Gene Smith says he has no magic formula for determining the 68-team field for this year's NCAA Tournament. Instead, the first-year chairman of the selection committee, is likely to go a lot on feel when he sets the brackets next month.
"I wouldn't say we use the eyeball test like you're reflecting on it, but we use it based on who they play and how well they play," Smith, the Ohio State athletic director, said of what criteria he uses to select teams. "I never look back and say, 'We should have done this or we should have done that.' We really love just all the exciting things that happen. The unpredictable part of March Madness is part of what makes it great."
There will be plenty of changes to this year's tournament, starting with the addition of three teams that expands the field to 68. The 10-member selection committee is now charged with choosing 37 at-large teams instead of 34. As part of the new first round, which has been dubbed "The First Four" and will be played in Dayton, the last four automatic qualifiers will play the last four at-large teams while the other 60 team draw byes into the second round.
"Once we select and begin to bracket, I think (the last four at-large seeds) will fall into place," Smith said. "It's not anything different than what we've done before. It's the four automatic qualifiers and the four at-larges, so it won't be that much of a difference."
The committee is meeting this week at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis and then will convene next month for five days before announcing the field and bracket on March 13.
"Obviously, we have more teams to considered but ultimately teams get into the field by winning," Smith said. "I think, at the end of the day, winning is a very important criteria."
Smith brushed aside most questions concerning any conference or regional bias that might affect the committee's decisions. That comes into play this season because the Big East has 11 of its 16 teams ranked among the top 57 in RPI.
"We don't look at a conference," Smith said. "We don't concern ourselves that way. We look at them as individual independent institutions and try to be fair to create a national tournament."
Arizona Not Eying Pac-10 Title
Arizona certainly shouldn't have to worry about its place in the NCAA Tournament. After having its record streak of 25 consecutive appearances in the NCAAs end last season, Sean Miller's first as coach, the Wildcats are in first place in the Pac-10 going into the final third of the conference season.
Arizona (21-4, 10-2) holds a one-game lead over UCLA (18-7, 9-3) and a 1.5-game lead over Washington (17-7, 9-4). The Wildcats host Washington State (17-8, 7-6) on Thursday night.
Miller, though, says Arizona isn't focused on winning what would be its first Pac-10 regular-season title since 2005. Instead, the Wildcats remained locked on their season-long goal of being better than a year ago when they went 16-15.
"We've always really started with the emphasis of being better than we were a year ago," Miller said. "Not just in games but just having the wherewithal to work hard every day and really to cement some of the things that I hope are part of our program for a long time. How we lift weights. How we practice. The consistency with maybe how we play, whether it be on the road or at home, and we certainly have made progress."
Sophomore forward Derrick Williams continues to lead the way for Arizona. He is having a spectacular season with averages of 19.2 points/8.0 rebounds/1.0 assists/28.8 minutes a game. Williams' tempo-free numbers are even better as he leads the nation in effective field-goal percentage (69.2) and True Shooting Percentage (71.1), is third in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (8.6) and free throw rate (100.4), 28th in offensive rating (126.2) and 84th in offensive rebounding percentage (12.9).
"We're talking about a guy who undeniably is one of the top couple basketball players in the United States right now," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said Sunday even after Williams had a season-low 11 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes of a 67-52 victory over the Sun Devils. "The thing that impresses me about him is he's consistent. He doesn't miss a game. Every game. Every week. They have a game, he plays good. They have another, he plays good again. Some guys, they play good and then they disappear for two games. They're in foul trouble or (don't) shoot well. I don't see that with him."
Pullen Powers K-State Rivalry Win
Kansas State senior guard Jacob Pullen took his share of hits from the media a few weeks back when he said he wouldn't play in the NIT.
Monday night, though, Pullen played like a man who single-handedly wants to ensure Kansas State (17-9, 5-6 Big 12) makes its third NCAA Tournament trip in the last four years. He scored a career-high 38 points and dished out five assists in 37 minutes as Kansas State rolled to an 84-68 home victory over visiting Kansas. Pullen's performance came just hours after the Jayhawks moved into No. 1 spots in both major polls and he had some pointed words back at the media.
"We get written off every week," Pullen said. "Other teams lose and they stayed ranked and they stay in the conversation but we lose and we're buried."
Pullen had 21 points but made just 8 of 22 shots in a 90-66 road loss to Kansas on Jan. 29. However, Pullen said he did not necessarily feel that Monday's performance was redemption.
"No, it's not personal, it was just one of those nights where the ball was going in for me," Pullen said. "I just felt like, as a team, we just went to (Lawrence) to get blown out and get out of there. This game, we brought more energy. I saw everybody's faces and knew it was different from last time."
Kansas State is 3-1 since the debacle in Lawrence and will try to keep its momentum going Saturday when it hosts Oklahoma (12-12, 4-6).
Utah State Postponing WAC Celebration
Utah State is all but assured of winning the Western Athletic Conference's regular-season title.
All Utah State (24-3, 12-1) needs to do is win one of its final three conference games or New Mexico State to lose one of its last four. However, coach Stew Morrill hasn't allowed the Aggies to cut down the nets yet.
"A share of the title is good; winning it outright is better," Morrill said. "We still got lots of opportunities to try and win an outright title. I told the players we'll celebrate when and if we get that done. It's not time to relax and celebrate."
Utah State, along with the rest of the WAC, is taking a week off from conference play and was able to relax Wednesday night as it rolled to a 100-66 victory over Montana Western of the NAIA. However, the Aggies have an intriguing ESPN BracketBuster game Saturday night when they visit Saint Mary's (22-5), which is in first place in the West Coast Conference.
"We've definitely been thinking about Saint Mary's," Utah State senior guard Brian Green said. "It's definitely a big game for us. It gives us a chance to prove ourselves on a national stage."
Among the other intriguing BracketBusters this weekend are Virginia Commonwealth at Wichita State and Kent State at Drexel on Friday; Hofstra at Wright State, Austin Peay at Fairfield, Iona at Liberty, Missouri State at Valparaiso, George Mason at Northern Iowa and Montana at Long Beach State on Saturday; and Cleveland State at Old Dominion on Sunday.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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