GORDON WHITE: NCAA Picks: Selection Committee Is Bracket Buster
Regardless of the outcome of the tournament or of any single game leading to the Final Four in two weeks, the 69th annual National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball championship got off to a poor start when the 10-man selection committee came up with the worst performance in the history of this body that is charged with picking 34 at-large entries for the 65-team field. The other 31 teams are automatic qualifiers as conference champions.
The most glaring errors made by the selection committee were its failure to include Syracuse and Drexel. Couple those inexcusable mistakes with the very dubious inclusion of Illinois, Stanford, Arkansas, Purdue and Georgia Tech and one wonders just what was going on with this committee chaired by an Ivy Leaguer, Gary Walters, the Princeton athletic director.
To top it all off, just how did this den of 10 think Duke deserved a No. 6 seed? There are some fans who feel the Blue Devils, with an 8-9 Atlantic Coast Conference record and losers of their last three games prior to NCAA selection time, did not even deserve an NCAA bid.
It has been proffered by the committee that Arkansas got a favorable nod because it reached the final of the Southeastern Conference playoff against Florida, the SEC and defending NCAA champion. But if that is the case then why weren't N.C. State and Kansas State put in the Big Dance instead of the National Invitation Tournament? After all, the Wolfpack, with impressive upsets throughout the season, beat Duke in the ACC playoff first round and lost to North Carolina in the ACC playoff final while Kansas State was beaten by Kansas in the Big 12 playoff final.
Members of the selection committee and those of us who disagree with its decisions can argue forever by using won-lost records and conference vs. conference strengths to justify our beliefs. But the Big East, which won nine of 16 games played against ACC teams this season, got only six teams into the NCAA tourney while the ACC has seven.
Syracuse, which won seven of its last 10 games prior to NCAA selections, should have been the seventh Big East team in the championship tourney. Instead the Orange was shunted over to the NIT despite a fifth-place finish in the Big East regular season and a recent victory over Georgetown, the Big East champion and a No. 2 seed in the March Madness.
Drexel fell victim of the selection committee's move to cut back on the number of mid-major teams in the NCAA event. Two years ago there were a dozen mid-majors and last year there were eight, including George Mason, which had the best Cinderella performances in NCAA tourney history by reaching the Final Four. Kent State made it to the Elite Eight in 2002 and Gonzaga, then a mid-major, got to the Elite Eight in 1999 as the best previous mid-major efforts.
Drexel, which felt obliged to upgrade its schedule by playing tough road games, beat Syracuse, Villanova and Creighton away from home. This did not impress the selection committee.
One might think this year's selection committee did not even know about Air Force, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Florida State, teams that appeared more worthy of selection than Stanford, which won only 18 games.
But then, maybe there is a problem with the selection committee membership. In addition to Princeton's Gary Walters, there is Craig Littlepage, Virginia's athletic director; Christopher Hill, Utah AD; Laing Kennedy, Kent State AD; Stan Morrison, California-Riverside AD; Michael Slive, SEC Commissioner; Thomas O'Connor, George Mason AD; Jonathan Le Crone, Horizon League Commissioner; Daniel Guerrero, UCLA AD; and Gene Smith, Ohio State AD.
The Big East and the Big 12 are the only power conferences not represented on this selection committee and Syracuse and Kansas State are from the Big East and Big 12, respectively. But Georgia Tech of the ACC, Arkansas of the SEC, Stanford of the Pac 10, plus Illinois and Purdue of the Big Ten were bubble teams from power conferences that had reps on this selection committee.
Jim Boeheim, the long-time Syracuse coach who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, expressed the feelings of all Syracuse loyalists when he said, "I am shocked."
Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner and a former chairman of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee, said he was "stunned" by the exclusion of Syracuse.
Although it appears there were obvious favorites here, I believe there are two much more serious aspects of the selection process that should be addressed. These are the involvement of CBS TV in picking teams and the NCAA's ownership of the NIT, which began this season. Each of these elements of the selection process is driven by big bucks and greed.
CBS, of course, denies having anything to say about what teams are named as at-large entries. Believe that and you might believe Bush and Cheney about those WMD.
CBS and the NCAA are bound together by an 11-year, $6 billion contract.
Naturally CBS wants a lot of bang for all those bucks it is paying for TV rights to the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Unfortunately for the network, last year's Final Four with LSU, UCLA, George Mason and Florida, was a considerable television flop. The championship game in which Florida beat UCLA, 73-57, for the 2006 title, had the smallest TV audience for an NCAA title game in 30 years. The Nielsen rating of only 11.2 was down over 25 percent from the previous year when North Carolina beat Illinois by five points for the title in a game with a 15.0 Nielsen.
The first two matches in the Final Four or the national semifinals had even lower ratings than the 2006 title game. It was a 9.1 rating when UCLA defeated LSU and a mere 8.2 when Florida beat George Mason.
These numbers make grouches out of TV executives who have offered up buckets of gold equal to a small nation's GNP. So these angry TV folks want improvements. The best way to do this is to stage games involving teams more likely to draw television audiences larger than the ones that viewed the 2006 Final Four.
After all, Florida is really not of much interest to anyone north of the Suwannee River while George Mason, although an attractive Cinderella team, really did not fascinate many fans.
Also, UCLA is no longer the big deal it was under coach John Wooden 30 to 40 years ago while LSU was a bigger deal when Pistol Pete Maravich and then Shaq played there.
Even CBS has not the power to assure its teams of choice will move on in the tournament to create attractive games among the Sweet 16 or the Final Four. Also, CBS could not prevent Florida from returning to defend its title despite the little fan following the Gators have north of Jacksonville.
Maybe CBS also suggests that there be fewer mid-major teams. CBS has stated that if Notre Dame and Illinois advance beyond the first round the network will make sure the Illini and Irish do not tip-off in subsequent games at the same time. This is so that the Chicago TV market, the third largest in the nation, will be able to see each of those teams in their entire performance.
Sure CBS puts its finger in the pie and scrambles things up for what it believes to be the most productive TV show. So is it a difficult stretch to at least imagine that CBS might drop a hint here and there to the members of the selection committee?
Then we get to the new NIT that is being staged by the NCAA.
Syracuse plays in the largest on-campus basketball arena in the nation -- the Carrier Dome. More than 30,000 people fill that place to see big Syracuse basketball games. There were 16,832 people at the Carrier Dome last Wednesday night to see the Orange beat South Alabama in the NIT opening round. And that was during spring break week with students gone.
The crowd may go over 20,000 tomorrow night when Syracuse hosts San Diego State in the second round of the NIT.
That means a good deal of money for the NCAA from its newly acquired NIT project. Why wouldn't the NCAA be pleased with a home arena of that size for the NIT? After all, the NCAA is paying $56.5 million for the NIT. This includes paying each of the five member colleges of the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association $1 million a year through 2014. These are St. John's, New York University, Fordham, Manhattan and Wagner.
The Carrier Dome goes a long way toward making that payment for the NCAA.
Of course, these are just thoughts about possible reasons for the selection committee doing as it did last week. There was certainly little other justification for its action that I could see. The real danger is if this sort of selection continues in years to come.
TV ratings might go up in the short run but the NCAA tournament could lose considerable luster and credibility if the field does not consist of the 65 teams that deserve to be involved.
Gordon White covered 34 NCAA basketball tournaments, including 28 Final Fours, as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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