Our team crowded around the TV, awaiting the release of the NCAA bracket.
Wearing our black-and-gold University of Colorado travel sweats, leaning forward in our seats, we were the mirror image of dozens of other college basketball "watch parties" around the country: a streak of school colors and angst. We wondered aloud where we might play. We discussed what other teams might be in our bracket. And we prayed silently, as I'm sure most college teams still do, that the name "Connecticut" wouldn't appear opposite ours.I was fortunate to watch the NCAA selection show with my teammates four times while at Colorado. And I can tell you, that hour of television was one of the most emotional of the season. It's part celebration, part consternation. We would dust off our palms and boldly say, "We did everything we could; it's out of our hands." Then we'd whisper into one another's ear, "That was such a bad early-season loss to Lower Middle Bumbleton State. How did that happen?"
Our team was being judged -- graded, ranked and bracketed -- by a faceless committee that spent the previous weekend barricaded inside NCAA headquarters in downtown Indianapolis. We tried not to picture the committee. But when we did, we pictured its members wearing all black, speaking in monotone and pushing buttons as if they were working the factory floor at IBM.
On Thursday, I walked into those same NCAA headquarters. To steal a phrase from Greg Christopher, chair of the NCAA Division I women's basketball committee, I was there to "see how the sausage was made." I would be a part of the committee picking a mock 2012 NCAA bracket.
I possessed a handful of misconceptions about the selection process. One by one, the committee would debunk these myths.
Myth No. 1: Someone on the selection committee has a beef!
My senior year at CU, we spent the season ranked in the top 15. We finished the regular season 22-6. We had impressive wins over half a dozen ranked teams. We thought we were really good. That March, as we crowded around the TV to see the bracket revealed, we figured we were a top-four seed for sure. We were in lean-back-and-relax mode.
When our name popped up as a No. 6 seed, it was like a gust of wind had blown through the room as heads whipped toward one another.
"A 6? Traveling to play on someone else's home floor?" We looked at our head coach. Who had she upset? Someone on the selection committee had to be anti-Buffaloes!
But this week, as I went through the selection process, I was forced to release my internalized anger. The year we were given a No. 6 seed, we were nothing more than a victim of the NCAA's "Policies and Procedures."
The selection process includes a rule that conference teams cannot meet before the regional final, because the NCAA does not want conference tournament rematches. Also, once the 64 teams are selected, each team is placed in the closest geographic region -- so long as that placement does not interfere with the aforementioned rule. The system red-flags teams who are sent multiple time zones away in consecutive years, or teams who've played consecutive years on another team's home floor.
There are rules in place, and the only way around them is flexibility in seeding. This week, as our mock committee picked the 2012 bracket, we had Iowa State as the final team in. The Cyclones were technically the lowest No. 10 seed on the board. But when it came time to slot them in a bracket as the No. 10 seed they'd earned, their placement was red-flagged. At that spot, Iowa State was destined for an early-round matchup with another Big 12 team. Unacceptable. The committee bumped up the Cyclones to a No. 9 seed, where they would avoid a Big 12 foe.
What? Bumped them up?
I know, I know. I thought a team's seed was sacred, too ... bonded in blood, etc., etc. Not so. The selection committee can bump a team one seed higher, or one seed lower, to accommodate its extensive "Policies and Procedures."
(Now excuse me while I text all of my former teammates to let them know we probably weren't a No. 6 seed that year, but rather the highest No. 5 seed. We were simply collateral damage of the NCAA system!)
Myth No. 2: The committee humors itself by creating storylines
Remember how people tried to tell you that Disney animators humored themselves by including lurid pictures and phrases in obscure corners of the picture frames of movies such as "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid"? Well, that might actually have been true. But the selection committee's having the ability to build compelling storylines into the NCAA bracket? That's a myth. They just don't have the range of motion to concern themselves with anything but seeding fairness and optimal geographical location. Or, as Michelle Perry, director of the Division I NCAA women's basketball championship, explains it, "Putting butts into the seats -- we have to care about how our games look on TV."
On Thursday, we dropped the top two seeds into each region of our mock bracket. Connecticut was a No. 1 seed in the East Regional; Tennessee was the No. 2.
"Ooooh," came the gasp from the room. All of us are aware of the "ongoing feud" between the two powerhouse programs. How would it look if we set them up for a date in the regional final? Had we done such a thing on purpose? Pat and Geno squaring off!
No. We hadn't. Not even a little bit. That's where the two teams fit in the bracket. End of story. We had to move forward because most of the pieces -- due to conference overlap, home-site conflict, extensive travel in previous seasons -- weren't fitting as easily.
The committee absolutely concerns itself with selling tickets, but only within the set parameters. They will move a team from a No. 6 seed to a No. 7 if it means they can move Duke to play in Chapel Hill instead of Spokane, Wash. The system stretches, but only so far. And that stretch does not include sending UConn coach Geno Auriemma back home to play in Philly -- as adorable as that storyline would be for the local papers.
Myth No. 3: Lower Middle Bumbleton State doesn't get a fair shake!
This might have been true 15 years ago, before each conference streamed its games over the Internet and on iPhones. Now each committee member must log into an NCAA system and chart which teams it has seen. Perry estimates that among the 10 committee members, they'd watch 1,500 games each season.
On Wednesday night, committee member Kathy Meehan spent half an hour connecting her home DirecTV account to a newly downloaded iPhone app so she could stream Penn State versus Purdue. She was still considering Purdue as a bubble team. The other committee members possessed as much information on St. Mary's (Calif.) and Middle Tennessee State as they did on West Virginia.
(This reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges during this mock selection. When West Virginia came up for discussion, one of the high points on WVU's résumé was "they lost to UConn by less than 20." Apparently this is the new standard of excellence. The Mountaineers made the field.)
Myth No. 4: The process is riddled with human error
I walked into the room looking for flaws in the system. I wanted to find places where personal bias could be exacted. But it's as tempered as it can be. And that cuts both ways.
On one hand, no single committee member can lobby for a specific team. If they're affiliated with a team or conference, they are forbidden from voting and are forced to leave the room when discussion turns to those teams. The process is so calculated and streamlined you move teams along in groups of four, not singularly, so no team is voted on individually.
On the other hand, the process is so rigid and numbers-focused that there's little room for the human element. No matter how compelling and heart-wrenching a team's story might be -- this year, the clear example is Oklahoma State, which lost its head coach and an assistant in a plane crash -- it can't get itself into consideration with anything but its "body of work" on the court.
"We have to stand up with credibility and explain why each team made the tournament," Christopher says. "It's their résumé of what they've done throughout the season. That's it."
But, I persisted, if all things are equal, if Oklahoma State's résumé is on par with a handful of other teams, each of them fighting for the tournament's final spot ... what then?
"There are 10 people in the room," Perry says. "We are all human. I think it depends on the person as to what button they would click given that choice."