Tournament committee anticipates tough task ahead

Thursday, February 23, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the NCAA tournament selection committee selects and seeds the field of 65 each March, committee members usually rely on schedule strength to make the tough decisions.

This year could be different.

Committee chairman Craig Littlepage said Wednesday that with so few clear-cut choices for the 34 at-large berths, imbalanced conference schedules and gridlock in some league standings, the committee's task this season is more daunting.

"We know we are going to face some unusual challenges this year and specifically because of conference realignments," Littlepage said during an hourlong conference call with reporters. "It seems we have some gridlock at the top or in the middle of conferences. And because there has been some imbalanced conference scheduling, it means some teams might not have played the same schedules."

In recent years, the committee has placed a greater emphasis on scheduling -- rewarding schools that play strong opponents, particularly nonconference, while penalizing teams that increase their victory totals by defeating far inferior opponents.

As usual, Littlepage said, the committee will evaluate teams on an individual basis rather than debating which conferences deserve multiple bids.

But this year's results could be unique.

* Kentucky could finish 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference despite failing to beat an opponent with a .500 record in league play.

* Midmajor conferences are hoping to become bigger players in the at-large process this year, and Littlepage intimated that could happen. He cited the Missouri Valley, Mid-American, Sun Belt and Colonial Athletic Association as having strong seasons.

* And because there are fewer favorites for the at-large bids, the committee could be faced with some difficult explanations. Littlepage acknowledged that in the 16-team Big East, for instance, it was possible for a team that does not qualify for the 12-team postseason tournament to jump into the NCAA tournament ahead of one that does.

As difficult as it could be to pick the teams, though, the larger debate might be how to seed them.

"I think seeding will be a challenge and as I almost daily go through my own personal seeding process here, teams are moving up and down and horizontally as teams don't run the table," said Littlepage, the athletic director at Virginia. "The problem isn't only going to be on the [Nos.] 8-9 lines, but on other lines as well."

Littlepage said the problems became apparent two weeks ago when the committee gathered for a test run of selection weekend, which yielded few "locks."

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