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The ins and outs and ups and downs of NCAA selection committee

By Bud Withers The Seattle Times (KRT)

SEATTLE – Imagine a business trip so high-level, you didn’t have to check in at your hotel when you arrived.

Imagine security so tight that in your four days there, you were discouraged from stepping outside the hotel.

Imagine, after your mission is completed, returning to your business to discover 600 e-mails and 300 voice mails, assessing your performance.

You’re not working for the CIA. You’re one of 10 members of the Division I basketball committee that selects and seeds the NCAA bracket, something a lot of college-hoops fans believe is more important than anything going on in the State Department.

“Of all the committees I’ve ever served on, it’s the absolute best professional experience I’ve ever had,” says Judy Rose, athletic director at Charlotte and a former committeewoman. “There’s just no comparison.”

Sometime on Wednesday (March 8), 10 committee members were to arrive at a hotel in downtown Indianapolis. They’ll go to an upper floor, where they’ll be met by a security guard who will want to know a code name. Telephone calls to the hotel will not be forwarded to their rooms unless the caller knows a password.

“Only my president and my husband had that,” Rose says.

And then through this weekend, those people will work from 7:30 or 8 in the morning until late in the evening. They’ll decide whether Florida State belongs in the tournament, how many teams from the Missouri Valley Conference will dance, who will join Connecticut, Villanova and Duke as No. 1 seeds. And then they’ll have to have a thick skin.

“I really enjoyed being at the airport (leaving Indianapolis), around a TV with a large group of people not knowing who you were,” says Jim Livengood, Arizona athletic director and another former committeeman.

“Hearing them say, `Good God, how stupid could this group have been?’ “

Lots of important decisions in the sports world are made by faceless groups behind closed doors. This might be the only one that commands its own television show to announce the results, watched eagerly by millions of Americans dying to know the fate of their favorite teams.

Says Craig Thompson, Mountain West Conference commissioner and another recent committeeman, “You walk out of there Sunday night, and you’re resigned, because of the action you’ve just taken, that there are probably people that are going to lose their jobs.

“Institutions may feel they need to make a wholesale change in their program, how they schedule, how they do things. There’s lots of fallout from that process.”

No doubt, not making the tournament could be a firing offense at some schools, especially if it happens twice. And in 2002, when a 29-3 Gonzaga team was shocked at receiving a No. 6 seed, it immediately went to work upgrading its out-of-conference schedule.

The agenda for the 10, joined by several NCAA staffers, looks something like this: Wednesday – Committee members arrive, armed with their own evaluations of three conferences they’ve been assigned to study during the season.

Typically, the panelists have gone to games and spent countless hours watching games on television.

The committee might have dinner out that night – probably the last time they’ll breathe fresh air until Sunday night.

Thursday – They’ll set up in an executive boardroom. Nearby is a living room with multiple televisions with satellite hookups, and a third lounge area where meals are taken.

Before long, they’ll take a vote on slam-dunk teams, the ones everybody believes should be in the tournament without discussion, usually 15 to 20. A second ballot reflects teams the committee feels are deserving of consideration, usually 40 to 60. Teams can be pulled off a board, and reinstated. The discussion might continue until 11 p.m.

Friday – It’s the heaviest day of deliberation. Surprisingly, ex-committee members say the number of teams not making it after serious consideration is usually only half a dozen, sometimes fewer.

On the hardest “bubble” decisions, there’s a typical question for any ex-coaches on the committee: Which of these two would you rather play?

The other one is likely to make the field.

Saturday – With many conference tournaments finishing, a more advanced read on the field is possible. Much of the seeding process takes place on this day.

Everybody agrees that the selection function is more important – you can’t win the tournament if you’re not in it – but the seeding can be fraught with implication, too. It affects not only the team assigned to it, but the team it’s playing, and potentially others in the region.

Sunday – Most of the hay is in the barn, but there’s anxiety on the committee, because of conference finals in the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12.

And CBS’s selection show is waiting.

Says Thompson, “You wake up Sunday morning, saying, `There’s a lot to be done.’ If you’re a physician and you’re on the operating table, they don’t tell you the spleen’s got to be removed by 2 o’clock.”

There has long been dark innuendo about the committee juggling the seeds and sites to create better storylines for television _ for instance, a prospective Duke-Gonzaga game that would match J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison. Livengood says that happens “absolutely never.”

What unquestionably takes place is a camaraderie among committee members, who must leave the room when their school is being discussed.

They find that the long hours together – when you have to work to squeeze in a half-hour on a hotel treadmill – have molded deep friendships, dinners together at succeeding Final Fours, Christmas-card exchanges, even talk of a summer cruise together.

Best moment of each night is about 9 o’clock, when the sundae cart stops by. This is a weekend when a weight gain is almost expected.

“If I miss any part of service on the committee, it’s that,” says Doug Elgin, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference.

While former members paint the process as honorable and high-minded, the reaction they get is often shocking, forever affecting some relationships with the jilted.

Says Livengood, “I had a good friend of mine say to me one time when his school didn’t make it, `I really thought we were better friends than that.'”

And he meant it?

“Darned right he meant it.”

Elgin says he was advised by another committeeman that he wouldn’t rue the day he left the panel.

“I didn’t miss it,” Elgin confirms. “The only thing I miss is, now I’m uncomfortable not knowing who’s in and who’s not in.”

In other words, he’s just like the rest of us.

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