Bubble Talk

Bubbles can burst in a hurry as the NCAA men's basketball committee make those final crucial decisions on the way to Selection Sunday.

The leadership of the NCAA men's basketball committee is passed along from person to person and held in high esteem. When former Big East Conference commissioner Mike Tranghese ascended to the role of committee chair in 2001, he felt he had been through "tutorial school" after observing the work of the late Dave Gavitt.

When the committee completed its bracket that year, there was time for radio and television broadcast crews to be briefed on the selections just before the field was announced on national TV. Gavitt was working for NCAA radio and before leaving the room, he approached Tranghese and asked, "How much trouble did you have getting that team on that line?"

Tranghese was stunned. Then he remembered some advice Gavitt had given him about the job. Gavitt had told Tranghese to trust his instincts and do it "his way."

"I just did what I thought was right," Tranghese said in answer to Gavitt's question.

"You got it right," said Gavitt, considered perhaps the most knowledgeable committee member ever.

Like every other chairman before him, Mike Bobinski would like to hear those words on March 17. Bobinski, athletic director at Xavier, was at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis last week to help me and 19 other media members in a two-day mock selection session. In a condensed period of time we went through all the steps the actual committee will execute during a five-day period leading up to the announcement of the 68-team field on Selection Sunday.

Through all the principles and procedures, through all the balloting and seeding, I walked away from this mock session with the impression that the tension reaches a peak when the committee is filling those final openings in the field.

There might be three or four spots open with a dozen or more teams still under consideration. That, Bobinski said, is when the committee feels the harsh reality of their task.

"It's the ultimate decision point," Bobinski said. "There's almost a sense of doom."

Whether you are a casual fan of the game or a devoted follower of the science of bracketology, this is where bubble teams come into the picture. To be honest with you, in almost 12 hours in our committee room I cannot recall hearing the term "bubble" used even once. And that's because we dealt with teams as certain at-large candidates or under consideration. Those are the teams that are discussed and mixed with the automatic qualifiers to build the bracket.

After our first vote of the session, we had 19 at-large locks and 43 teams under consideration. Bobinski told us both numbers were "too large."

"Some of that reflects the year," he said. "No criticism. We did the same damn thing [in the committee's mock]."

But there was no "bubble" pool. Go to any college basketball site on the Internet right now and you find bubble lists: last four in, last four out, probably in, probably out, on the fence, etc. Those bigger groupings might total as many as 25 teams in two or three categories.

It doesn't happen that way in the committee room. The reality is that a series of comparisons and ballots allows the committee to whittle the at-large field down to those final spots.

Maybe that's why so much tension fills the room at that point. No one wants to be left out.

"There's a lot of conversation and a lot of analysis on who are the last teams,'' Bobinski said. "This is one vote you really want to feel good about as you rank these teams. It gets a little less comfortable at this point.''

David Worlock of the NCAA (left) and committee chair Mike Bobinski

As we reached the end of the process, we had to break a balloting tie between Villanova and Kentucky. David Worlock, media coordinator for the NCAA tournament and moderator for mock session, told us that in our make believe world Kentucky had lost to Alabama in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Villanova, which has tremendous wins over Syracuse and Louisville but also a very bad 75-55 home loss to Columbia, won the tiebreaker vote. Kentucky, with no wins over Top 50 RPI teams and no wins against teams in our field, was out of our bracket at that point. No second chance, no sympathy for the defending national champs.

With three or possibly four spots remaining, we were asked to rank six teams – our bubble teams, if you will. The final ranking put Cal, Virginia and Iowa State into the field. North Carolina was in too, as long as SEC favorite Florida won the conference tournament. The Gators were playing Alabama in the title game, which is held on Selection Sunday and we did not have Alabama in our at-large field.

When Worlock told us Alabama had upset the Gators and captured the automatic bid, North Carolina was out. No discussion of Tar Heel tradition, number of championships, Roy Williams or anything. The ranking of the teams had taken care of that.

Committee votes are secret. But as the ballots come in, Jeanne Boyd, the managing director of the men's basketball championship, sees the results. She can call for a tiebreaker or move on to the next listing or ranking.

And just to illustrate how opinions can differ, Boyd told us the results of the final ranking of our "bubble" teams. Keep in mind we were ranking six teams in order, based on the data we had on each team.

Cal received votes from 1 to 5, followed by Virginia, 1-6; Iowa State, 1-5; North Carolina, 1-6; Charlotte, 1-6; and Villanova, 3-6. That illustrates how similar teams can appear to the human eye. This is not the Bowl Championship Series, with computers spitting out analysis.

"One of the things the committee does so well is look through and beyond the numbers," said Dan Gavitt, son of Dave and now the NCAA vice president of the men's basketball championships.

Baylor, Cal, Virginia and Iowa State were our last four teams in. They received seeds 45-48 in the field and, in the real world would be sent to Dayton to play First Four games along with seeds 65-68, which were Niagara, Norfolk State, Charleston Southern and Prairie View.

North Carolina, Charlotte, Villanova and Kentucky were our first four out. And no doubt about it, the absence of the Tar Heels and Kentucky in the same tournament (something that hasn't happened since 1974), would create a huge controversy for our committee.

But this was a mock exercise. Our committee didn't have to go on national TV and defend our selections 15 minutes after the bracket was completed.

We still have to wait 24 more days to get the results from the actual men's basketball committee. That's when Bobinski and his fellow committee members hope to hear those four simple, but gratifying, words.

"You got it right."

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