For the members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the 15th floor of The Westin hotel in Indianapolis will become their world from Wednesday through Sunday night as the deliberate the field of 68.
The nine men and one woman along with assorted helpers and facilitators will be ensconced in a luxury bunker, they won’t come out for good until they’ve decided the 68 NCAA men’s tournament teams, seeded them and placed them in the brackets.
“There’s nobody up there but us. And the security guard at the elevator,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director and the chairman of the 10-person NCAA Division I selection committee. “We’re sequestered and everybody’s focused on the work. Wednesday morning, we’ll have a little time to ourselves to study. Then we get started at noon and start talking about teams. Our initial ballots are due that afternoon. We’ll spend the next few days doing the selection and eventually moving on to seeding and the brackets on Sunday.”
And undoubtedly making some coaches, players and fans’ dreams come true – while making others extremely angry.
Maybe no one will be happier when the meetings are over than Sheila Smith, Gene’s wife.
“She can’t wait,” her husband said with a laugh.
Smith is in his fifth and final year of his cycle on the committee, and his first as chair. He has devoted thousands of hours to watching games – the NCAA provides satellite dishes and premium viewing packages for all the committee members – not to mention this long, stressful week of final meetings and debate. Sheila, a former basketball player and coach, often watches games with her husband.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get old.
Still, it’s not all torture for every family member.
“My kids think it’s one of the coolest things of all time,” said Mike Bobinski, the AD at Xavier and in his third year as a member of the committee. “It’s pretty neat. I would second that.”
There are other perks to a coffee-fueled five days in Indiana. The committee is assigned a person who delivers all their food – almost anything they want.
“That’s when you hope you don’t gain 10 pounds,” Smith said.
So big has become the NCAA’s Selection Sunday that it’s the modern-day equivalent of electing a pope – the only thing lacking is a puff of smoke from the chimney atop the downtown hotel – when the brackets are finally announced on national television.
By then, Smith, Bobinski and the other members of the committee – the ADs at Utah State, Connecticut, Texas-San Antonio, Cal-Riverside, Southern Methodist and Wake Forest and the commissioners of the Big 12 and Big Sky conferences – have parsed the teams, their schedules and a season of some 5,000 games.
A common misconception is that favoritism is shown to the schools who have representatives on the committee. That is hotly denied by every member.
“If somebody gets ready to say something about Ohio State, I’m kicked out,” Smith joked. “I’m kicked out to another room and I just pray they come and get me when it’s all said and done.”
The Buckeyes are currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, so getting into the field isn’t a question. Neither is a No. 1 seed. Like the ADs at the other schools, Smith must recuse himself from any deliberation about his team.
Xavier just won the regular-season title in the Atlantic 10 and is a lock to make the tournament. But Bobinski won’t be around for any of the talk about the Musketeers.
“We all understand the way the process works. So when someone says, ‘Hey, let’s put Xavier up on the board, I want to talk about them’ – from either a selection or seeding standpoint – I get up and go,” Bobinski said. “And they don’t speak about it until I’m gone.”
There are discussions about teams, games, travel, injuries – almost everything is put on the conference-room table. The group votes, re-votes, then votes several more times. Every fine point is analyzed.
“We don’t just sit there and look at a bunch of numbers and then say, ‘OK, by the numbers, this is the best team in America,'” Bobinski said. “There is obviously more to it than that. We all watch a lot of games, we all have our own way of analyzing teams, looking at teams, and bringing some qualitative steps to the conversation. If it was just a numbers exercise, they wouldn’t need a committee. You’d just spit it out with a computer.”
Of course, there are always surprises. Three years ago, a horrific tornado ripped through Atlanta, slamming into the Georgia Dome during the Southeastern Conference tournament. Overlooked Georgia, just 13-16 coming in, reeled off four wins in three days to win the title and the automatic NCAA berth that comes with most conference tournament titles.
The committee has contingency plans to cover almost any occurrence, including teams grabbing an automatic spot on the bracket with a losing record.
By late Sunday, all the conference tournaments will be over. All that remains is the much anticipated announcement of the brackets. Then the second-guessing begins.
For the 10 people who cast the deciding votes on the teams, a weight has been lifted.
“We understand when we get (to the hotel) that millions of eyeballs and opinions will be offered up about what we’re ultimately going to produce here on Sunday,” Bobinski said. “There’s no question that we get that and it kind of hangs over the room all week long.”
He added, “I would have to tell you when we’re done, it’s good to be done.”
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