Media & Marketing and Sports Business

SPORTS: Tournament committee ready to pick and defend

March 7, 2005

He describes the experience as gutwrenching, intense, agonizing and exhausting. But also, some kind of fun.

"It's like going off to basketball junkies camp for a week," said Jon LeCrone, commissioner of the Indianapolis-based Horizon League.

"Camp" convenes this Wednesday, when LeCrone joins nine other members of the NCAA's Division I men's basketball committee to select, seed and bracket the 65 invitees to the tournament, aka the Big Dance.

To be sure, it's not Camp Granada, with rustic cabins, bunk beds and pork-and-bean dinners.

The men's (and women's) committee will be housed-along with NCAA staff-in plush digs at the downtown Westin Hotel; and food will be sumptuous, even if the sleep is sparse.

The committees will emerge from their proceedings on Selection Sunday, March 13, displaying the efforts of five days of deliberation to the nation. Within minutes, their work will be dissected, analyzed and-count on it-criticized.

"It's kind of like walking into the media room after the big game and having the first question be, 'Why did you miss the free throw?'" LeCrone said.

LeCrone is in the second year of a fiveyear term on the men's basketball committee. Thus it is his second year to be in "the room" as tournament fates are decided.

That's the most visible function of the basketball committees, but hardly the only one. They also assign the officiating crews, then fan out across the country to staff every site along the tournament trail, overseeing tournament and venue operations.

During frequent meetings the rest of the year, the committee members join the country in second-guessing their decisions. "We spend a great amount of time trying to figure out how we can improve," LeCrone said. "On every agenda is selection, seeding and bracketing, and how can we make it better."

Selection, seeding and bracketing is also the order of the proceedings when the committees convene in Indianapolis. Even as conference tournaments are being played out-often replete with upsets-right up to within an hour of the selection announcements, the committee first identifies those teams worthy of at-large bids (in addition to the conference tournament champions who qualify automatically). The second step is to seed the field, and the final step is to place them into the brackets.

Of course, none of those steps can occur independently from the others, and the system is further complicated by a multitude of bracketing rules that are in place. For example, no teams from the same conference can meet before the regional finals. The committee also must work with the directive that attempts to give the highest-seeded teams placement in their geographic region.

"It's an absolutely fascinating process," LeCrone said. "But it's also an imperfect science."

LeCrone said the oft-cited RPI-Ratings Percentage Index, which assesses strength of schedule, weighs quality wins against quality losses and assigns a computer ranking to each team and conference-is a tool the committee considers in the selection process, but is hardly the hammer some think it is.

"The media and the public, in my opinion, put too much weight on the RPI," LeCrone said. "But it does provide useful data."

Key too, LeCrone said, is "observational data." In short, the committee members are required to be students of the game. Over the course of the season, they watch dozens of games, take notes and compile information. Indeed, each committee member is assigned several conferences and reports to the committee on those teams that might be worthy of consideration.

"But you're not an advocate for those conferences," he said. "You walk in and present the data."

"What I and all of us try to represent is college basketball," he said. "You have 10 people in there absolutely trying to do the best job... because they know the weightiness of the decision and how important this might be, because you know some very deserving teams are going to get left out and you know what that means to that coach, the young people, to the fans and to the athletic director."

At the end of the day on Selection Sunday, LeCrone said he has to take comfort in the amount of discussion and data and the confidence that those teams that make it-and those that don't-are given as fair a hearing as is humanly possible.

"It's as good and as open a decision-making process as I've been involved in," he said, "but it's not perfect, because we can't invite all 326 teams to the tournament."

Hmm. Not a bad idea.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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