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NCAA Tourney Selection Process Is the Real March Madness

By Bill Peterson · March 15th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Two years ago, the Xavier Musketeers taught us that all our most deflationary suspicions about college basketball are true -- the season matters only for the last six weeks and any team that doesn't entirely ruin its life by then can always put it together and make sweet memories.

Only in the last week have we realized there's so much more to learn.

On March 11, we learned the whole season can be made or broken in four days, which took the Muskies all the way from nowhere to somewhere last week, four days that redeemed Sean Miller's coaching, Thad Matta's recruiting or whatever ailed the blue crew from Victory Parkway. In four days, the Musketeers came back from NIT exile with a whole new identity, another Atlantic 10 Tournament championship, another NCAA Tournament berth and a blueprint for the future, immediate and beyond.

Not even a day later, still another lesson about college basketball descended upon Cincinnati: None of the basketball season matters. All that matters is a committee of suits sitting in an Indianapolis hotel penthouse playing politics and making arbitrary, barely defensible decisions.

While Clifton burns and the basketball analysts puzzle over the University of Cincinnati's exclusion from the NCAA Tournament, all concerned continue to ignore the root of evil in college basketball. The arguments for UC or against Air Force and Utah State, the selection committee chair's annual televised defense, the bickering about seeds -- it all goes back to the absurdity of putting the tournament into the hands of a committee.

In less than one day, all that works and doesn't work about the system came to one town.

On balance, it's a terrible system, but everyone's so intoxicated with their pools and first-round upsets that no one notices the system's subjectivity until it kills their season.

The system almost never causes trouble for the truly powerful programs and conferences. Not even the Big East is really complaining after putting eight of its 16 teams into the field. Everyone's fat and happy enough and getting paid (except the players, one naively supposes).

But pretending college basketball decides its champion in competition only after a committee decides who to invite is the true meaning of March madness. The system can be made much more fair, simple, sensible and streamlined by replacing four rounds of conference tournaments with an additional three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, letting everyone in and rolling out the ball.

Such a system would make regular-season conference championships meaningful again, because they won't be overwritten by the freakish events of conference tournaments promising automatic bids. Vigor would return to the regular season. Big programs would be motivated to schedule tougher in December, not because a selection committee might not lie about how much it values challenging schedules but because good competition is good preparation for conference games.

Not even on the upside can the present system make a credible claim to fairness, as Xavier's blitz through the Atlantic 10 Tournament demonstrates. The Musketeers lost eight of their last 13 regular season games and sunk to the tournament's 10th seed. But a bad seed isn't really a bad seed when the games are played in front of its own fans in its own town.

To its credit, just like two years ago, Xavier responded smartly to the challenges of its season and worked the system to its advantage, fair and square. Losing post player Brian Thornton to injury and kicking point guard Dedrick Finn off the team, Miller refangled the Xavier game plan and brought his boys to their peak just in time for the league tournament at U.S. Bank Arena.

Almost as the tournament began, George Washington, far and away the league's dominant team, stubbed its toe, throwing the tournament wide open. Feeding off the support and energy of their home crowds, XU won four games in four days.

The system worked for Xavier because Xavier did all that the system requires, which is simply to bring it all together for the right few days. Do that much, and no amount of selection committee double-talk will keep you out of the NCAAs.

So Xavier is dancing. But UC is damning.

The system didn't work for UC. It worked for Syracuse, which pulled the rough equivalent of Xavier's miracle at the Big East Tournament. The misfortune of being Syracuse's first of four victims in as many days fell to UC with Gerry McNamara's last-second three in the tournament's opening game.

And that left UC's fate in a no man's land of committee members with vested interests that no amount of procedural safeguards can eliminate. After the committee finished off its worst performance ever, offering a bracket that excluded UC while including Air Force and Utah State, committee chairman Craig Littlepage told CBS with a straight face that the committee rewards schools for scheduling good competition.

No one believes it. Interviewing Littlepage on CBS, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer openly challenged the committee chair, breathlessly offering counter-examples of invitees with weak schedules. Usually, those proceedings are pretty civil. This time, Nantz and Packer cut off Littlepage at the end.

UC played the country's fifth toughest schedule, with 12 of its 30 games against the RPI top 50 and another 10 games against the next 50. Utah State played three games against the top 50. Air Force played one.

Littlepage couldn't possibly make a persuasive argument that Air Force or Utah State belong ahead of UC after saying the committee rewards strength of schedule. But it shouldn't come to that.

Put the committee out of business. Put an end to the maddening madness and make the march of madness merrier.



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