NCAA tournament selection process doesn’t have to be right, but it shouldn’t be a secret


Ohio State AD Gene Smith, at right with football coach Jim Tressel last week, is chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee and did plenty of talking but gave few meaningful answers after this year’s field was announced. (JAY LAPRETE/Reuters)
John Feinstein
Columnist March 14, 2011

The problem with the NCAA tournament bracket that was unveiled Sunday night isn’t the product.

Debate over who got in and who didn’t is going to occur every year whether the field consists of 64 teams, 68 teams or the 96 teams the NCAA will someday shove down our throats.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

And while only one member of this year’s tournament selection committee has actually coached Division I basketball — Stan Morrison, who last did so in 1998 — the process isn’t necessarily the issue either.

The problem is accountability — specifically, the committee’s utter lack of it. Without it, we have no way of knowing whether the process was fair or not.

Something is rotten in Indianapolis.

Through the years, the tournament selection committee, especially whomever is chairman, has mastered the art of the non-answer. Ask a committee member whether the sun will set in the West today, and you will be told that a very careful study will be done on that question and the committee will do a great job coming up with the answer and that the sun is extremely well-coached but it may or may not have enough votes to set in the West.

This year’s committee chairman, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, who probably should have resigned that position last week to tend to his day job in Columbus, wouldn’t answer the simplest and most obvious questions Sunday night.

Why didn’t Virginia Tech make the field? Smith’s answer, once you filtered out all the babble about “quantifiable criteria” and how well-coached the Hokies are, was this: The Hokies didn’t get enough votes.

No kidding, Mr. Chairman.

When Smith was asked whether the ACC tournament championship game between Duke and North Carolina had decided who got the final No. 1 seed, he went off on a body-of-work tangent and claimed one game didn’t decide the last No. 1 seed.

Does he seriously think anyone believes that? Is he saying that if North Carolina had beaten Duke for the second time in the past eight days and had lost one game in two months, Duke still would have been the last No. 1 seed? If so, then the committee is doing an even worse job than people think.

The committee’s hypocrisy is in trying to keep all its decision-making processes secret while at the same time claiming “transparency.”

Smith says Virginia Tech didn’t get in because it didn’t get enough votes. Fine. Who voted for the Hokies? Who voted against them? If members of Congress have to vote publicly on tax increases or whether or not to go to war, why in the world shouldn’t tournament selection committee members have to explain why they voted for or against teams? All the voting is done by computer now; every single vote should be made public.

Committee members have absolutely no problem with accepting the many perks that come with their roles, but they don’t seem to own the responsibility. No one forces anyone to be on the committee. If you want to be a member, you should have to explain what you did and why.

Here’s another question that should be answered: Who was responsible for scouting the ACC this season? Before the season, each committee member is assigned three conferences (presumably someone takes four because there are 31 altogether). The NCAA supplies each member with satellite TV and any game tapes necessary to keep track of the leagues throughout the season.

So, who was the ACC’s scout this season? Did he vote for or against Virginia Tech? What did he say about Virginia Tech in the room? Who was the scout for Conference USA? What did he say that got UAB into the field? Is the scout for the Big Ten being given a “man-of-the-year” award by Comissioner Jim Delany for somehow getting seven teams into the field?

In an e-mail response to two questions directed to Smith on Monday — who was assigned to the ACC this season and who voted for and against Virginia Tech? — NCAA spokesman David Worlock wrote that the committee does not release the results of any vote taken or who scouts which conference but did—at great length—explain all the information that is available to the committee members.

The committee has an absolute right to get it wrong. No one is perfect, although it doesn’t appear anyone in power cares about improving the committee’s basketball IQ. This summer, Smith and Morrison will be replaced by two men who have never been Division I coaches. That means there will be zero ex-coaches on next year’s committee.

What the committee does not have the right to do is act as if honest answers regarding the selection process would somehow jeopardize national security. It is worth noting that the last thing the committee does Selection Sunday afternoon is prepare the chairman by agreeing on answers for the questions most likely to be asked. Saying Virginia Tech didn’t have enough votes isn’t an answer, though; it’s a dodge.

Anyone familiar with the term “Watergate” knows the cover-up is always worse than the crime. After the past week, Smith should know better than anyone. (See: Tressel, Jim).

Every year, several schools believe — often correctly — that their being left out of the NCAA tournament field is unfair. One can make the case even the most egregious omissions are mostly the results of honest mistakes.

But the refusal to be accountable for such mistakes is anything but honest. And there’s not an excuse for allowing it to continue.

For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com

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