College Sports

A 68-team field doesn't make selections easier

The American pickers are in Indianapolis. No, not the fellows who seek treasures from junk piles, but the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee, on a dress rehearsal mission of picking a 68-team field.

But there are similarities.

The pickers of TV fame scour the nation looking beyond the obvious for hidden gems. So does the basketball committee.

That's the most difficult chore for the committee. Not seeding the top few lines of the bracket or determining where to place the teams.

The committee will spend more time today — and when it reconvenes for the real deal on the second week of March — identifying the last few at-large teams than on the other tasks.

"That takes the majority of the time," committee chairman Gene Smith said.

The choices will prompt the most discussion, create the most angst and probably deliver the most controversy when the field is announced on March 13.

And with three more at-large teams, creating a 68-team bracket, the discussion is bound to become livelier. It's already a popular topic in the Big 12 as it relates to teams like Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

Today's exercise is to provide a glimpse of what's happening, and what will happen next month, in the conference room in Indianapolis. Feel free to grab plenty of snacks, even take an ice cream break. They do that in Indy.

Teams at-large

Come up with an initial ballot. Pick your can't-miss teams, no more than 37. Why 37? That's the number of at-large teams in the field. There are 31 conference champions, 37 at-large teams.

As league tournaments conclude, those winners will go on to the automatic bid list.

For this bracket construction project, there are no conference champions. But every league is, as it will be on Selection Sunday, represented.

Still, we'll cap our can't-miss teams at 37, and besides there aren't nearly that many sure bets.

Smith couldn't reveal his initial ballot locks. I came up with 24.

* ACC: Duke, North Carolina

* Atlantic-10: Temple, Xavier

* Big 12: Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Texas A&M

* Big East: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Louisville, Villanova, Connecticut, Syracuse

* Big Ten: Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin

* Mountain West: San Diego State, Brigham Young

* Pac-10: Arizona

* SEC: Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt

Start celebrating guys, you're in.

The fun starts

To that list, add the conferences that project to receive only one bid. Keep in mind, more than one team can come from any of these conferences, but at the moment, none of these leagues have a second team that would be considered a lock.

Now begins the heavy lifting, completing the field with teams that are starting to look frighteningly similar.

This is where the measuring tools like RPI, schedule strength and records against teams in the field come into play. When it gets down to the final few slots, the committee needs to be overloaded with information to separate teams with nearly identical credentials.

Smith, one of 10 members of a committee that includes Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, said it comes to this: "It's who you played, where you played and how you did," he said.

The RPI, or ratings percentage index, takes most of that into account. Plus, it's been a terrific historical indicator. Only three teams with an RPI of 30 or better have been left out of the tournament, none from a power conference.

Three power conference teams not on our lock list but in the RPI top 30 get added to the field: West Virginia, St. John's and Tennessee.

Let's stretch that list to top 40 RPI teams. That includes Kansas State — jumped eight RPI spots to No. 32 after beating top-ranked Kansas on Monday — Minnesota, Washington, Georgia and Illinois. OK, two more in the RPI order: UCLA and Boston College.

I'm not ignoring the non-BCS conference or mid-majors. There's plenty of excellence in those ranks this season. Utah State, despite having no victories against the RPI top 50, gets in, although that loss at Idaho last week was a bad one.

George Mason and Old Dominion get in from the Colonial, St. Mary's from the West Coast, Memphis from Conference USA and UNLV from the Mountain West. None of these teams have to win their conference tournament to reach the NCAA field.

We're left with a handful of spots. I'll reduce the number even more by adding Florida State, Washington, Colorado State and Richmond.

From a group of about 20 teams, there's room for six more. All have great records and a good RPI. This is where the debate heats up.

But before it does, consider what has happened. We've come up with 62 teams, including one-bid conference tournament champions, based entirely on this year's performance. Nothing's been said about previous NCAA Tournament success. If that was the case, two of last year's Final Four, Butler and Michigan State, might already be in the field. They're not. But they are among the remaining group.

We haven't talked about marquee teams or players that might sell tickets. This process is difficult enough without adding those factors.

"We just move through the teams," Smith said.

Throughout the process, the committee has looked at all data in determining its at-large field. Now, it's time to fine-tooth comb the remaining teams. Record against the top 50 RPI, average RPI of teams beaten, conference RPI, every tool available is needed to help distinguish the teams.

Having fed them all through the system, here are my final six: Cincinnati, Marquette, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia Commonwealth.

Among those left behind were Baylor, Missouri State, Oklahoma State and Dayton.

But remember, everybody has a few more conference games and a conference tournament remaining.

Falls into place

The next two important steps are less time consuming. The teams are seeded 1-68 and placed on the bracket using a few bracketing principles.

We won't list all 68 here, but we will do the first 16, the top four seeds.

In order, it goes Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Texas, San Diego State, Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Georgetown, Purdue, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Florida, Villanova, North Carolina, Syracuse.

The top four teams are placed in the closest regional sites among Newark, New Orleans, San Antonio and Anaheim. Put Pitt in Newark, Ohio State in New Orleans, Texas in San Antonio and San Diego State in Anaheim.

Among the second seeds, put Kansas in Anaheim, Duke in Newark, Brigham Young in New Orleans and Notre Dame in San Antonio.

They all get to stay close to home in the early rounds. Texas and Kansas open in Tulsa, Pitt and Ohio State open in Cleveland.

The rest of the bracket falls into place with a few principles. Competitive balance is the goal, regular-season rematches are avoided, there won't be more than two teams from one conference in a region, except the Big East. With 11 teams in our bracket that can't be helped, but their teams wouldn't meet until the Sweet 16.

At the end of the day, a bracket emerges. Here's mine:

EastSoutheastSouthwestWest

1PittOhio StateTexasSan Diego State

16Hamp./McNMurray St. TxSou/FAULIU

8UCLATennesseeMinnesotaWest Virginia

9K-StateCincinnatiWashingtonGeo. Mason

4PurdueSyracuseVillanovaNo. Carolina

13FairfieldPrincetonBelmontValpo

5KentuckyTexas A&MVanderbiltLouisville

12Marq/VCUWichita St. Utah St. Richmond/UAB

2DukeNotre DameBYUKansas

15VermontBucknellLBSUMontana

7UNLVSt. Mary'sXavierIllinois

10ODUFlorida St. Boston ColGeorgia

3G'townFloridaWisconsinConnecticut

14Kent St. CofCOaklandCoastal Car

6MissouriTempleSt. John'sArizona

11Mich. St. Colorado St. MemphisVirginia Tech

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