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Panel focuses on selection

INDIANAPOLIS — In any typical March, college basketball fans would be arguing about whether their favorite team should be in or out of the NCAA tournament.

Nothing has been typical this March.

After two weeks of suspensions, firings, forced resignations and player boycotts, the basketball world wants to set aside its troubles and put the focus back on brackets and bubble teams.

For those on the 10-member Tournament Selection Committee who are making the decisions this weekend, the games — and the debates — can't begin soon enough.

"Whether it's a team that's never been in it or one that hasn't been in it for a long time, you don't want to see anything taking away from these great stories," said Jim Livengood, chairman of the NCAA selection committee and athletic director at Arizona.

The biggest newsmakers haven't been the surprise winners such as IUPUI or Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which earned their first tournament bids in school history Tuesday night.

The headlines haven't included Gonzaga or Butler, which were upset in conference title games. Most of the talk has centered on teams whose seasons already have ended because of off-the-court misconduct, giving a whole new meaning to "March Madness."

"I hope it hasn't, I believe it hasn't," Livengood said.

Georgia and Fresno State withdrew from the tournament because of academic violations, and St. Bonaventure forfeited six games and was barred from its conference tournament after using an ineligible player.

Georgia also fired assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. and suspended head coach Jim Harrick. St. Bonaventure president Robert Wickenheiser resigned, and coach Jan van Breda Kolff was placed on administrative leave after the players decided to forfeit their final two games.

Villanova suspended 12 players for allegedly making unauthorized phone calls, forcing it to play in the Big East tournament with only five scholarship players.

Now two Georgia players are hoping a lawsuit will keep the No. 21 Bulldogs eligible for postseason play. A judge is scheduled to hear the case Monday, the day after Livengood announces this year's pairings.

"I think it's a cause of concern," former committee chairman Terry Holland said of the tumultuous two weeks. "We're all concerned with where it will lead."

For Livengood and his committee, which must choose the 34-at large teams this weekend, the scandals have turned their lives upside down.

The usual controversies about seedings, how many mid-major teams get at-large bids, and the "pod" system, introduced last year to reward top teams by keeping them closer to home, have been replaced by questions from legal matters to what constitutes a victory.

"It seems like every hour, every half day, something new is happening," Livengood said. "It's incredible."

Some contend the past two weeks epitomize everything that's wrong with college athletics — schools are more interested in winning at any cost than being honest and graduating athletes.

Others, such as NCAA president Myles Brand, disagree.

Brand, who took over the job in January after leaving Indiana University, said the self-imposed punishments are part of a trend in which school presidents are regaining control of athletic programs while ensuring the rules are followed. Brand is the first university president to hold the job.

On the court, some of the highest-ranked teams early in the season, such as Indiana (18-11) and Alabama (17-10), are struggling now just to get a bid.

Alabama would become the first team since North Carolina State in 1975 to earn a No. 1 ranking during the season, only to be spurned from the postseason. The Hoosiers were ranked as high as No. 6 in December.

Some outsiders want the NCAA committee to consider not only the Ratings Percentage Index or strength of schedule but also reconsider losses by bubble teams to those schools that violated the rules.

Livengood is hoping that by Sunday, things will get back to normal.

He wants the focus on alphabet-schools, such as IUPUI, that are getting their 15 minutes of fame. He wants players to remember they're battling for a national championship. He wants fans to embrace the pairings with all the pleasure and rancor of their annual arguments.

And he can't wait for Tuesday, when the tournament's opening game could finally turn the attention back to what's happening on the court.

"This time of year, you really don't want anything detracting from the tournament," Livengood said. "You want the players from the 65 teams to have a great experience. That's what we want."