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SELECTION COMMITTEE LIKELY FACING ITS TOUGHEST TASK YET

After promising his wife he wouldn't do it, Roy Kramer, the new chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, just can't help himself.

"I told her I would try to avoid what we always say, that this is the most difficult year we ever had to seed the 64-team bracket," said Kramer, who was appointed to the job last month. "But because of the parity that's developed, I've been looking in the dictionary for another word for difficult. How about tough?"The committee is going to have some of the toughest challenges it's ever had."

The committee's tough challenges could translate into a rash of tournament upsets if the trend of the entire season holds sway. In a year when nationally ranked teams combined for more than 20 losses for three straight weeks, most experts agree that the product Kramer's nine-man committee finally unveils Sunday night could turn out to be the wildest, most wide-open NCAA tournament ever.

Could this be the year a No. 16 seed finally breaks through in the first round to oust a No. 1?

"You have to say anything's possible. In my 20 years of being involved with the tournament, I can't remember a time when I thought this many teams had a legitimate chance to win the whole thing," said Tom Jernstedt, the NCAA's associate executive director in charge of the tourney. "The best example of what I'm talking about is what happened that night in the Big Eight."

In a spasm of unpredictability one night in February, the Big Eight's four ranked teams all lost to its four unranked teams, a glut of upsets that seemed to underscore what was going on all over the country.

Eleven of the top 12 teams got beat one week. Voters in the Associated Press poll even began adjusting their grading system, frequently taking teams that would lose two games in a week and dropping them only one or two spots.

"This tournament's going to be wide open," said Kramer, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference who replaced the late Tom Frericks as chairman.

"There are those who might differ, who will look at teams like Duke and Kansas and say the power structure really hasn't changed. But from an overall standpoint, we have the potential for the most exciting, most wide-open tournament we've seen."

Some are saying that one major upset already eliminated one top team. A judge in Las Vegas, acknowledging his decision would rile local fans, ruled against UNLV players who were suing for the right to become eligible for the tournament. Judge Donald Mosley saved the NCAA a major headache by saying there was no legal basis to overturn an agreement between the school and the NCAA that keeps the Runnin' Rebels out.

But 63 others and defending champion Duke will be in when the field is announced about 4:30 p.m. MST Sunday.

As in past years, 30 spots go to automatic qualifiers as conference regular-season or tournament champions. This will include almost all the weakest and many of the tournament's strongest teams.

The committee's main task will then be deciding upon the 34 at-large entries and seeding the four regionals 1 through 16. Armed with regional reports and reams of computer data, the committee works without constraints, free to take as many teams as it wants from any conference and ship them to any regional in the country.

"Our job is to get the best 34 teams available," Kramer said. "Those last few are always the hardest."

The Big East, Big Eight, ACC and Big Ten all hope to get as many as six teams each. The record for a conference is the Big East's seven several years ago.

In this year of parity, look for several at-large teams with losing records in their conference to show up on the board Sunday.

"We look at many other factors, such as overall strength of schedule, how many wins against top teams a school has, whether a team has played well on the road, and how well a team has played in its last 10-12 games," Kramer said.

As conference tournaments and regular-season clashes wind down, best bets for No. 1 seeds seem to be No. 1 Duke in the East, No. 3 Kansas in the Midwest, No. 5 Ohio State or No. 4 Indiana in the Southeast and No. 2 Arizona and No. 8 UCLA in the West.

Notre Dame, on the basis of victories over such powers as UCLA and Southern Cal, hoped for a bid despite a 14-14 record. But the Irish also have losses to such non-powers as Detroit-Mercy.

"I wouldn't say a .500 team cannot get in," Kramer said. "If it has significant wins and its (rating) index is strong enough. But tradition would say it's somewhat difficult."

Kramer and Ken Free of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference are the only commissioners on the committee. The others, all athletic directors, are Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse; Bob Frederick, Kansas; C.M. Newton, Kentucky; Tom Butters, Duke; Gary Cunningham, California-Fresno; Rudy Davalos, Houston, and Charles Harris, Arizona State.