The Division I men's basketball committee is meeting this week in Indianapolis and that has offered a bit of perspective on what first-year chairman Dan Guerrero is thinking as he gets sets to put together the 65-team NCAA Tournament field for the first time.
Guerrero, the athletic director at UCLA, already has experience at helping set the brackets as a member of the 10-person committee. This time, though, he will be the man with the final say on who will be playing where and what kind of road each team will have to travel in March to win the national championship.
So, the natural question when Guerrero held a teleconference with reporters earlier this week was what criteria he uses in evaluating teams for potential bids.
"Certainly wins has a significant bearing on decisions we make," Guerrero said. "We receive plenty of information on every team and it allows us the opportunity to evaluate a broad number of criteria. With 10 individuals on the committee, all of them doing a subjective analysis of this criteria, there may not be necessarily one or two items that come to the forefront. The bottom line and really the most important thing is that we spend a lot of time watching games. Even though we have a lot of quantitative material available to us, in every way, shape or form we watch those basketball games with the mindset of picking those 34 best teams. In some respects, there's nothing better than the eyeball test."
The major drawback with the eyeball test is that some teams get more chances to be eyeballed than others. For example, Villanova is on television a heckuva lot more than Virginia Commonwealth.
However, Guerrero believes the proliferation of new media helps the committee get a fair read on the all the teams, including those from mid-major and smaller conferences.
"We certainly have a number of various platforms and we take advantage of all of those, whether it's ESPN Full Court, whether it's watching games over the network, whether we're watching games being streamed or on the road going to various venues and watching games," Guerrero said. "The fact that there are 10 of us involved in this process gives us an opportunity to really go throughout the country, evaluate the landscape. We feel we have a pretty good handle on what those teams are doing out there."
The committee has taken its shots in previous years for leaning toward giving at-large berths to schools with name recognition over those with more deserving credentials. Guerrero, though, is adamant that all teams with a realistic chance of being in the field will receive a fair shake under his watch.
"Well, certainly there are a lot of great teams, outstanding conferences throughout the country," Guerrero said. "There's a great deal of tradition and history tied up with many of those entities. However, the committee is looking at each team this year in the context of what they're doing this year. There is no question that some teams have not performed to their traditional or typical standard but that's not an issue for us. We are looking at the very best teams that we can possibly get into this field irrespective of what colors they wear, what kind of history they have, what trophies they've won in the past, what their mascots look like, whatever. We're looking for the best basketball teams. It doesn't matter where they're from."
North Carolina was considered the best team in the nation last season and no one was surprised when the Tar Heels rolled through the NCAA Tournament to the national title. While Kansas has generally been considered the top team since the beginning of this season, the Jayhawks don't seem nearly as much of a lock as North Carolina.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said a few weeks back that he felt anywhere from 12-15 teams were capable of winning it all this season. Guerrero doesn't disagree with that sentiment and expects a lot of difficult decisions to be made on Selection Sunday.
"Just based on our interaction to this point, I believe the committee would agree that this is going to be a very, very difficult and challenging process," Guerrero said. "We certainly understand that there are a number of games that are left to be played within the next month or so. You might see some teams sort of separate themselves from the pack, but nevertheless, we anticipate that there will be a pack. So it's incumbent upon us to make certain we look at every possible criteria, see as many games that we possibly can, and in the end make those decisions we feel are the best decisions that this committee can possibly make."
Self Not Worried About Being No. 1
Kansas coach Bill Self realizes his team is at least the nominal favorite to win a second national championship in three years as the Jayhawks are 23-1 and sit atop The Associated Press' media poll and Basketball Prospectus' The List. However, he basically shrugs at the whole idea.
"We were No. 1 in the preseason and that wasn't a big deal to our guys and certainly no reason for our school to celebrate," Self said. "We also didn't deserve that ranking and we knew it. We only got it based on the returning players we had and how we finished last season. And being No. 1 at this time of the year means very little. It's nice from a fan's standpoint but we certainly put any thought into feeling we have to protect our ranking. All I want our guys to do is enjoy being No 1, embrace it and play as hard as they can. The real No. 1 team will be determined on the last night of the season."
While Kansas has all five starters back last season's 27-8 team, Self believes the Jayhawks will need major contributions from freshman forward Xavier Henry, who is averaging 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 26.9 minutes a game while ranking 83rd in the nation with a 3.8 steal percentage.
Henry's numbers haven't been as strong in Big 12 play as he has a 8.7/3.9/2.0/24.8 line in nine conference games. However, Henry played his best game inside the conference Monday night in an 80-68 victory at Texas as he had 15 points and five rebounds in 31 minutes.
"He's gone through some tough times in conference play but there aren't a lot of freshmen out there averaging 13 points a game for a pretty good team," Self said. "His numbers have dipped and it's typical of what freshmen go through. However, it's best for our team over time for him to play at a high level because he can do some things that other guys in our program aren't capable of doing. He brings that higher element of play and I think he's going to produce big the rest of the season."
Terrapins Flying Under the Radar
Maryland is in second place in the ACC and can take the lead Sunday when it hosts first-place Duke. Yet while they rank No. 24 this week on The List, no else seems to be noticing the Terrapins as they did not receive a single vote in the AP poll.
However, coach Gary Williams, whose team is 16-6, says he is not the least bit concerned about the lack of recognition or the conference standings.
"I've been in this a long time and I know it's wise not to get into other things beyond preparing for the next game," Williams said. "There's too much work to do to worry about where we are in the conference. We've only played half our conference games. There are still eight more games to go. I've seen it happen too many times where a team gets carried away with the way things have gone early in a conference race, starts thinking about things like who has the easiest schedule and winds up losing its focus. We've just got to keep our focus."
Fiery point guard Greivis Vasquez will certainly make sure Maryland stays focused. After declaring for the NBA Draft then withdrawing last summer, Vasquez has averages of 18.1/4.5/6.3/32.5 in his senior season while his 35.7 assist rate is 23rd in the country and his 30.3 percentage of possessions ranks 42nd.
"Obviously, when you have a good player, you want him to come back but you also want to do the best thing for the player," Williams said. "Greivis really had this thing for testing the water. It took him a little while to get over the fact that the NBA people didn't see him as a guaranteed first-round draft pick. Some games early on this season, he seemed flat. Now he has his basketball personality back and he's having a great senior year. He's helped his draft situation by coming back and he's helped us as well."
Hobson Valuable to Lobos
New Mexico's Darington Hobson won't get many votes for national player of the year because few outside the Land of Enchantment and the Mountain West Conference seem to be aware of the junior forward. However, few players have been more valuable to their teams this season than Hobson has been to the 22-3 Lobos.
Hobson has a 15.6/8.6/4.3/32.0 line. He is also 84th in the nation with a 22.6 defensive rebounding percentage.
"Put it this way: When you have a 22-3 team and one guy leads you in points, rebounds, assists and steals, that tells you what a special talent the guy is," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "I've always felt players have to be strong enough and tough enough to make plays. Coaches can organize, coaches can prepare, coach can play Psych 101 games but players have to go out and make plays. That's what Darington has done all year."
New Mexico has also dispelled the idea that it was a non-conference fluke as it has followed up losses to San Diego State and UNLV to start Mountain West play with eight straight victories. The latest win came Wednesday night as the Lobos avenged their loss to UNLV by beating the Rebels 76-66 on their home court.
"I'm excited about our team," Alford said. "We've done a lot of positive things since the 0-2 start. Any time you win eight in a row in a league like this, you have to be very pleased with the effort of your kids."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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