By Sara Naggar
BIG EAST Director of Communications
Part of my job as Director of Communications for women’s basketball is to help the NCAA selection committee be aware of all of our teams. So when I received an invitation to the “mock” selection in Indianapolis, it only took three seconds to respond with a “YES!”
In my role at the BIG EAST, I have discussions throughout the season with our primary and secondary representatives for the Division I selection committee. I create documents that go over each eligible team’s body of work throughout the season. I update a website through the NCAA that touches on good wins (wins over good programs), good losses (losses to good teams), injury reports and any other additional extraneous team information that the committee might not otherwise know. In addition, I have phone calls with the BIG EAST representative and send her bullets that cover each team’s RPI, recent record, record against top-ranked RPI schools and top-ranked schools in the polls, big games, reasons for losses, etc. I also send these sheets to our Regional representative.
Sitting in on the mock selection was an incredible experience. It was eye-opening, informative and gave me a much better foundation work off of when trying to present our teams in the future. This exercise was a condensed version of what the actual committee does. They have four days to pore over everything, we had two days. So we did an exercise for as long as it took for us to understand how the process works, ask lots of questions, figure out what the thought process is, get into some debates and understand the main points of each task.
Heading into the selection, each person was assigned to represent a committee member. Those in attendance were going to be both media representatives and conference communications directors. I was paired up with Niki DeSantis from the Colonial Athletic Association. She and I were given Sybil Blalock, the Senior Associate Director of Athletics for Academic Affairs/SWA at Mercer, who serves on the committee as the representative who monitors the Big South, Colonial Athletic Association, Ivy League and Independents. She is also the secondary contact for the BIG EAST, Big West and Mid-American conferences.
We were pointed to sites where we could find the research that we would need to prepare for our roles as committee members. Being in the midst of the BIG EAST basketball season, I had a lot of research to do to find out about the other schools that I was given. I printed information off of conference websites, schools sites, both the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls, and what the NCAA refers to as the ‘nitty gritty’. This last document was a huge help as it showed each team’s RPI, its record against top 25 teams, top 50 teams, the top 100 and then 101+. It also showed road records, conference records and RPI and gave me a really good basis to start.
Getting to Indianapolis, I first got to meet a great group of people who do what I do around the country, which was a great experience right from the start. We were brought into a room that was set up in a long rectangle, with screens on other side of the group. The committee members present, as well as NCAA staff, sat along the wall to help us out and offer guidance. I sat between DeSantis and Dan Mihalik, from the Big 10, and across from Melissa Kristofak from the Atlantic-10. All of us felt very loyal to our teams from our own conference, but eventually we were able to get into our roles and realize that we had to be present as experts for the teams we were charged with, and not the ones we spend most of our time writing about!
One of the first realizations I had came from Michelle Perry from the NCAA. She explained that we were not here to “sell” our teams. The purpose of representatives is not fight for, sell or push in the teams that they represent. That job is the team’s alone. The team’s job is schedule well, play well and build a body of work that deserves to be in the tournament. Our job as representatives in this exercise was only to serve as an expert. Rather than have someone who is emotional and biased talk about a league, they charge each member with several conferences to follow. They each reach out to the conference on a regular basis, watch games, research the notes and are able to speak as an “expert” about their conferences.
Which leads me to my second realization…. BEING A COMMITTEE MEMBER IS HARD! There is so much information, so many teams and so many games to cover. Each committee member has an account and must watch a certain number of games. They log on to a program through the NCAA and have to report on each game watched. They collect DVDs, attend games in person, have DirectTV women’s basketball packages, website streaming accounts… they live, breathe and sleep women’s basketball. You can’t just decide a team doesn’t go into the tournament because you don’t know about them. And after meeting the committee, I know that they are all too far conscientious to not do their all to ensure that we have a fair and balanced process.
Our first task was to decide which teams we felt should get in. There is brilliant software that helps these votes to take place. If a committee member is affiliated with a school or conference, they are not allowed to vote on that particular turn. When looking at schools, it is relatively easy to pick out the top teams. Similarly, it is fairly easy to see which teams don’t have the resume. The problem is the other 300 teams! There are so many teams that are similar in resume and you have to find factors to differentiate between them to decide which team gets in and which team’s season is over.
RPI is not as big a factor as you would think. We rarely spoke of it. How many teams from one conference got in was a complete non-factor. You don’t even really talk about teams in reference to conference; each team is an individual program. Teams serving as hosting sites have nothing to do with whether or not they gain consideration.
As for factors that are discussed- well there are plenty of them. As Greg Christopher put it, “everyone is using the same 10-15 factors, everyone just values them differently.” The things that are looked at are things like wins over top-50 teams, the record in the last 12 games, bad losses, impressive wins and strength of schedule. Team sheets are something that the NCAA provides that are a huge help. It shows the team’s record against teams, broken down by category of the team played. It is easy to pick out losses and to see if the team tried to play tough competition.
Injuries are talked about. My question heading into the selection was, “why do injuries matter.” If you think about it, every team has injuries. Everyone has to deal with those problems, so why would that affect whether or not they get into the tournament? But injuries are dealt with in a different matter. People don’t say, “Well, DePaul lost Keisha Hampton, so the Blue Demons should get in because they might have more wins with her playing.” What they do say is, “Well Rutgers lost their last five games, but leading scorer Khadijah Rushdan was out for three games in that span.”
After we go through selecting the teams we want, we start the seeding process. We pick our No. 1’s and No. 2’s and have discussions in the room debating the validity of each team’s argument. When we left, we somehow magically returned the next morning to have the complete 64-team field completed and seeded.
That led us to our next task, placing people into the bracket. Rather than the typical bracket that you look at for the NCAA Tournament, we used a much more excel-spreadsheet looking model. (I pictured the committee standing with a life-size bracket, sticking teams into spots and moving them around.) Instead, it is four columns that stand side-by-side and the seeds get higher as the sheet moves down. The seeds are done in an s-curve format, with the rankings snaking from left to right.
On the excel sheet, there are highlighted yellow boxes to show the path of winning teams in order to ensure that teams from the same conference are not set to play each other in the first two rounds. From this part, watching the software system is amazing. There is one window that shows all of your teams and all of their seeds. There is another window that shows the hosting sites, and when that is added, it places the site name next to any team that would play there.
I heard the process described several times as a puzzle and that is exactly what it is. But not all of the pieces are made to fit. So a seed can be moved up a line or down a line (which translates to seeding), as long as all rules and procedures are followed.
Women’s basketball is its own entity. It is not, and should not, be treated the same as men’s basketball, because it is a different product. The difficulty that the committee is faced with is not only placing the correct teams, but also growing the game. Providing the student-athletes that have earned the right to compete in the postseason with a real experience that reflects the weight of the games in which they are playing.
The answer to being both fiscally responsible and to making sure that there are fans in the stands is simple- place teams based on geography. The NCAA defines a drive as 350 miles. So the goal is to place teams in close proximity to their home so that fans can travel to see them play, thereby giving the games the atmosphere. It also does not put a strain financially on the institutions or the NCAA.
Things that you don’t think about unless you sit in that room: BYU can’t play on Sundays, so that affects their region. They have to be in a Saturday/Monday region so that they are not asked to pick between advancing and their beliefs.
When slotting the first four seeds in each region, the seeds are added to a total that is calculated on the bottom of the sheet. This helps to make sure each region is balanced on the top. The general rule of thumb is that there should be no more than five points difference between the four columns.
When it comes to hosting- host institutions have to be at home in the first two rounds. (As I said before, it does not help them get in to the tournament, only tells them where they will play. If a team wants to play at home- BID!) Once it gets to the regionals, no team can be on its home court because it is supposed to be a neutral site.
I think that the truth is, all jobs may seem easy from the outside looking in. It is easy to criticize and second-guess when you aren’t the one in the room. But the NCAA staff took the right approach- they opened their doors and let people in to make the process transparent. After watching it first-hand, I understand why seeds may move, what the problems are and I appreciate the puzzle that they put together every year. It is certainly not easy and the criteria, procedures and complexity are often overlooked, especially when so many people are so emotionally invested. As anyone else, they continue to improve over time and I am so glad that I was able to get a better understanding of the process. I will watch this year’s selection show with an entirely different outlook.