As his team’s leading scorer, rebounder and assist-maker, Ben Simmons certainly has impacted LSU’s odds of making the NCAA tournament. But whether or not the freshman star will sway the opinions of the NCAA tournament selection committee is not so clear.
Debunking the notion that the selection committee wouldn’t dare produce a bracket that doesn’t include the best player in college basketball, several people associated with the committee said that, outside of player availability due to injury or suspension, they do not recall a single time an individual has been discussed in the committee room. At-large teams are selected on the totality of their accomplishments throughout the season, not because of the allure of one single player.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the best player in college basketball won’t have some sort of impact in that committee room.
“In respect to Simmons and LSU, that’s prompted me to think back to all of the times that I’ve been in the room and I can honestly say nothing pops into my head. Not one time that an individual’s play or talent was discussed," said former NCAA executive vice president Tom Jernstedt, who spent 38 years essentially in charge of the NCAA tournament. “The chair of the committee always encourages the members to choose in respect to who is the best team. Now does that mean an individual or two might look at Team A and say Team A has this superstar and Team B doesn’t? That could happen, of course. You can’t control how people think and how it affects their voting."
The committee always has tried to make a distinction between the "best" and "most deserving" teams, differentiating between those that have earned a spot based on merit versus others that are simply more interesting storylines.
Currently tied for first in the SEC and at 16-9 overall, the Tigers have moved to more solid footing with a recent win against Texas A&M. In his latest Bracketology, Joe Lunardi had LSU in the field, as a No. 7 seed. But with an RPI of 70 and a strength of schedule of 76, the Tigers remain in a very precarious spot and can’t afford many bad losses.
Depending on how LSU finishes the season, it could become one of the more hotly debated teams come Selection Sunday.
“The simple answer is the committee’s charge is to select the 36 at-large teams, with the emphasis on teams," said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships. “What makes one of the 36 the best teams, that’s the great debate, right? A team is comprised of players and a coaching staff. But in my limited time with the committee, no one player has been singled out, at least not in that context."
The conversation may not have come up, however, simply because it has never before been an issue.
Since the NCAA tournament field expanded, only one NBA top draft pick who played college ball -- Pacific’s Michael Olowokandi in 1998 -- did not play in the tournament in the same year he was drafted first.
In fact, in that same span, only five No. 1 picks have been members of NCAA teams seeded fifth or worse: UNLV’s Anthony Bennett in 2013 (No. 5 seed), Utah’s Andrew Bogut in 2005 (No. 6 seed), LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 (No. 7 seed), Kansas’ Danny Manning in 1988 (No. 6 seed) and Navy’s David Robinson in 1987 (No. 8 seed).
“He’s a terrific talent," said one former committee member who asked not to be identified. “But at the end of the day, it’s not an individual sport. I cannot in my five years remember a single time anyone has said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Player X in the tournament because it would be great for the event?’ It’s never happened before. Ever."