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Selecting NCAA tournament field a lot harder than it looks; much more


How important is the eye test? The answer is in the eye of the beholder.

This question came up last week during my two-day visit to Indianapolis, where the NCAA was holding its annual mock tournament selection seminar for members of the media. The main purpose was to educate us on the process the committee goes through to put together the bracket, but the more interesting moments came when we revealed our own philosophies and biases. For all the data built into these decisions, there's no way to get around the subjective nature of this whole exercise.

Thus did we digress at one point into a discussion on the so-called "eye test." If you're comparing teams, at what point should you throw all those RPI numbers aside and simply ask yourself, "I've seen both of these teams play. Who do I think is better?" ESPN's Joe Lunardi made an eloquent argument against it. "Let's say you look at a finely sculpted baseball player who's hitting .220," Lunardi said. "Then you see John Kruk, who doesn't look like he belongs anywhere on the field, and he's hitting .320. Who would you rather have on your team?" In other words, you can have your own opinions based on what you've seen -- and the committee members watch a ton of games -- but at the end of the day a team's results should dictate whether or not it gets a bid.

I basically agree with Lunardi's point. For example, in the weeks leading up to my visit to Indy, I had been ranking Texas first on my AP ballot. Yet as we were seeding the field, I argued that Pittsburgh should be ahead of the Longhorns. Why? Because Texas had one more loss (including a bad one at USC) and Pitt beat them on a neutral court in November. I ranked Texas ahead on my AP ballot because the Longhorns performed better on my eye test. But based on actual results, there was no way to justify seeding them in the tournament ahead of Pitt.

Consider also the role of strength of schedule. In last week's Mailbag, I listed the SOS rankings for the last 17 NCAA champions to demonstrate that a team's strength of schedule is not a good indicator of performance in the tournament. However, in the committee room you better believe it matters a lot -- as it should. A team's SOS ranking is a good tool to evaluate the type of season it has had. It is also important to me where a team's nonconference SOS ranks, especially if that team is in a power conference. I don't like power conference teams who duck games simply because they can. That's my own bias. At any rate, I think the committee's job is to assemble the bracket based on what has happened during the season, not on their predictions of what will happen during the tournament.

I'll take this philosophy one step further. After the first couple of rounds, there is always lots of discussion about whether the committee did a good job based on those results. This year's chairman, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, told us before we started that he felt good as a committee member in 2008 when all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. I disagree with this line of thinking. Once that ball goes in the air on the first day, all this stuff goes out the window. Did Kansas' loss to Northern Iowa last year mean that the Jayhawks didn't deserve a No. 1 seed? Of course not. It only means Kansas was playing in the NCAA tournament, where upsets happen.

By the way, that also goes for the inevitable conference arguments. Last year a bunch of Big East teams lost during the first week, so people argued that meant the league was overrated. That's ridiculous. Conferences don't play conferences in the NCAA tournament. We don't throw away five months worth of games because some wacky things happen in the first two rounds.

Anyway, you can see the bracket we came up with here, but keep a few things in mind. First of all, we did this bracket in about a day-and-a-half of work. The committee does it over five days. Believe me, we did not burrow into these teams the way they will.

Second, a lot of what we decided was based on mock conference tournament results the NCAA provided us to simulate what the actual committee has to deal with. In this scenario, New Mexico State "beat" Utah State in the WAC final, so both teams are in our bracket. Virginia Tech "won" the ACC tournament, so they were a 9 seed. Texas was still undefeated in the Big 12 and "won" the conference tournament, so the Longhorns ended up as our No. 1 overall seed. And Michigan State "lost" its first game of the Big Ten tournament, failing to reach even the quarterfinals, so the Spartans didn't make it. In real life, the Spartans beat Illinois over the weekend and probably will not fall on their face like that, so I think they're in the field right now with room to spare.

RELATED:Andy Staples: Inside look at the NCAA tournament selection process

Here are a few more nuggets from the seminar:

• Because of expansion, the committee is going to have the added task this year of setting up an additional round, which has come to be known as the "First Four." When they start putting teams into the bracket (which doesn't happen until Sunday afternoon, by the way), the committee has the option of moving teams up or down one seed line to accommodate its principles. However, they will do everything they can to leave the last four at-large teams in those early games. The games will be played in doubleheaders on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the intent is to split those doubleheaders so each night there is one game between automatic qualifiers and another between at-large teams. The Tuesday games will feed into a Thursday first-round games, and the Wednesday games will feed into Friday.

• One of the principles in bracketing asserts that two teams from the same conference cannot meet before a regional final. An exception can be made if there are more than eight teams from a conference, but that has never happened before. It is definitely going to happen this year. The only question regarding the Big East is whether it will get 10 or 11 teams into the field. We had 10, but Marquette was our first team out.

• There will never be clarity over just how much emphasis the committee places on how a team performs down the stretch as opposed to early in the season. Two years ago, the committee removed the record in the last 12 games as a piece of criteria because they thought it was misleading. The NCAA wants the games in November to count just as much as the ones in February and March. Again, I disagree. Alabama is a great example. The Crimson Tide played poorly in November, but then Anthony Grant suspended his best player for a few games, and after that player returned the team took off. Now they've won 13 out of 15, including at home over Kentucky and on the road at Tennessee. To me, that's an NCAA tournament team, but I was obviously in the minority because the Tide were left out. At any rate, if the committee's mission is to select the "best" 37 at-large teams, then it only makes sense to give extra emphasis to the way the team is playing late in the season.

• One team that did not look as good upon closer examination was Memphis. (And this was before the Tigers lost at Rice over the weekend.) When you look at the team's nitty-gritty sheet, you see they have four wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. Look closer, and you see those four wins were comprised of sweeps over UAB and Southern Miss. When we further looked at the respective resumes of UAB and Southern Miss, we were even less impressed. We were then told that Memphis "lost" to UAB in the Conference USA tournament final. The fact that we put Memphis in anyway -- as a 9 seed, no less -- shows you just how weak the bubble is.

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• I was generally not in favor of expanding the tournament, so I was relieved last spring when the NCAA announced it was going to 68 teams instead of the 96 we had all been expecting. The NCAA's vice president of everything, Greg Shaheen, laughed as he recalled that everyone had assumed the 96-team bracket was a "done deal," and then when it didn't happened they assumed again it would go to that number within a couple of years. I didn't get the sense from Shaheen that he thinks that is going to happen -- and let's hope not. We had to really hold our noses as we put those last few teams into the field. I can't imagine the foul stench that would have enveloped the room if we tried to put in 28 more.

• If they gave out postseason awards based on what happens February, St. John's guard Dwight Hardy would be an All-America. Over the last seven games Hardy has averaged 24.4 points and has twice cracked the 30-point mark. He sank the big game-winner over Pitt on Saturday. And yes, I saw that he stepped out of bounds on the play, but so what? Stuff happens.

• Speaking of Pitt, that was pretty amazing that Ashton Gibbs could come back after a three-game absence and get his career high in scoring. Still, one Big East assistant coach told me he's skeptical of Pitt's chances to win an NCAA championship. "I worry about them fouling," he said. "The games are called a lot tighter during the tournament than they are in our league."

• If you're looking for vulnerabilities among the top contenders (as I always do), check out Kansas' free-throw shooting. The Jayhawks are ranked 10th in the Big 12 at 66.8 percent. Even while they were whupping up on Colorado, they still made just 12 of their 21 attempts.

• It's amazing how Michigan State's Kalin Lucas looks like a completely different player than he did even a month ago. He has that old explosiveness and confidence back. I've been saying all season that people have underestimated the difficulty of coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. And Lucas suffered his injury in the second round of the NCAA tournament, which means it hasn't even been a year. It's no coincidence that the Spartans have played their way back into the NCAA tournament just as Lucas has gotten back to his old self. Couldn't happen to a nicer kid, by the way.

• Here's one of those stats that I'll never understand: San Diego State guard James Rahon ranks fourth in the Mountain West in three-point shooting at 43.1 percent. Yet he's eighth on his own team in free-throw shooting at 65.7 percent. Maybe next time he goes to the line he should step back a few feet.

• One vastly overlooked aspect to Tai Wesley's 22-point, 11-rebound performance in Utah State's bid-clinching comeback win over Saint Mary's is the fact that he did it while playing with a broken nose. Wesley refuses to wear a mask and he got whacked on the nose a couple of times in the second half. Yet he never left the game and played magnificently. He can play for me any day.

• Ditto for Indiana's Christian Watford and Michigan State forward Delvon Roe. Both are playing through some serious pain right now. I really respect that, because if I get a hangnail I'm not writing my column.

• Incidentally, I've been driving the Utah State bandwagon for weeks, but I have to say I do not understand why Stew Morrill would schedule a game against an NAIA team as he did last week. Morrill did it because he didn't want his team playing two consecutive weeks with just one game, but it's hard to argue that you shouldn't be penalized for your schedule when you can't even find a Division I opponent. If Morrill wants his team to be given the benefit of the doubt by the NCAA tournament selection committee, he's going to have to play tougher games.

• I love it when a coach comes out of a time out playing a totally different defense than he had been playing right beforehand. Great chess move.

• Vandy coach Kevin Stallings made an interesting comment to me about his team when we spoke on the phone late last week: "We have great parents." If you don't understand the value in that, you've never spoken with other coaches off the record about their team's parents.

• Samardo Samuels does not play for Louisville anymore. Louisville has much better chemistry this year and is overachieving. That is not a coincidence.

• I guess Casey Mitchell is not out of Bob Huggins's doghouse after all. The 6-foot-4 senior guard was West Virginia's leading scorer when Huggins suspended him on Jan. 26. Mitchell missed three games and has come off the bench ever since. I thought Huggins might start Mitchell after he scored 23 points in a loss at Syracuse, but Mitchell only played nine minutes and scored two points in the Mountaineers' win over Notre Dame. If nothing else, the team has learned it can beat good opponents without a big game from him.

• I have been singing Kendall Marshall's praises all season, but his inability to make outside shots is starting to become a liability for North Carolina. If you recall, Mike Krzyzewski said his Duke team was able to come back against North Carolina by turning Marshall into a scorer as opposed to a passer. Boston College did the same while waging its nearly successful comeback on Saturday. Marshall is not an explosive penetrator, so it's hard for him to get into the paint in the halfcourt if defenders are playing so far off him.

• It's interesting that San Diego State's Steve Fisher is getting so much (well-deserved) consideration for coach of the year, yet no one mentions BYU's Dave Rose. It's as if people assume all Rose has to do is roll the ball to The Jimmer and his team will win 30 games.

• Here's what a Big East coach whom you respect had to say about UConn's biggest weakness: "They have a lot of trouble against a zone. Against Texas and Kentucky, which plays man-to-man, they were able to get the ball into the paint, but when they face a zone it becomes much harder for them."

• I don't totally buy into the Ohio State-doesn't-have-enough-depth meme, but here's some fodder for those of you who do, courtesy of CBS's debonair ace researcher Stuart Millstein: The Buckeyes have played nine games this season using only seven or fewer players. The only team that has done that more often is USC with 14.

• We usually think of a zone as being passive, but Syracuse's zone is designed to create fast-break opportunities. The Orange's biggest problem this season has been an inability to score in the halfcourt. So if that zone isn't fueling the running game, the 'Cuse is very ordinary.

• I've been tough on Renardo Sidney all season, so let me give the kid his due for his 22-point, 12-rebound performance in Mississippi State's win at home over Ole Miss on Saturday. Best of all, Sidney played 31 minutes and only committed two fouls. It's a glimpse of this young man's potential. The only question is whether he ever develops the maturity and discipline to reach it.

• So the Baylor Bears are supposed to be fighting for their NCAA tournament lives, and they lose at home to Texas Tech? I say stick a fork in 'em.

• It's great for Duke that Seth Curry has emerged as a dependable third scorer (and backup point guard to Nolan Smith). Problem is, Curry's emergence seems to have come at the expense of sophomore guard Andre Dawkins. Dawkins was terrific during the first two months of the season, but he has reached double-figure scoring just once in his last 10 games. Duke beat Georgia Tech by 22 points Sunday night, yet Dawkins only played nine minutes and didn't score. At some point during the NCAA tournament, Duke is going to need some offensive pop off the bench when Smith or Curry gets into foul trouble. You have to wonder whether Dawkins will be confident enough by then to provide it.

• Am I the only who is noticing there are way too many technical fouls being called? I'm all for enforcing sportsmanship, but I think young players should have the right to briefly react emotionally to a call they don't like.

• I don't understand why any defender lets Kentucky's Terrence Jones to his left. You gotta sit on that right shoulder and stay there.

• Anyone else notice that DePaul is no pushover anymore? Not only did the Blue Demons score their first Big East win of the season at Providence last week, but three of their last four losses were decided by four points or less. The opponents were good, too: Louisville (road), Cincinnati (home) and Villanova (home). The Blue Demons also lost at home by two points to West Virginia in early January. Hey, it's something.

• That was a really bad loss for Virginia Tech on Saturday at Virginia. The Hokies have now been swept by the Cavaliers, and their only top-50 win came against Florida State in Blacksburg. The team's final four games are at Wake Forest, home against Duke and BC, and then at Clemson. They need to at least go 2-2 with a win over Duke, or 3-1 with a loss to Duke to feel good about their at-large chances headed into the ACC tournament.

• I can't remember ever seeing a team go completely in the tank the way UCF has this season. You'll recall that at one point the Knights were 14-0. Now they're 16-9 and next-to-last in Conference USA with a 3-9 record. Ouch, babe.

• That Arizona-Washington game was extremely competitive, but not very well-played. 'Zona did well to get the win, but I'm not sure I trust those guards enough to predict they'll make a run in the tournament.

• Anybody notice that Colorado State, not UNLV, is in third place in the Mountain West? The Rams went a combined 4-28 during coach Tim Miles' first two years, but now he has them on the cusp of just their third NCAA tournament appearance in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, two of their four remaining games are at BYU and San Diego State, but at least they're in the hunt.

(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Pitt (4)2. Ohio State (2)3. Kansas (3)4. Duke (5)5. Texas (1)6. BYU (8)7. San Diego State (9)8. Notre Dame (6)9. Georgetown (10)10. Purdue (13)11. Villanova (7)12. Florida (12)13. Louisville (14)14. Vanderbilt (15)15. Connecticut (16)16. Arizona (17)17. Wisconsin (11)18. North Carolina (20)19. Missouri (18)20. Syracuse (19)21. Kentucky (21)22. St. John's (25)23. Utah State (23)24. Texas A&M (24)25. Xavier (NR)

Dropped out: Saint Mary's (22)

I'm sure I spent way too much time researching and thinking about my pick for No. 1. I mean, this is college basketball, not football, right? The poll means nothing.

Still, I wanted to get it right, and I have to say it was not easy. You can make a case for six or seven teams to be No. 1 this week. If you believe a loss within the last week is disqualifying, then Duke is the choice. But if you want your snapshot to be taken through a wider lens, the choice is not so simple.

At first I thought I would simply group the top five teams according to the number of losses. That meant the choice for No. 1 was between three teams with two losses each: Ohio State, Kansas and Duke. Since Duke was the only one of those three who hadn't lost this week, I initially said on CBS Sunday afternoon that I would rank the Blue Devils at No. 1.

The more I kept peeling back this onion, however, the more I kept coming back to Pittsburgh. Some of this is due to factors beyond the teams' control -- namely the strength of the Big East compared to the ACC. In a way that's unfair because the Panthers have had many more opportunities to beat really good teams, but to their credit they have taken advantage. They have three road wins against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI (Georgetown, West Virginia, Villanova). Yes, Pitt lost at St. John's Saturday, but so did Duke, and by a far greater margin.

Meanwhile, the Blue Devils' best RPI win was at home against North Carolina, and their best road win came against No. 86 N.C. State. In fact, out of the top 10 teams in the RPI, Duke has the worst overall strength of schedule ranking and the second-worst nonconference SOS ranking behind Notre Dame. Not only did all this prompt me to bump Duke from the top spot on my ballot, but it makes me believe that the Blue Devils' path to a No. 1 seed is steeper than many people believe.

I put Ohio State ahead of Duke as well, not just because they have more significant road wins (again, Big Ten>ACC) but because the Buckeyes also won at Florida State while the Blue Devils lost there. Kansas has a strong overall record, but while the Jayhawks have seven wins against the top 50 of the RPI, all of them have been at home or on neutral courts. Their best road win was at California. And remember, not only did Texas lose at Nebraska over the weekend, they also lost by 17 points at USC back in December. They're the only team in the top quintet that has four losses.

What to do with those two gems from the Mountain West, BYU and San Diego State? I wish I knew. However, if we're going to play the conference game, then it's hard to put those two on the same level as the Big Five. San Diego State's best wins were the two over UNLV. BYU beat San Diego State at home, but it also lost to UCLA on a neutral court and to New Mexico on the road. I think both of those teams have a chance at a No. 1 seed but I'm just not ready to pull the trigger and put them in my top five.

Moving down the ballot, since so many ranked teams lost last week there ended up being very little movement. Purdue deserved to be rewarded after two very good wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State, but I'd still like to see the Boilermakers get something done on the road. Ditto for Wisconsin, which is why I dropped the Badgers six spots following their loss at Purdue. (I'm pretty sure the entire NCAA tournament isn't going to be played in Madison.) Arizona had its biggest win of the season against Washington on Saturday, but there's only so much I can promote a team for beating an unranked opponent at home. It was also just Arizona's second win over a top-50 team this season.

Since Saint Mary's was the only team I dropped out, I only had one spot for a newcomer and lots of good candidates. I considered George Mason, Michigan State and Temple before deciding on Xavier. Keep in mind that Xavier beat Temple the one time they played (albeit in Cincinnati), plus the Musketeers scored a terrific road win the previous week at Georgia. You might recall that my No. 25 spot came down to Xavier and St. John's last week. At least I got that one right.