NCAA selection panel weighs numbers in balancing act With facts as the guide, fingers are crossed in completing field of 64

March 09, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

You're waiting for the men's basketball committee to announce the pairings for the 64-team NCAA tournament. You want family feuds, revenge, maybe a sense of humor.

How about Duke against Old Dominion, Jeff Capel the player against Jeff Capel the coach? Wouldn't you love to see Indiana meet Southwest Missouri State, Bob Knight against Steve Alford? Make arrangements for a second-round game between Arizona's Lute Olson, the weather wimp, and St. Joseph's in Pittsburgh. Pray for snow.

All very tidy, and all very improbable.

"After they're done, as we look back over the pairings, we've said, 'That's going to be a good game,' " said Terry Holland, the chairman of the men's basketball committee. "But we never talk about matchups for any purpose, whether they're interesting, whether it's for the gate or for TV."

If it's laughs you're seeking, watch "Third Rock From The Sun." If irony is your bag, check out "The Twilight Zone" on the SciFi Channel. The start of March Madness is more like "Dragnet," with Holland as Joe Friday.

Just the facts, ma'am.

Holland and the eight other members of the NCAA men's basketball committee will emerge from a Kansas hotel this evening and unveil the product of several days of number crunching, secret ballots and the hidden desire that Marquette was the only mediocrity that won a major conference tournament.

Thirty conference champions receive automatic bids, and the hard part is making the last of the 34 at-large selections, one made only slightly easier by the eligibility mess that took Texas Tech out of the picture.

Marquette is already a surprise entry from Conference USA, Texas Christian's stock rose in the Western Athletic Conference, and if North Carolina State and Missouri complete their giant-killing acts today, North Carolina and Kansas won't pay, someone like Temple or Southwest Missouri State will.

The at-large candidates seem to grow every year, along with the parity. Is there any discernible difference in the caliber of performance between Cincinnati, which blew a chance at a No. 2 seed, and Southern California, a long shot for a bid?

Geography and keeping conference rivals clear of each other are factors in the seeding process, but if you think you know everything that's going through the committee's collective mind, the chairman has other ideas.

"There are so many factors we weigh," Holland said of a checklist that includes at least 15 items. "Your record in your last 10 games, your road nonconference schedule, which is something you control. They will know all of that information, but each committee member has to weigh the emphasis of each piece."

Here are some of the major points the committee will consider.

1. RPI isn't everything: Media and fan speculation over the field is based on a bootleg version of the RPI, the Ratings Percentage Index, the strength-of-schedule grading system that the NCAA has used since 1981. Just because Indiana was No. 14 in this week's RPI, however, doesn't mean that the Hoosiers are automatically a No. 4 seed.

"The RPI for an individual team is never considered," Holland said. "It is used as a checkpoint, but I can never remember a situation where we changed a team's placement based on its RPI. We do pay attention to your record against the top 25 in the RPI, the top 50, the top 100."

Held back by its typical lightweight nonconference schedule, Georgetown was No. 64 in last week's RPI. On paper, the Hoyas would seem to have no chance at an at-large invitation, yet Digger Phelps has them as a No. 3 seed.

Which brings us to

2. Timing counts: The Hoyas were 10-6 in mid-January, but they had won 10 of 12 before losing in the Big East semifinals. They played their way into the tournament, and in the same fashion, teams can play their way up to a desirable seed or down to a shakier one.

The committee is keenly interested in a team's record in its last 10 games. Heading into today's game at Ohio State, Michigan, )) No. 27 in the RPI, was 2-6 over its past eight games, and the Wolverines' last victory over a sure NCAA tournament team was Jan. 19.

Maryland wasn't much better down the stretch, going 4-8 over its last 12 games, but the Terps' stature could only drop so much after their hot start.

West Virginia had won 10 of 13 before falling to desperate Providence in the Big East quarterfinals. Sometimes a team is done in by who it lost to, and the Mountaineers' black marks include defeats to Rutgers and Notre Dame.

An Atlantic 10 tournament loss to old nemesis George Washington left Massachusetts 1-3 in its last four games, but did wipe away the goodwill the Minutemen earned during an 11-1 run?

3. Who was hurt, and who was bad?

Injuries can actually help a team if they happen early enough, but there are no sympathy votes for suspensions.

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