The annual juggling act by the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee ends today with the announcement of the 64 qualifiers for the college game's premier tournament.
In some cases, the announcement may be an either-or situation. Eight of the 64 bids will be determined in conference tournament finals today.
The NCAA also will announce pairings for its tournament, which begins Thursday and ends 18 days later in New Orleans with the 39th national championship game March 30.
Little is ever sure when the nine-member committee meets in a Kansas City hotel with computer printouts, coaches' evaluations and the members' own judgment to decide which of the nation's 290 Division I members will be invited to share approximately $25 million in prize money.
Four of those teams will be given more than $1 million each when they reach the Final Four.
The toughest duties for the committee, according to chairman Dick Schultz, the athletic director at the University of Virginia, are the selection of the last four or five teams, and trying to place the teams in regionals while keeping them fairly close to home and ensure competitive balance between the regions.
"I think you could take any number of groups of nine people, like our basketball committee, that are knowledgeable about basketball, lock them up in a room for three days, like we are, and you'd probably come up with the the first 55 to 57 teams on everybody's sheet," Schultz said. "From 57 to 64 you would start to see a lot of variety.
"The first 55 or 56 spots that go in there, when you consider the overall selection process, are relatively easy. The vast majority of our time is spent putting the last nine or 10 teams in the tournament. When you come down to the last four or five, you're probably looking at 15 teams with very little differences."
Of the 64 bids, 29 automatically go to teams that win previously designated conference titles. The remaining 35 at-large teams are selected by the committee.
A prime tool in the selection process is cable television, with the hundreds of basketball games available to the committee members.
"It starts with the basketball committee seeing as many basketball games in person or via television as they can throughout the course of the year," said Schultz. "I wouldn't even estimate the number of games that the committee members watch. That is a very important part of the process, seeing these teams first-hand for themselves so they have a good feel for it."
Also, coaches from each geographic region are asked to rank teams in their area. Schultz said those lists become "vital information to us."
The committee this year will revert to the rule of preventing conference teams from meeting before the regional championship games. Another type of pairing members are trying to prevent is what has been termed "the Purdue situation," so-called because in two of the last three seasons the Boilermakers have been forced to play tournament games on their opponents' home floors. The committee has been checking with each conference and independents to make sure pairings of that type are spread around.
There probably will, however, be some teams playing very close to home. There are first-round sites in Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago; Charlotte, N.C.; Indianapolis, Ind., and Syracuse, N.Y.--all either home to probable tournament entrants or not far from basketball-rich campuses.
"We always try to keep the top-seeded teams as close to the natural areas as possible," the committee chairman said. "If we do move them, we try not to move them more than just one region. But if you've got a conference that's going to have, let's say, six teams that are going to be in there, then probably the fifth- and sixth-rated teams are going to be shifted around. You've got to have them in a variety of spots to avoid that first-round matchup in the regional."
Coaches tell the committee they don't mind having to play on a team's home court in the first or second rounds, but do want the regionals and Final Four played on neutral courts. A host team, unless it is considered a very low seeded team, will probably get to play at home. One reason for that, Schultz said, is because some schools won't host part of the tournament unless they can be all-but assured of having their team play at least one game at home.
The committee also must pair the teams up. Schultz said strength of schedule is a key here. A team that is 17-10 but has played a very tough schedule is likely to get a better draw than a 22-7 team that has had a relatively easy schedule.
"When I came on the committee four years ago, I didn't know exactly what to expect," Schultz said. "I didn't know if this was a big political process or exactly how it worked. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
"I have never worked with a group of people, and there have been a number f changes in the committee since I've come on, that are more conscientious and more fair-minded in trying to determine who should go into this tournament.
"All-in-all I think it's about as fair a process as can be."