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Tuesday, February 11
Updated: February 13, 5:34 PM ET
Committee should look at performances, not papers

By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com

A team can't win the national championship in February. But several can lose it.

What a team does in February, in each game and practice, will determine the brand of basketball it plays in March. Teams, players and coaches -- with their eyes on the ultimate prize -- had better prepare for the NCAA Tournament by keeping their horizons short, and concentrating on the tasks directly in front of them. Building toward March, much like climbing a ladder, is a step by step process.

A team cannot get to the top in one step, but if it doesn't concentrate fully on the next step ahead, that one step can put it all the way to the bottom, lying on its back and looking up at the top.

Like it or not, February is the time every fan begins watching college basketball without distraction. The tournament is approaching, and there is an air of anticipation, and for some, fear. February is when teams must strike a balance. No position is guaranteed. There is room to improve seeds, get into the tourney field, or drop down and drop out.

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  • Teams cannot hang on too tight, thinking they're in, and play not to lose. Conversely, teams cannot get down because they've lost a few. The teams that will be in the best position to win in March are the teams that play the next possession, concentrate fully on what is in front of them, and play each game without regard to what is beyond it. Then, when the game is over, win or lose, the team and players must be evaluated honestly, issues of concern must be addressed, and they must move forward.

    The best teams will learn while winning, and not be blinded by the final score.

    That's why I hate the term "a win is a win." That is hogwash inside a locker room. If players or coaches think the final score is indicative of the quality of effort, they are fooling themselves and will find out the extent of their weaknesses when it's too late, when they've lost in the postseason.

    That's why I have little respect for the polls. Teams that win, regardless of the quality of performance, move up, while teams that suffer a loss, regardless of the quality of performance, drop like a rock. Different games have different meaning, and winning the game, while an indicator, is not the measure of excellence.

    I don't need a poll to tell me who is good and who is not. I also don't need the RPI, which I believe to be flawed. However, if you need to go by something other than your head and your gut, use the RPI. It is the best means for determining where a team stands with regard to the NCAA Tournament. The Selection Committee will tell anyone who asks that that the RPI is just a tool, which is correct, but it is the most accurate indicator of where a team stands.

    However, there are a few things that need context with regard to the RPI and the things that the committee looks at in making decisions. You will hear, ad nauseum, over the next few weeks:

  • The Committee looks closely at how teams fare over their last 10 games.
  • How it fared in road and neutral games.
  • And these days, whether a team has finished over .500 in its league.

    Here is my perspective on each of those factors.

    A Team Must Be .500 In Conference Play: This is just stupid. You cannot compare conference records as if everyone played against the same level of competition. While it is fair to give more scrutiny to a team that has lost more in conference play than it has won, the idea that a team under .500 should be shut out is ludicrous.

    What would you have done with the Big 12 last year, which produced two No. 1 seeds, and had teams playing Oklahoma and Kansas tough in losing? A team has to play much better to play those teams to the wire than to blitz a bottom dweller. A team in the Big 12 last year could have had as many as five or six losses into its conference schedule, and still have been one of the 34 best teams in the country.

    It has happened before, where a team has made it into the field of 64 with a losing conference record. And guess what? The last two teams that got in that way made it to the Sweet 16.

    You cannot give a break to a team that rips through a lesser conference over a team that has to fight tooth and nail every night. That is not what the NCAA Tournament is all about. The committee is handing out invitations to compete for a championship, and the best teams should get those invitations. Every team has a chance for an automatic bid, the remaining 34 spots should go to the 34 best teams.

    The measure is WHO you play, WHERE did you play, and HOW you play against those teams. Period. Any you cannot pick the best teams via some "Nitty Gritty Report". You need to process the information on that report intelligently and in context.

    The Last 10: How a team fares over the last 10 games is an indicator of how a team is trending toward the NCAA Tournament, but it is not as simple as just looking at the numbers.

    No team has the ability to determine what its schedule will be over its last 10 games. Some teams have easier finishing schedules than others; some play the majority of games at home or on the road; and some are loaded with top teams, while others have the bottom dwellers of their conferences. It happens sometimes that a team can struggle on paper over the last 10 games and be playing pretty well, and be better than some teams that are ripping through the end of their schedules.

    To determine the quality of performance over those last 10 games, you first have to look at the quality of opponent, whether the game was on the road or at home, and examine the circumstances surrounding the games. If that is not done with care, you might as well determine all bids by the conference tournaments themselves, because that is the best indicator of how a team is playing at the closest point in time to the tournament. That would be silly, and so is overemphasis on the record in the last 10 games.

    Remember, WHO did you play, WHERE did you play, and HOW did you play against those teams?

    Record in Road/Neutral Games: This is another number that can be misleading, although it can be an indicator of a team's NCAA worthiness. But again, remember, with unbalanced schedules, some teams play easier road schedules than others. And there is a distinct difference between getting drilled on the road and being competitive on the road.

    There are such things as a quality loss, and a worthless win. Teams should get credit for how they play, how competitive they are on the road, and not be judged by a number. It is difficult to compare a team from a lesser conference with a team in the middle of the SEC or the Big 12. Just getting a win against a lesser team is not the same as being competitive against good teams on the road.

    Georgia is 2-5 on the road, but four of its losses have come against RPI top 50 teams -- and all have been nail biters. Plus, two of those losses came without Steve Thomas and Chris Daniels. That has to be factored in when the selection committee meets during the second weeken of March.

    I promise you that Oklahoma's loss at Texas was just as impressive, if not more so, than its win over Baylor at home in the previous game. Oklahoma played well enough to win in a tough environment, and showed how good of a team it is in a loss. The selection committee can't lose sight of these facts.

    Remember, it is WHO you play, WHERE you play, and HOW you play that is, or should be, the measure. Records are good indicators, but not the be all and end all in the discussion. Teams should be judged by how good they are, rather than how good their record looks on paper.

    That being said, the only way to ensure that a team will be treated fairly in that suite in Indianapolis is to play its best in the next game. Then do it again, and again, and again.

    Q & A with Jay Bilas

    Send in college basketball questions to ESPN's Jay Bilas, who will answer a few each week as the season continues.

    Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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