Bracket Building 101

Ever wondered how they form the NCAA Tournament? Wonder no more. This season, a group of 10 people will continue with an annual mock NCAA selection committee and record the entire process to give you an inside look. The committee will follow the rules, principals and procedures to form a mock bracket just like the one that will be shown on March 11. Here's the first part of Bracket Building 101.

The easy part of "Selection Sunday" is to sit in front of your television shortly after 6 PM Eastern, and watch as the field of 65 is announced on CBS. For entertainment value, it's the hard part that should be televised.


This season the NCAA wised up to the ever-growing desire of wanting to be behind the scenes. The 2007 NCAA Tournament selection committee, a 10-person panel of directors of athletics and conference commissioners sat in with members of the United States Basketball Writer's Association to give them a taste of the real thing.


We're going one better.


For six years, I've put together an informal mock NCAA selection committee. It's been a collection of want-to-be bracketologists and avid fans of college basketball. This season, I've retained three other mock committee members that have been with me for all six seasons, and we've found six other aspiring bracket-nuts to continue assembling a mock bracket and introduce a series we'll call "Bracket Building 101."


This series will take you inside the selection process beginning this Sunday and will run all the way through Selection Sunday. We'll give you every detail of every step that arrives us at the actual bracket.


In this series, we'll have ongoing blogs from our committee members as well as a detailed explanation of why we did some of the things that will show up on our final "mock" bracket March 11.


"I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to dealing with brackets," said committee member Galen Clavio, a six-year member of the mock committee. "I love how the science of bracketology collides with the passion that so many feel for college basketball. I also enjoy arguing with people I've never met before, which is a major element of any good bracketology committee."


Clavio is just one piece of the ultimate puzzle.


An associate instructor of sport communications at Indiana University, Clavio, like many, took an interest in bracket building as a hobby. Formerly in sports broadcasting and media relations, Clavio remembers being on-air for 14 hours after Bobby Knight was fired from the university.


Even still, he insists making a quality, credible bracket is one of his biggest challenges.


"The best way to describe this process would be a labor of love," adds Matt Zuchowski, also an original member of the annual committee. "It takes many hours of number-crunching and game watching to accurately identify and order 300-plus teams."


Clavio and Zuchowski, a Marquette graduate, join a diverse committee that has participants from Connecticut, North Carolina, Indianapolis, Chicago, Nebraska, Texas and Washington. Although most of the mock committee's representation is of the larger universities, the same precautions will be taken to eliminate possible bias by having members not participate in votes that relate to the team they represent.


In the six-year existence of the mock committee, there have been far fewer problems with conference or team partiality than there has been debating the controversial issue regarding mid-major teams.


With a new RPI formula instituted last season that rewards teams more for winning on the road, a trait seen more in smaller schools that need the large payouts, the overall RPI numbers have risen for quality mid-major teams from conferences like the Colonial, Missouri Valley and Mountain West.


"Being a mid-major supporter, I have always hoped for these teams to receive fairer at large consideration," Zuchowski added. "When an excellent Utah State team failed to get a bid in 2004, I was extremely frustrated with the fact that a 24-3 team would be passed over for major conference team who lost 8-12 games."


Utah State was the source of much mock committee consternation.


Chaotic and sometimes irate conversation often has occurred via instant messenger conferencing, the method in which the mock members have met over the last six seasons.


The authentic, committee, has likely experienced similar debate in their annual four-day extravaganza locked away in an Indianapolis hotel room.


While the actual process begins Tuesday for the NCAA selection committee, per custom tradition, the mock committee will begin the process Sunday to get a head start. This early beginning takes into account the schedules during selection week of the mock committee, also realizing we're unable to meet in-person and devote the entire week to discussion.


When the mock committee begins replicating the process Sunday evening, there will be one primary objective: adding teams that are no-brainer picks for the 2007 tournament field.


This will be accomplished with Ballots No. 1 and No. 2.


The first ballot, due for the mock committee early Sunday evening, will be entered into a website that handles online surveys, programmed for the needs of the committee. It will require each member to list no more than 34 teams that deserve an at-large selection based on their successful play to date.


Essentially, this means any team that has not yet been given an automatic bid can be voted on. Teams will be placed in the field as an at-large bid should they receive "all but two of the eligible votes." That takes into consideration that any team being represented by a director of athletics or conference commissioner cannot receive a vote from that individual.


Most often, at least in the past experience of the mock committee, about 26 to 28 teams will receive the necessary votes after step one. That leaves 6-8 spots remaining. However, it should be noted that as teams begin winning their conferences, more spots open up.


The second ballot is far more simplistic. Ballot No. 2 consists of any other team the member feels should be considered for an at-large bid based on their successful play to date. Any team receiving at least two votes on either Ballot No. 1 or No. 2 but didn't receive the required "all but two of the eligible votes" on the first ballot will be placed on a nomination board for further consideration.


By rule, any team that won their regular season conference championship will automatically be placed on the nomination board. Most often, many of these teams will be eliminated by a vote of "all but two" of the eligible votes. After all, Vermont would likely fit the criteria, but does anyone think they stand a chance to gain an at-large bid in absence of winning the America East Conference tournament?


Part two of "Bracket Building 101," will disclose the results of these first ballots. More than likely, the remaining spots on the at-large board will be filled until later in the week when conference tournaments wind down.


For the upcoming Sunday meeting, mock members will also be responsible for submitting "team reports," to the committee chair. These reports will be in addition to workbooks used from Excel format that contain team profiles, RPI information, schedules, etc. These reports will be broken down into each member being responsible for teams from three conferences as their primary obligations – RPI, key wins, bad losses, strength of schedule, etc. and also teams from another three conferences as their secondary obligations – listing last 10 games and key injuries or suspensions.


These reports are similar to the ones done by the real selection committee, although the committee has what's termed a "regional advisory committee," which consists of one head coach from each conference giving feedback on teams from his own conference.


Overall, the mock committee has done a fair job of giving a decent idea of what the authentic bracket might have later that day when it's released on CBS, but obviously it's not an exact science.


The important reminder is that some criteria are extremely subjective. Because of bracket rules, a mock bracket can often be very similar to the real thing if the rankings are similar – especially at the top.


"I think the toughest part of replicating the committee's work is trying to figure out what they feel is important in selecting and seeding teams," Clavio said. "I've been doing this for almost 10 years now, and the criteria seem to change every season. Sometimes the committee will give out clues in the interviews they do, but generally you're stuck with a ridiculous amount of raw data, and no ironclad way of knowing whether you're looking at that data in the same way that the committee is."


The replication of the process begins in full-force on Sunday. Until part two of the series is unveiled, here's a look at some of the other hot issues the committee will tackle:


No. 1 Priority


Who are the top seeds? That's a question everyone is asking.


For now, Clavio, Zuchowski and myself all agree that UCLA is a lock and Ohio State is probable barring losses to Michigan Saturday and an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament to Minnesota or Northwestern.


That leaves North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas and Florida as the likely four candidates remaining for those precious two No. 1-seeds.


"I may be alone in thinking this, but the Tar Heels, despite some troubling inconsistency, are still a bona fide No. 1-seed," Clavio said of North Carolina. "Victories over Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, FSU, Virginia, Arizona (on the road, by 28 points), Duke (also on the road), and Boston College (again on the road) place this team above the other remaining contenders.


"Despite two losses in the last week, Wisconsin still gets the nod for the fourth one-seed," he added. "Both of their losses were on the road, to tournament-bound teams. And Wisconsin's quality wins this year are a bit more impressive than the nearest competitor."


Although Zuchowski agrees with North Carolina and Wisconsin as the final two seeds he adds that, "the injury to Brian Butch could play a part in their seeding."


Still At-Large


The bantered-about bubble is a fun topic. There are several interesting bubble cases this season worth keeping an eye on.


First and foremost, everyone is wondering what will be done with Gonzaga.


Gonzaga has played a tough non-conference schedule that includes wins on a neutral court against North Carolina and Texas as well as a road victory against Stanford. However, those wins and losses to Duke, Nevada, Washington State, Butler and Virginia all were with suspended center Josh Heytvelt, who is accused of having possession of psychedelic mushrooms.


"It's tough to know what Gonzaga team we're dealing with without Heytvelt," said Zuchowski.


Gonzaga has gone 3-1 since losing Heytvelt to suspension, with the only loss coming at home to Memphis in overtime. The RPI of 68 and overall strength of schedule of 92 leave a lot to be desired. Of course, Gonzaga can seal a bid without leaving it up to the committee by winning the West Coast Conference tournament.


More interesting a case is Winthrop.


The Eagles currently sit in a similar position by way of RPI as Gonzaga at No. 67 but have a very poor strength of schedule of 248. That number is largely effected by the poor Big South, as Winthrop had a non-conference victory against Mississippi State and respectable losses against North Carolina, Wisconsin in overtime, Maryland and Texas A&M.


While Zuchowski and myself think Winthrop, 22-4 on the season, is a legitimate top-25 team Clavio says, "show me."


"Playing tough teams is all well and good," he said, "but you should have to beat at least a couple of them to warrant an at-large"


Winthrop will also clinch an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big South tournament, but should they lose to VMI or High Point in the championship game, they would become one of the most controversial topics.


Two conferences that will create some added controversy this season: the Missouri Valley, subject of plenty of scrutiny last year as well as the Colonial.


While Southern Illinois has a comfortable beat on an at-large or automatic bid into this year's field, Creighton and especially Missouri State appear to be in something more of an uncomfortable position.


Creighton sports a 28-SOS and is 5-3 against the RPI top 50 but Missouri State is in a tougher spot. The Bears do own a victory against Wisconsin and a 37-RPI and solid wins, but they're just 3-5 against the top 50 and the loss to Evansville will work against them.


Making a more compelling case will be Drexel and Old Dominion. The Dragons own road wins against Syracuse, Villanova, Creighton, Hofstra and Vermont. An overall 13-4 road-record is blemished only by questionable losses to William & Mary and Rider.


Old Dominion, on the other hand, has won 10 games in a row. The Monarchs have a better RPI than Drexel (36 to 44) and have won on the road against both Drexel and Georgetown. Should either ODU or Drexel win the Colonial tournament, conference-leader VCU could gain an at-large bid with a 59 RPI and no losses outside the RPI top 100.


Missing Slipper


It appears there are a handful of teams losing their grip on a possible Cinderella story for the 2007 NCAA Tournament.


Thought Clemson began the season 17-0, the Tigers have finished going just 3-7 over their last 10 games. That coupled with a tough loss against Wake Forest and Clemson as well as fellow ACC member Florida State are both looking like long shots.


Florida State has fallen to No. 48 in the RPI winning just four of their last 10 games. The Seminoles own victories against Florida, Maryland, Virginia Tech and at Duke but a 6-9 ACC record and 4-8 on the road work against them.


Other teams in trouble include (but not limited to): Purdue, Georgia, Michigan, Arkansas, DePaul, Oklahoma State and Iowa. West Virginia may also forfeit their invitation to the big dance should they lose Saturday to Cincinnati and not win a few games in the Big East tournament.


Technically Speaking


It's those darn techs. Three of the most confusing tournament profiles in the country belong to Virginia Tech, Texas Tech and Georgia Tech.


Virginia Tech has been all over the map. On one hand, the Hokies swept North Carolina, won against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and also beat Maryland, Boston College, Old Dominion and Virginia on their home floor. On the other hand, they've slipped up against Western Michigan and Marshall, got swept by North Carolina State and lost important road games against Boston College and Virginia Thursday evening.


Which Virginia Tech team is the real one? The one that lost four games to sub-100 teams in the RPI or the team that's 7-3 against the top 50 of the RPI?


Speaking of Jekkyl and Hyde, Knight's Texas Tech club has been more enigmatic than Virginia Tech.


The Red Raiders swept Texas A&M on top of home wins against Kansas and Oklahoma State but have dropped 11 games in a schedule that ranks as the No. 15 overall in strength. Texas Tech also has lost to No. 148 Baylor in Waco.


Georgia Tech is an equally tough case. The youngest of the three clubs, Georgia Tech lost to Miami (Fla.) and Wake Forest on the road, where they are just 1-8 this season, but also own wins against Purdue and Memphis on a neutral court and home victories against Duke, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia. The Yellow Jackets also beat Florida State in Tallahassee.


* Stay tuned Monday for the second installment of Bracket Building 101. Among the included features will be a rundown of the first step in the process from Sunday evening's meeting as well as the next items listed on the mock committee itinerary.


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