the countless votes and ranks we took on just about every team in consideration for an at-large berth. It was seeded and scheduled as well as possible; observing tournament scheduling rules while also making these puzzle pieces fit was perhaps the most frustrating part of the exercise.

The reason the NCAA does this exercise is obvious. Every year, the committee is criticized for one thing or another -- too few mid-majors, or too many East Coast teams, or too many teams that have to travel too far in the first rounds of the tournament. The mock selection committee is the organization's way of proving to its media members that stuff happens, that the process is very challenging, that conspiracy theories don't actually exist, that the field is seeded benevolently and without cynicism.

After participating for a day, I'd say the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The job is neither as difficult as the NCAA would have you believe -- after all, you're just seeding a basketball tournament -- nor as easy or laden with conspiratorial convictions as most fans might assume.

Here are five other things I learned from my two days in Indianapolis:

1. The actual process is made much, much easier by computers. Just like every other aspect of life, right? It's hard to imagine the committee doing the job it currently does without the internal software the organization developed, because the process is that painful. How does it work? The committee starts by selecting a group of teams it considers locks for an at-large bid, which go into one pile. Then, the committee creates a pool of teams worthy of consideration but who aren't obvious locks, which go into one pile. Then, over the course of the next two days, the NCAA's software takes these teams and creates list after list for the committee to vote on -- many times asking committee members to vote on the same teams several times. Through these votes a rankings system is eventually created, and the teams are delineated from 1 to 65. (This also includes the occasional audible for when a new conference tournament result -- which our exercise simulated -- is given to the room.) Without the automated system -- with, say, paper ballots that had to be drafted dozens of times -- the process would be that much more difficult to get one's head around. That software makes the voting profoundly easier.

2. There's no accounting for taste. There are rules that the committee follows throughout the process. There are also suggestions. Sometimes, it feels like these two things get confused. For example, if one committee member thinks a team's last 12 games are worthwhile to look at, he may do so despite the NCAA's new memo that a team's last 12 games should mean no more than any others. This is how the committee works. Some are "basketball people." Some are not. Some members value RPI above all else. Some stubbornly watch as many games as possible, ignoring stats along the way. Some glance at Pomeroy's tempo-free rankings. (Well, I was, at least.) And some just look down a team's schedule, citing big wins and notable losses along the way. It would be a very bad thing everyone was so qualitative, just as it would be bad if the tournament was seeded according to RPI alone. This balance leads to argument, but it's also what keeps the committee fluid.

3. NCAA selection committee chairman? I'll pass. After all this argument and debate, a bracket is born, and each member has a mere 1/10th share of the blame for that bracket. Did a marginal team you didn't vote for sneak in? Did a No. 1 seed inexplicably fall out of grace? Tough; it's time to get on TV. If you're committee chairman Mike Slive, you then have to take that bracket -- parts of which you might not have voted for -- and immediately defend every part of it on the nationally televised CBS selection show. This is a brutal job, one a $75 per diem -- which each committee member receives for his or her work -- doesn't nearly make up for.

4. Sorry, Northwestern. If you thought the selection committee was going to give Northwestern special consideration as an at-large this year, you're wrong, and that goes for any team with a compelling story or history to make. When this came up in committee, NCAA vice president of basketball strategies Greg Shaheen says that same question comes up in the real committee, and told us that committee members are directed to ignore outside factors like Northwestern's historical failure to reach the NCAA tournament. The committee, he said, "is not here to make history," but to seed the best 65 teams in the tournament. The committee is human, so one can imagine its members occasionally (and perhaps unconsciously) bending this rule, but sorry, Northwestern fans. No special love for you.

5. Polls, polls, polls. Before Thursday, I didn't know the committee looked at not two but three polls in its consideration for the tournament -- the AP poll, the coaches' poll, and a poll run by the National Association of Basketball Coaches in which one coach from each of the 31 conferences ranks 15 teams in his region. This poll was created because coaches complained they didn't have enough of a "voice" in the committee room. After two days of looking at teams, I can safely inform you that our committee didn't look at any of these three polls once. This strikes me as a good thing -- polls are dumb, and shadow polls completed by 31 coaches in regional fashion are even dumber. We have far better ways of seeding the NCAA tournament. Fortunately, we use them.