By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 14, 2007 6:54 PM
Here's what bothers me about the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee: Everything.
Don't get me wrong I like all of them personally. They're good men, hard-working and sincere. It's just that they have come to believe through the years that when they select the 65 team NCAA Tournament field that they are doing work only slightly more important and grueling than finding a cure for cancer.
Every year we hear about how difficult the selection process is. We hear about how tough it is to spend four days locked up in a hotel suite on the top floor of The Indianapolis Westin Hotel. Oh my God, is it hard to pick those last few teams. And the brackets. Splitting the atom was a walk in the park compared to doing the brackets.
They go through reams of computer printouts. They look at tapes of teams playing. They argue and scream at one another. They compare RPI's and strength of schedule and wins on the road versus wins at home. It is all so complicated and so exhausting it's a wonder they can even return to their homes and families -- first class of course -- with even a piece of their sanity intact.
Here's the thing. I have a friend named Bill Brill. He's a retired sportswriter. Every year on Saturday night he sits down at a table with a blank bracket and about four beers. Okay, maybe five. He has no computer printouts, no staff and no one on call to get him anything his heart might desire. He has a few friends shouting at him that he's crazy if he thinks the CAA is going to get three bids. That's about it.
Armed with his beer and his shouting friends, Brill puts together a bracket in about an hour. Maybe 90 minutes if his dinner reservation that night is a little bit later than usual. Usually he has about 63 of the same teams the committee comes up with. His seedings are virtually identical. Maybe he had Maryland as a No. 5 instead of a No. 4 this year. He might have had Gonzaga as a No. 11 instead of a No. 10. Basically though, it is the same bracket.
Except, it's better.
You see Brill isn't affected by politics. He isn't intimidated by the specter of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, an ex-committee chairman who is known among those who follow the sport as the Darth Vader of college basketball. No doubt Delaney and the Emperor were not pleased last year when the committee had the audacity to put George Mason, Wichita State and Bradley into the field from mid-major conferences and left out Florida State, Maryland and Indiana on the rather simple principle that they hadn't played anyone.
We all know how that worked out. George Mason became the best story in college basketball in 40 years. Wichita State and Bradley made the round of 16, and while everyone in the ACC was screaming how unfair it was that the Missouri Valley Conference -- which is where Wichita State and Bradley are from --had gotten as many bids (4) as the ACC, the fact is the Missouri Valley -- even with lower seeding positions -- got as many teams (2) to the round of 16 as the ACC did.
There's no doubt in my mind that Darth Vader and his companions from The Empire (the other power conference commissioners) went into action last spring, summer and fall. This can't happen again, they told the committee members. The NCAA tournament, in spite of rumors to the contrary, isn't about what is best for basketball and what is most fair to the players and coaches. It is about us. It is about how much money we make from the tournament (millions) and how we use making the tournament as a tool (recruiting) to ensure that we keep making more millions.
Well, the committee members certainly got the message. No Death Star for them. They went into their meetings in their Ivory Tower last weekend and came up with the following idea: Illinois and Purdue, both teams from Delaney's Big Ten, deserved bids. Forget the fact that their road victories this season came over Big Ten weaklings Northwestern and Penn State and, in the case of Illinois, a win over Minnesota which is almost as bad as Northwestern and Penn State. Forget the fact that the nine teams in the Big Ten not named Ohio State and Wisconsin won a total of 16 road games all season. They deserve to be in the tournament.
But Drexel didn't deserve a bid.
Take a guess how many road games Drexel won this season. How about 14. That's one school winning 14 games away from home versus nine winning 16. Who did the Dragons beat? Syracuse, Villanova, Creighton, St. Joseph's and several very good CAA teams. You see when you're in the CAA, no one from a power conference will play you on the road. Maryland Coach Gary Williams complained last year when The Missouri Valley got those four bids that the league had, "cracked the RPI code."
Here's what they did to crack the code: they played good teams on the road and won. Sounds pretty evil to me.
Drexel cracked the code too. Except it had the misfortune to play in a league that had three other very good teams. It finished fourth in the CAA behind Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and Hofstra. The first two got into the tournament. Committee chairman Gary Walters, who was a teammate of Bill Bradley's at Princeton and should know good basketball when he sees it, explained that Drexel finishing fourth in the CAA had been the problem as if the committee could only take Old Dominion or Drexel and not both.
I mean, God forbid we should leave out Illinois and Purdue. The wrath of Darth Vader might come down upon us.
Here's the problem with Walter's remarkably specious argument (after all you would expect more from a Princeton grad): the committee also left out Syracuse. Upon further review, Syracuse finished ahead of both Marquette and Villanova in the Big East. In fact, it beat Marquette, at Marquette, and was the only team to beat Georgetown any place in the last six weeks. Last time I checked, if you beat someone on their court and all other things are pretty much equal -- or in this case unequal -- since Syracuse, let me repeat this, finished ahead of Marquette, you are considered the better team.
Nope, the committee said, Syracuse is out. Don't misunderstand. I think Marquette should have been in the field. Illinois should not have been, nor should Purdue. Throw in the fact that Arkansas, 7-9 in the Southeastern Conference, should also have been left out, and Missouri State should have been in, and you have the right field.
That was Brill's field after his fourth (okay, maybe fifth) beer. That was my field too. The difference is we don't have Darth Vader and friends looking over our shoulder. The committee can explain from here to eternity the torture it went through in picking the field. The bottom line is this: they got it wrong. They should be ashamed of what they did, especially to Drexel, a little school trying to overcome long odds to make the field. They sat there for four days with all their printouts and information and their satellite TV dishes and they flat out blew it.
Maybe they should have had a few more beers.