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March Madness Selection Committee

The Power To Make Choices Suits Committee Ties


Although there’s always a choice or two by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee that leaves coaches, reporters and fans shaking their heads, this Selection Sunday seemed to unleash more controversy than most. The committee is in charge of selecting the 34 at large teams that will play in March Madness, while 31 other clubs have been chosen via natural selection—conference tournaments. The committee also seeds and matches up teams.

It is an ongoing, season-long process for committee members that includes trips to various basketball games, lots and lots of reading material, viewing of games via satellite, and a four-day meeting to actually chose who will get a ticket to the Big Dance and how teams will be bracketed. Although many people believe the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index is a major factor in this process, that’s actually not true. In the course of choosing teams, the committee considers various aspects of a club’s season. There is no hard and fast formula for picking teams.

Whether one likes it or not, there’s a human factor that comes into play in the selection process, which means individuals on the committee can greatly influence who gets in and who is left out. The group is composed of ten men from college sports programs across the country. Virginia’s Athletic Director, Craig Littlepage, is the chair of the selection Committee and is probably the best known of the group, since he had to handle the media and public criticism once the teams were announced.

Conference commissioners on the panel include Karl Benson, Western Athletic Conference; Michael Slive, Southeastern Conference; Robert Vowels, South West Athletic Conference; and Jonathan Le Crone, Horizon League. Athletic Directors on the committee include Thomas O’Conner, George Mason; Christopher Hill, Utah; Daniel Guerrero, UCLA; Laing Kennedy, Kent State; and Gary Walters, Princeton.

Here’s an example of a choice that the committee made, which some critics are viewing as being nepotistic and incestuous. George Mason was selected over Hofstra. Both teams are in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). In the CAA Tournament, Hofstra beat George Mason in the semi-finals and then lost to North Carolina-Wilmington in the final game. North Carolina-Wilmington became the CAA Tournament seed in March Madness and George Mason, who had not beaten Hofstra all year, was also selected for the NCAA Tournament.

During the regular season both Hofstra and George Mason were 1-1 against CAA top-finisher North Carolina-Wilmington. George Mason accumulated a conference record of 15-3 and 23-7 overall, while Hofstra was one game worse in conference contests at 14-4 and one game better overall at 24-6. George Mason had a higher RPI than Hofstra’s (26 to 30), however in one week George Mason’s RPI had dropped by 2 points, while Hofstra’s had risen by 8.

What makes the choice of George Mason an especially hard sell is that Thomas O’Conner, the school’s Athletic Director, is on the selection committee. Can someone who has a school in the mix or is directly related to the conference in question participate in the discussion of that school? The answer is “yes,” if a committee member asks them a question. Anyone who has ever been part of any type of selection committee understands the dynamics of such a group, and it would be naive to believe that with two schools as close as these were that O’Conner did not exercise some influence in the choice of his school over Hofstra.

Other sticking points related to the selection process include UCLA as a second seed, the selection of Utah State and Air Force, and the snubbing of Cincinnati, Michigan, and Missouri State (read more about the committee screwing the MVC conference as a whole here). These are all directly related to committee members who had a stake in what choices were made. No selection process will ever be perfect, but the fallout from this year’s has been especially contentious.

Are these controversial choices all some sort of conspiracy? That’s unlikely. But when 10 people are together for a long weekend and engaged in one specific task, a group dynamic tends to develop which includes unspoken alliances, empathetic leanings, and hidden agendas. That’s simply part of human nature and it’s what often leads to collective conclusions that defy individual logic.

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