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NCAA selection committee faces tough balancing act

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MICHAEL MAROT
March 12, 2009
— Mike Slive is getting ready for a balancing act.

The NCAA tournament selection committee chairman will spend the next five days sifting through reams of numbers and stacks of resumes to select 34 at-large teams, seed them properly and figure out where each school should play next week.


The goal: Keep as many teams close to home without providing an unfair advantage — or adding undue travel costs to a school’s budget.


Slive realizes the expense factor, because of the economy, may be more important than ever.


“These are trying times for all of us here, for all of you on the call, and for the millions around the country,” he said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “There’s no safe harbor from the effects of the current financial situation.”


Not even the NCAA’s biggest moneymaking event.


In past years, finding the best teams and filling out the 65-team bracket has always been the top priority. That isn’t changing.


But with a national recession, attendance down at some schools and many facing budget constraints, choosing the cities in which teams play may take on added importance.


Fortunately for committee members, there is both precedent and principle to rely upon.


In 2002, the selection committee adopted the “pod” system, a plan designed to reduce travel expenses for schools and fans while also limiting the amount of missed classwork for student-athletes.


It’s worked well, but it’s nowhere near perfect.


While most schools stay relatively close to home, some still go to faraway places because the committee must keep each of the four regions competitively balanced. Slive acknowledges there are likely to be some anomalies this year too, no matter how much the committee tries to avoid it.


“We’ve tracked it and it (the pod system) has continuously reduced travel expenses drastically,” he said. “Relatively few teams travel beyond one time zone in the current configuration.”


School budgets have never been part of the committee’s debate process. So don’t expect to see Duke sent to Portland, Ore., and East Tennessee State, the Atlantic Sun champion, sent to Greensboro, N.C., simply because it’s more affordable for one school than another.


While the selection committee is permitted to move a team up or down one line for various reasons, including travel or competitive balance, NCAA spokesman David Worlock said no schools have requested a seeding change to save money — nor would the committee likely grant a request.


Instead, Slive will continue to focus on the committee’s usual formula: Wins and losses, strength of schedule, road victories, records against the top 50, even injuries or controversies that may have cost a team one or two wins to determine who is in, who is out and where a team should be seeded.


“When a team loses to a team it should not have lost to, that’s a note,” Slive said. “When a team beats a team that is better than that team, that’s a notable win and something that we need to keep track of. I don’t think there’s any particular factor that keeps a team in or any particular factor that keeps a team out.”


Clearly, there is no substitute for getting it right.


Committee members routinely say a team can play its way out of a bad seed but can’t play its way into the tourney if it’s left out of the field.


But with the recession deepening and school budgets tightening, the committee faces a tougher task.


It must strike the proper balance in keeping this a nationally competitive tournament and fiscally responsible in these economic times.


“As we head into this weekend, we are reminded of the changes we implemented in 2002, which places teams, to the greatest extent possible, close to their national geographic area,” Slive said. “Since that time, most teams and their fans are traveling shorter distances for tournament games. A savings in costs and missed class time. The committee remains committed to this principle to the extent it does not adversely impact fair competition.”



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