Difficult decisions await NCAA Tournament selection committee

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 19, 2008

One in an occasional series on the history, issues and personalities of women's college basketball leading to the Final Four April 6 and 8 in Tampa.

TAMPA - Asked what the single most difficult decision last year's NCAA women's basketball selection committee made, Wood Selig laughs.

It wasn't a much-deliberated call on a final at-large berth, the debate over which team gets the last No. 1 seed, or the unavoidable placement of some top teams halfway across the country from their campuses for first-round games.

"It was 'Do we go to bed at 2:30 or 3?' and then, 'Do we start back up at 7:30 or sleep in until 8?'" said Selig, a rookie on last year's selection committee and the athletic director at Western Kentucky.

Next month, the 10 dedicated members of the selection committee will hole up for five days in the Westin Indianapolis, sequestered much like jury members, only with a far more complicated verdict to reach.

A security guard is stationed outside their room, which is only 10 or so steps away from the suite where the committee can eat meals, watch the last few games on TV. The elevators to their rooms are just across the hall.

"Until Selection Monday, we don't go outside at all," said Sue Donohoe, the NCAA's vice president for women's basketball, who has filled her share of brackets.

On March 13, the group will gather in Indianapolis, starting easily enough with more research, then a dinner, tentatively scheduled for a local Houlihan's. Appetizers are chosen ahead by staff, as these 10 have enough difficult decisions to make in the next 96 hours.

Choosing the best 64 basketball teams in the country is only part of the fun. There is seeding them - not just finding four of each seed, but then ranking within each foursome - then dropping them into the bracket, with geography playing a more crucial role than in the men's tournament, where early-round crowds are easier to find.

"Location is key in the women's game, because of attendance," said Heather Gores, a committee rookie this spring and the associate athletic director at Gonzaga. "Over on the men's side, that's not an issue."

Committee members, who serve staggered five-year terms, represent the entire country, from Idaho and Washington to Louisiana and North Carolina. Seven are women, three are men. There is one conference commissioner (the MAAC's Richard Ensor), an associate commissioner, three athletic directors and five associate athletic directors, all nominated by their conferences and chosen for their expertise.

The NCAA invited national media members to Indianapolis two weeks ago for a selection-process orientation, challenging a panel of experts to fill out its own bracket. Tuesday in Tampa, Donohoe will conduct a "Bracketology 101" seminar for local media members. The goal is to show just how much thought goes into creating the field of 64.

Geography is a factor from the opening round, which is split to eight sites, including potential home games for powers such as Maryland, LSU and Stanford; Connecticut could be all but at home in nearby Bridgeport.

Being a No. 1 seed might not be enough, as the top seeds are geographically placed in descending order, so if Tennessee is the overall No. 1, it would get to play the second weekend in the Greensboro, N.C., region, even if nearby North Carolina or Duke is a No. 1 seed. That might mean Connecticut or Rutgers has a longer trip, to a regional in New Orleans or Oklahoma City. Unless Stanford is somehow a top seed, one No. 1 will get shipped far from its fans to the regional in Spokane, Wash.

There are rules to follow. Until this year, the committee had to separate the top three teams in each conference into separate regions; that has been loosened such that now the protocol is that no conference teams should meet each other until the region final. Even that could prove impossible, as some projections have elite leagues such as the Big 12 or Big East putting nine teams into the field, which means two teams would have to be lined up for an earlier potential meeting.

The most controversial decisions are the final cuts for at-large bids. The call on the last spot in the field will send one campus to euphoria, another to a colossal, emotional letdown. Florida and Florida State's teams, for instance, are both squarely on the bubble and could go either way in the next month.

"You think about the impact it's going to have on a program," Donohoe said. "The kids and coaches have worked for months and months. They're either going to be thrilled, or very disappointed."

The committee's long hours start long before the members get to Indianapolis. Unlike the men's side, some top programs, even ranked teams, may never be on national television, leaving committee members to squint at online video broadcasts for insight.

"The online broadcasts are good in their convenience, but it's not exactly 50 inches you're watching," Selig said.

Gonzaga's Gores, who played college basketball at Washington State, said she was thrilled to learn she'd been selected for the committee, then quickly remembered her two young children, ages 6 and 4, and realized how much busier her schedule would be. Reached by phone Sunday night, she was watching a recorded game for more research.

Selig learned the sacrifice that committee members make last spring, when he was home only two days during the month of March. His children, ages 10, 8 and 4, had spring break without him; that absence, not anything involving RPIs, is the hardest part.

"You're not just a fan. You have to be interested in the stewardship of the game, the growth of the event," Selig said. "At the end, there was an absolute sense of accomplishment everyone felt when we had completed the process of selecting, seeding and bracketing the entire field. You've crossed the finish line of a very long race, a marathon that started back in November."