My newfound respect for selection committee

INDIANAPOLIS -- If this had been real, CBS would have drowned in dead air.

Jim Nantz and Billy Packer would have been locked in a marathon verbal tap dance while a producer frantically begged them to stretch it out, do magic tricks, show pictures of their kids -- anything. Eventually, they would have skipped the whole thing, killed off March Madness and gone straight to "60 Minutes."

We the media had a deadline to produce our own mock NCAA Tournament bracket for a mock selection show, and we blew it. By about 95 minutes. We nearly turned Selection Sunday into Selection Monday.

And we're pretty good at making deadlines. It's what we do for a living.

But this was different.

This was, as the NCAA surely predicted we know-it-alls would learn, harder than it looks.

In the most media-friendly moment a historically media-unfriendly organization has ever had, the NCAA opened the doors to its headquarters here and invited 20 members of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association from around the nation to go where no reporter has gone before: into the selection committee room while the selection process was underway.

The only catch: we were the selection committee, charged with selecting and seeding a mock field of 65 for the greatest sporting event on Earth.

I've long believed the committee is one of the best things college sports has going for it. It has almost always been fair and astute, and the tournament it creates rarely fails to produce incredible drama and a deserving champion. If only college football had something that worked as well.

But that doesn't mean I haven't joined the annual March chorus of committee critics. From Selection Sunday until Tip-off Thursday, the bracket is second-guessed to death -- some of it deservedly, some nonsensically.

NCAA staffers said that when their five-day selection marathon is done and they're driving home, they'll often hear radio commentators saying things that are so wrong they can only laugh. During breaks in the process, committee members will be watching TV and hear commentators (perhaps on this very network!) say a team is "definitely in" when in fact it already has been ruled out.

Which is a big part of the reason we were brought here: in the words of Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies, "to demystify the seeding and selection process."

Or, to put it another way: to let the wise guys see how easy it is to split hairs between 20 teams that look alarmingly alike on paper.

Take it from this wise guy: I have a new appreciation for the task. Thought I knew what it was like, and I actually had no idea.

We were given 10½ hours to do what the committee does in five days. Except it took us more than 12 hours, from Wednesday afternoon until early Thursday morning, with a short dinner break and a brief escape to watch the end of Duke-North Carolina.

When the going got bogged down, the NCAA staff helped seed many of the lower 45 teams -- and we still couldn't catch up.

Our mock selection show was scheduled for 12:15 a.m., with co-chairs Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald (the USBWA president) and our own Andy Katz (USBWA vice president) to go "on-air" and explain the results at that time. At air time, I believe we were mired in debate over where to send Washington State -- no end in sight.

So here is what I learned at Bracket Camp:

• The process is every bit as fun and fascinating as I'd imagined -- and much more mentally fatiguing. By the 11th appraisal of Clemson, Alabama, Notre Dame and Georgetown, this was starting to feel like the "Clockwork Orange" scene when they pry open Malcolm McDowell's eyelids. And we hadn't even gotten to the seeding process or decided who was playing where.

• To my surprise, there really is NO consideration given to the number of bids per conference. I'll be honest: I annually rolled my eyes when the selection committee chairman insisted that was the case. After going through the process I am a convert -- there simply is no time (and no real inclination) to stop and count teams. There is no tote board that says, "Big East four, Big 12 three, SEC five." It honestly never came up.

• There is no committee plot to set up juicy, made-for-TV matchups. We arranged the brackets to put North Carolina coach Roy Williams up against his old school, Kansas, in one regional final -- and didn't notice it until I pointed it out. There was no discussion of doing it. Same thing with a potential Tom Izzo-Tom Crean matchup in the second round (Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News caught that one). These matchups just popped up, late in the game. There was no grand plan.

This is what 2007 committee chairman Gary Walters refers to as "The serendipity of the tournament itself. Things just happen."

• What happened in 2006 stays in 2006. There is no discussion of past glories or pratfalls when appraising teams for this bracket.

"We're not voting on brand, we're not voting on the past," Shaheen said. "We're voting on the best teams available."

• Choosing the best teams available is, at bottom, a subjective exercise. Even when armed with enough data to sink a cruise ship -- and the data is pored over extensively -- there were wide variances in taste. Some people loved Texas. Some people hated Texas. Some people championed the mid-majors. Some people dismissed the mid-majors. At voting time, it usually came down to gut instinct -- and the guts were tested often when comparing, say, Missouri Valley teams with Big 12 teams.

"That is the eye of the storm of what the committee debated last year," said Shaheen, referring to the committee's landmark decision to invite four teams from the Valley and two from the Colonial Athletic Association -- a decision that was ultimately vindicated by those teams' performance. "They eventually backed off the numbers and talked basketball quality."

• By the time you get to the last at-large selections, you encounter the 2 a.m. bar effect: there are no more bombshells left in the place, but you've got to take somebody home. Every team's résumé is pockmarked with bad losses; you're just trying to decide who's cutest at closing time. And somebody's heart is going to be broken. (I felt particular pathos for Winthrop, which was undefeated in the Big South but upset in the conference tournament by High Point, according to the NCAA staff -- which reported fictional league tournament results throughout the process. This was a mock curveball the likes of which the committee must routinely deal with.)

"As the lack of differentiation grows, we could end up in a situation where we're trying to get 10 teams into four spots," Walters said.

Popular math says that's not easy. Popular math is right. On several campuses around the country, rooms full of players are crushed because of tough calls in the war room.

"As more spots are taken and fewer at-large spots are available, you start to realize the poignancy of the decisions you're making," Shaheen said.

• This is a numbingly redundant procedure, but redundancy provides a pretty solid safety net. The first duty was to select an initial pool of at-large teams (by eight votes out of 10 or, in case someone had to recuse himself for a conflict of interest, seven votes out of nine). We put 22 teams in the tournament right off the bat -- then spent a looong time noodling over who would fill out the remainder of the 34 at-large teams.

"It means you'll spend the next three days filling 12 slots," Shaheen said.

Groups of eight teams were appraised against one another, with those getting sufficient votes (seven or eight) moving into the field. The rest were then held over to join with a new group of at-large candidates selected from the overall consideration pool. Rinse, lather, repeat, until the field is full. We cast 28 ballots in our 11 hours and 50 minutes, ranking and re-ranking the same teams over and over and over. Shaheen said the real committee will cast more than 100 ballots, roughly as many as the average dead Democrat in Chicago back during the political machine days.

• Selecting is more important than seeding, and seeding can be a wildly fluid exercise. A "Soul Train scramble," according to Shaheen. There were multiple motions to move teams up and down several lines, and additional rejiggering to avoid conference conflicts or other matchups blocked by NCAA rules.

• Shaheen is the Rain Man of March Madness. I am convinced he sees brackets in his sleep. He was the part-savant, part-comedian who drove the process, guiding us from arduous task to arduous task with the sure footing of a Sherpa on Himalayan ice. His wonderfully dry sense of humor -- another revelation: you can have one and still work for the NCAA -- can lighten a tense moment and keep committee members from gouging each other's eyes out.

Without Shaheen alternately holding our hands and lashing our backs, we'd still be in the room. And CBS would still be waiting for its selection show to air.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.