The NCAA Selection Committee: Opening the Vault and Looking Inside – February 2007

Every year the (now) “Tuesday Night Quarterbacking” that follows Division I’s “Selection Monday” becomes a passionate exercise in “what ifs” and “how comes.” Depending on a coach’s relationship to those fortunate 64 teams, discussions can be fraught with emotion or wrapped in an almost scientific detachment. Most years one can guarantee the focus of people’s dissatisfaction will either be on the teams selected or on the make up of the brackets.

But last year, in a sort of basketball “perfect storm,” the ire was aimed at both. What followed was a firestorm (and some mocking) in the press and barbed comments from coaches about who got in, who got left out, why so many tops seeds were put in one region, why a top seed should play on a lower seed’s de facto home court, and on and on.

“It got a lot of attention,” reflected Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson, in perhaps the understatement of the season.

But “attention” doesn’t necessarily translate into action. It seemed instead March was destined to remain the season of everyone’s discontent, after which all would go on vacation, eventually get caught up in the new season until suddenly voila! Final Four time would arrive and the complaining would begin all over.

Even Mechelle Voepel, arguably the foremost writer on women’s basketball, felt herself caught in the cycle. She recalls a conversation this past April with Joni Comstock, then Chair of the Division I Selection Committee, and saying, ‘You know, I keep writing this column about the bracket every year basically ripping it to shreds, and really, that’s not my personality as a person or a journalist. But I felt I had to, and there wasn’t any response.”

GLOBAL WARMING: IT’S NOT JUST IN ANTARCTICA
Granted, some of the ongoing frustration and confusion surrounding the Selection Committee’s choices has been a byproduct of the NCAA’s action — or lack thereof. “Until about three years ago,” admitted Sue Donohoe, Vice President for Division I Women’s Basketball, “we kept the principals and procedures and process by which we went about [the selection process] locked in this secret “Batcave” underneath the national office.” Then, said Dononhoe, they asked themselves, “‘Why have we kept this such a deep dark secret?’ And so we’ve been very willing to come forward and go speak.”

This December, for instance, following up on Voepel’s suggestion to Comstock, Donohoe, Michelle Perry, Director of Division I Women’s Basketball and Judy Southard, current Chair of the Division I Selection Committee, met with members of the print and online media to discuss the selection process’ policies and guidelines. Even Voepel, an admitted basketball junkie, found it beneficial, especially when talking about the brackets. “I felt like we confronted some hard issues,” said Voepel. “I didn’t necessarily get answers that made me feel, ‘Oh, that explains it!’ What I did was get answers that I said, ‘Okay, if that’s your explanation, I still don’t agree with it. But, that’s the explanation.'”

Donohoe and Southard also met with the WBCA’s Board of Directors last August to start a dialogue because, as Henrickson observed, “you’ve got the Coaches Association, you’ve got the Selection Committee and both groups feel like they’re knowledgeable, both groups feel like they have the best interest of the game at heart, but both – at times – are on polar opposites when the brackets get released. ”

“The question,” said Donohoe, “was ‘How can we be more engaged? What are ways we can communicate and intersect better?'” Out of their discussions emerged the WBCA subcommittee on Bracket Process & Protocol. Created to focus on the issues dealing with the selection, bracketing and seed of teams competing in the Division I Women’s Basketball Championships, the subcommittee’s goals were three-fold:

1. Create a communication model by which head coaches of an institution may voice their grievances to the WBCA national office as it relates to the selection, bracketing and seed of teams following Selection Monday. This model will be a proactive approach to communicating concerns with the NCAA Women’s Basketball Committee.

2. The WBCA subcommittee will be charged with analyzing the policies and procedures used by the Women’s Basketball Committee and help to educate the WBCA Division I membership on this practice as well as help the association to understand appropriate scenarios.

3. The WBCA subcommittee will serve as an ad-hoc committee to review standards of operation and administration when requested by the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee.

Both Voepel and Henrickson became members of the subcommittee, along with Gary Blair (Texas A&M), Joe Ciampi (Southeastern Conference), Mary Cowles (Western Kentucky), Charlene Curtis (Media Representative), Gail Goestenkors (Duke), Debbie Ryan (Virginia), Marsha Sharp (Retired, Texas Tech) and Tara VanDerveer (Stanford).

THE FACTS AND NOTHING BUT THE FACTS
Not surprisingly, some of the initial questions the committee presented to Donohoe revealed a lack of clarity on the part of the coaches over various aspects of the selection process, in particular, about what the selection committee knows and how they accessed that information.

“When I came here ten years ago,” recalled Donohoe, “everything was done on paper and it was an arduous process. It’s all done electronically now.” Each member has a laptop that has every bit of information on every conference, she explained. Committee members can look at the latest RPI, the previous night’s results and the upcoming schedules. “They know in this conference they’re playing x-number of conference games, it’s a double round robin,” continued Donohoe. “In this conference they’re playing x-number of games, and it’s not a round robin – they have what we call two-plays or one-plays. They know who they have to play twice, they know who they have to play once, and they know where they have to play those game.” Committee members have quick access to information on teams about what were home games, away games, or neutral court games. A team’s record in and out of conference, in the last ten games, against the 1-25 teams and the 26-50 teams is also easily accessed. Injuries are noted, so members know when a player went out, how a team fared without her and after she came back or, if the injury is near tournament time, when she’s projected to come back.

Added Donohoe, “if there’s anything they don’t have, that’s part of what our staff is there do to – go find it.”

FOCUS, WITH FEEDBACK
While every committee member has access to any team’s or conference’s stats, each member of the ten-person committee is assigned three or four primary conferences (not the conference that they represent). “Their responsibility is not to ensure that that conference gets x-number of teams in,” Donohoe underscored. “But when teams of that conference are being talked about, they are an expert on that conference.” They’re also expected to prepare a monthly monitoring report for each conference to which, now, the conferences themselves can add to and update on a daily basis.

A newly added wrinkle is that, in addition to their three or four primary conferences, members are also assigned as a secondary to three or four other conferences. “Those conferences,” said Donohoe, “are outside of their region. So you have Rick Ensor (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Commissioner) up there in the northeast. His primaries are probably going to be in the northeast, southeast — regional proximity conferences. His secondaries are going to be conference like the PAC-10, the Big 12, maybe the Southland, so he’s got a cross-view of the country.”

The Regional Advisory committee – east, mid-east, mid-west and west – also has an opportunity to offer input. Each conference has a coach representing them, and very region submits a January, February and March ranking which the Selection Committee studies. There is also a pre-ranking coaches conference call during which committee members and coaches can talk about the teams and players in a way that’s not about self-promoting but about helping the committee have a more nuanced understanding of the teams.

WHO ARE YOU? WHO? WHO?
All that being said, all the information in the world won’t make you qualified to make an accurate evaluation of a team’s strengths and weakness, understand the diverse – and unexpected — challenges that scheduling brings or the weigh a so called “power conference” team vs. a mid-major team.

“The make up of the committee is a hard thing to talk about without hurting people’s feelings,” acknowledged Voepel. “The make-up has to keep improving, because you’ve had people on the Committee who I don’t think they have enough back ground in women’s basketball to make really good evaluations. It has to be ‘who is the best group of people we can put together.’ And it doesn’t even matter how hard working and industrious you are. If you asked me to be on a field hockey committee, I’d be an idiot.”

Currently, committee members must be full-time staff members of a Division I institution (and are nominated by their conferences). But as the game has evolved, observed Texas A&M’s Blair, “administration has changed. It used to be, back in the day, that all coaches went in to the administration. Well now, by the time we’re finished coaching, we go out to the farm or we’re going to the golf course. You’ve got more and more administrators that are doing it as a career because they are more business oriented than us coaches are.”

Blair is more than willing to acknowledge that “non-basketball” people can be superb committee members, but explained, “The thing that the coaches really want to make sure is that the right people are on the committee for the right reasons. Not just because it’s going to help them with their political moves at the administrative level, but they’re on there because of the passion and the love they have for basketball.”

“If you want to be on the power committees, then you have to be able to be just like the coaches,” added Blair. “We want your experience, we want your advice. But we want the accountability that goes with the job too. Because that is the most important committee, period.” Southard, who has a long history in women’s basketball and would match her passion for the game with any coach’s, is quite clear on the responsibility of inherent in being a selection committee member. “It’s not difficult to serve on an NCAA committee,” she said, “and to just go to meetings three or four times a year and be able to use your experience and share your vision and help the Association. But, the role on this committee requires an inordinate amount of energy and time as it relates to actual preparation for – obviously and certainly — one of the biggest pieces of what our responsibilities are, and that’s the selection, seeding and bracketing part of our job.”

If Donohoe were writing up the job requirements, she’d expect conferences to nominate individuals with a very good background in the game and a willingness to commit five years to the position. Additionally, a committee member should have a vision and a strategic outlook for women’ s basketball. “As important is as that is,” continued Donohoe, “you need someone with administrative experience in athletic administration, understanding the logistics and nuts and bolts of how to manage and oversee a big time event.” Finally, “you’ve got to have someone who’s willing to give the time and effort to become as familiar as possible with teams and with what’s happening in the basketball community.” Just ponder, for a moment, how many games a committee member might be expect to watch in a season – live, tivo’d or on a DVD.

IF P THEN Q. IF NOT P, THEN NOT Q. RIGHT?
Even assuming you have the perfect committee members, they still have to make tough, informed and, most likely soon to be second-guessed choices. For instance, in the case of injuries to players, Donohoe noted the committee is dependant on how forthcoming an institution is about the situation. “If you have a late season injury and they’re projected to come back, it’s a hard decision. They’ve got to say, ‘Are they going to come back at 50%, 70% or 100%.’ It may not impact, ‘Does a team get in or not?’ but it may impact how they’re seeded.”

Even then, despite their best estimations, the student-athlete can confound the committee. Donohoe pointed to Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen, injured near the end of the 2003-04 season, as an example. “We projected her to come back at about 60-70%. She scored 31 points in a first-round game.” You could almost hear the shoe drop in Donohoe’s voice. “And we had Minnesota seeded at a seven.” Of course, the Gophers became “bracket busters,” and eventually advanced to the Final Four.

The increase in the number of quality teams has made the selection of the 33 at-large teams even more challenging. “There is a place in the process where everybody starts to look alike,” explained Southard. “When we get down to the where we’re selecting the last three or four teams and may have as many as 20 teams left on the board. They come from a vast array of conferences, from different levels of competition. Consequently, at that point we are really drilling down and analyzing team [information] sheets.”

“We’ve got similar records, teams that haven’t played each other, may not have common opponents, and you’re looking for that one distinguishing factor on their rŽsumŽ. It’s like having three great candidates for a job and they all have great interviews. At some point it boils down to what distinguishing factor does this person – or in this case, team – have that warrants them being ahead of the others.”

“Sometimes it comes to looking across the table and saying, okay, if team A plays team B five times, who’s going to win. Or it comes down to, “Okay, you’ve seen so-and-so play four times and you’ve also seen this team play five times. If they play each other, which one is a better team?” And then, of course, once all those mitigating factors are considered and selections are made, often the bracket process is not led by guts, but guidelines out of the committee’s control.

“There’s going to be criticism,” reflected Southard. “We understand that going in, all of us who choose to serve on the committee. The unfortunate part of it is that an enormous amount of the criticism, if you could just grab the person one-on-one…. So much of the criticism is unfounded because there’s not a proper understanding of the process. And that’s where we really hit a huge guardrail last year. Because there were a lot of people that simply didn’t understand the process, and we were getting criticized for adhering to and staying with our principals and procedures.”

Henrickson encountered the committee’s conundrum herself while trying to do her own bracketology. She found applying rules such as not being able to play someone in your conference prior to the second round, slowly started moving her bracket away from what she saw as commonsense conclusion. “You say, ‘This is logical, but this information on this piece of paper right here says we can’t do that,’ said Henrickson. “That’s what [the coaches are] saying. At the nth hour, can you ask yourself, ‘Should these two play here? Does that make sense?”

While it’s doubtful the “in case of a logic failure pull here” by-law will pass in a system trying to avoid self-interested maneuverings, Southard surely sympathizes with the urge to adjust the procedures, but within limits. “You may not agree with the process but the time to not agree with it is not when we’re in the middle of having to apply it. It’s after the fact or before the next round rolls around. Give us constructive ideas and let us at least evaluate them,” she urged. “Our committee is wide open to suggestions. We’re here to serve the membership.”

And it is to that invitation that the WBCA’s subcommittee will respond. “Obviously our goal is to move forward and the possibility of making the process more reasonable, making it better,” said Henrickson. “What we have is good. But can it be better? That’s what we are saying.”

“If we want, as a Coaches Association, to engage in a conversation or want to engage in the growth of the game, our hope is that we’ve at least gotten to the table and been able to ask questions professionally. Not on a microphone. Not to a reporter. But that we’ve been able to go ourselves, have a voice, be able to express our concerns, ask questions and have a more professional dialogue.”

WHAT IF IT’S NOT ABOUT THE COMMITTEE?
And this is where we hit our own guardrail. Because at the heart of the matter, this isn’t really about the make up of the selection committee. Or the committee’s current procedures. Or what kind of information they’re getting.

If it were, it would be enough to go to NCAAsports.com and read up on the details, take a moment to understand which of the RPIs is used, figure out how to lure more coaches like Ceal Berry on Marsha Sharp into administrative posts, or simply put in a call to Sue Donohoe and have someone from her office come speak to your boosters or players.

When discussions about the brackets and seedings swirl around the questions of neutral courts, championship atmosphere, television image and building the game, it’s useful to pause and think, as Sue Donohoe suggested, from the 30,000-foot high perspective. Ask ourselves, “What do we all want for women’s basketball?” Because our answer is what will, in turn, shape our policies and procedures.

Probably all would agree we’d like to see every game sold out and every game on television. But underneath that response, suggested Voepel, lies a deeper question: “Who is this about?”

“It’s about the kids,” is her unequivocal answer. “It’s about the players. It’s their tournament. That is their championship, and you have to think about what is best for them.” If that’s your belief, then it’s the athlete’s wishes that should be the bracket’s guide. If they would rather play in a “championship atmosphere” as opposed to a truly neutral — and perhaps all but empty – site, then so be it. Do a thorough series of surveys and focus groups and go with the results, revenues and television be damned.

Of course, if you’re a proponent of generating revenue, different decisions are going to be. Same goes for those who want to reward their fan base, cultivate a growing fan base, protect the #1 seeds or make the game look good for television. Or maybe, if you want to eliminate the committee all together, you might advocate for the “play your way” in philosophy: top four in the “power” conference championships get in, top two from everyone else.

Granted, none of these goals is “more right” than another. Nor are they mutually exclusive. But we could use some clear, honest, upfront transparency. Currently we seem to be trying to balance all these impulses and in trying to please everyone, leave most feeling somewhat disgruntled. Which might make sense, if you were to count our game’s age by Voepel’s measure.

OH, THOSE TERRIBLE TEENAGE YEARS
“We’re just starting adolescence,” explained Voepel, “and the issues that you have when you’re an infant are different than when you are a toddler, than when you are in grade school, than when you’re an adolescent. And what we’re running in to now – and this has been the last couple of years – and we’re really feeling it now – is ‘What are we? What is Division I basketball?'”

“It still has its one foot in the old days of this sort of egalitarian ‘Everybody should get a chance.’ And it’s sport and it’s about development and there’s a lot of good in that. But it’s also not this little kid’s league where everybody gets a chance to play. If this is a real, competitive, high level sport” she challenged, “then that issue of male practice players never comes up.”

Voepel, amongst others, is not so interested in rushing the process and trying to “look like the men’s side” before we’re ready. Enjoy those awkward, somewhat unattractive years. Besides, who says we need to be just like them?

“There has got to be a better discussion,” admitted Voepel, “and I think part of that is going to have to be a bigger number of coaches. There are some very bright, ‘big picture’ people in coaching and they are, for the most part, pretty limited in participating in bigger discussions because they’re so focused on their programs.” But she sees the discussions the WBCA’s subcommittee as a healthy start, especially if they can extend to include more voices – the voices of those who may feel unheard.

“That’s what why you become a member of the WBCA,” pointed out Ciampi, who now serves as an advisor to the SEC. “That’s where it has to start – a grassroots approach of being involve with the type of organization that can voice your opinion.” Of course, hundreds of voices expressing their opinion can devolve into a sort of “basketball Babel” — is not necessarily a bad thing. Coaches have clear loyalties and agendas. We’d be foolish to deny that reality. The most natural instinct is to do what’s in their best interest, the interest of their program and their conference. But by making the choice participate, by sharing our differing visions, by moving beyond self-interest, that is when we truly engage in making decisions that are in the greater interest of the game.

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