New view of process produces new attitude

INDIANAPOLIS -- A nightmare was playing out in front of me Friday. The "bracket" I was part of putting together was turning out to have a flaw that I as a columnist would have ripped myself for. Oh, jeez, this was karma.

Here we were at NCAA headquarters, taking part in a mock exercise of selecting the 64 teams for the women's tournament and placing at least some of them on the bracket.

I say "some" because we didn't get the whole thing done. This is quite a laborious exercise, and we did a shortened version.

"We" being media folks and former coaches. The NCAA invited us here -- a similar exercise was begun last year on the men's side -- as a way to put some sunlight on the process that is such a huge part of intercollegiate athletics.

On the women's side, I've taken a sledgehammer in years past to committee -- not because I like doing that (I really don't) or because I didn't realize this was hard and that the committee was up against the wall sometimes.

Rather, I did it because it was frustrating that the committee typically seemed defensive and secretive, like, "You outsiders just don't understand what we're doing here." There seemed no reason for that -- the more we "outsiders" know and understand, the more we respect the committee.

The attitude of the committee and the NCAA officials dedicated to women's basketball has changed dramatically now, at least in my estimation.

We had a media summit in the fall of 2006 to discuss issues with the NCAA. And the past two days, several of us have had a chance to sit in the seats that the committee members do.

The NCAA, so often accused of being a lumbering bureaucracy that doesn't really care what anybody thinks has proven otherwise. It does care, and it does want the best possible Division I women's basketball tournament. Getting there is a tricky, arduous road that several of us got to experience first-hand.

We started the process in a big meeting room Thursday afternoon. One thing you should know is that everybody here was really serious and excited about the opportunity. Sure, we joked a little bit, but our focus was 100 percent on women's basketball and this bracket.

We all might have had some different ideas about the various teams, but everyone was on the same page in terms of enthusiasm for the sport. We were there to learn and work.

The NCAA "assigned" us to be certain committee members, so we were blocked from voting for any teams that we might be affiliated with, just as the real committee people would have been.

We were set up with laptops that included as much statistical information as you could possibly compile and reasonably comprehend about the Division I teams. One of these things is called the "Nitty Gritty," which provides multiple breakdowns of teams' records, including how they fared against teams in the top 25 of the RPI, the top 50, the top 100 and so on.

The committee in past years did not always have quite this much data -- nor was it presented electronically in such a relatively easy way to navigate. NCAA vice president for Division I women's basketball Sue Donohoe talked about how they used to basically be buried under sheets of paper with all this info.

Now, it's a far more tree-friendly process … but still quite an exercise for your brain. We battled through our field of 64 until 9:45 Thursday night. Part of this set-up was that we proceeded as if the season were over that day. Which was hard to do. In our minds, we kept thinking, "But this or that will probably happen, and X team just got an injury, so …"

For the purpose of the process, though, we kept reminding ourselves to measure teams strictly on what they had done as of the afternoon of Feb. 7. With one wrench thrown in to that: The NCAA determined who the automatic qualifiers were from the league tournaments.

With some, they picked the obvious or seemingly obvious favorites. With others, they picked upsets, which was designed to throw us the kind of curveballs that the committee has to face when, for example, a small or mid-major conference has an upset winner at its league tournament.

Then you have a situation where a team might have a really good record but didn't win its league's automatic bid. And how do you weigh that team against middle-of-the-pack teams from big conferences?

Our debate on these issues was truncated because of time constraints -- but suffice to say, we had as difficult a time dealing with it in a mock bracket as the committee will have with the real thing.

At 7:30 a.m. Friday, we headed back to the NCAA headquarters from our downtown Indy hotel -- meaning we probably got more sleep than the committee will on the nights it is pounding out the field and the bracket and all the tournament details.

We opened the morning asking questions of Donohoe and Michelle Perry, director of the D-I women's basketball championship. Including about the many duties of the committee and its makeup. After further discussion of the teams in the field -- although not anywhere near as much as the committee will have -- we left the field the way we'd set it the night before. We had to move on.

Because it was time to seed some teams -- or as many as we could get done. We got to 24, and then put the top 16 into actual regions. This is where my nightmare came in. I had voted for North Carolina as a No. 1 seed, but the Tar Heels ended up in the 2-seed line -- underneath No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Greensboro Region.

Yikes! Having Tennessee and UNC 1-2 in a region -- which happened in 2006 in Cleveland -- was something I ripped the committee for doing back then. Did I have the same set of knives ready to throw at myself now that "our committee" was doing that?

Well, plenty of people around the table also didn't see that potential matchup adding up, either.

Tennessee, as our overall No. 1 seed, deserved to go to the closest region. And that was Greensboro. Obviously, from a geography standpoint, that's where North Carolina wants to be, too.

But would it be fair to Tennessee or UNC -- as they look right now -- to put both teams there? Wouldn't altering North Carolina to a No. 1 and sending the Tar Heels to the Spokane Regional be fairer?

Obviously, there are issues with that, too. Because the student-athlete "experience" in the tournament is also a factor -- if not an actual "procedure or principle." So if it worked out to put Duke -- another nearby team -- in Greensboro as a No. 3 seed, would Carolina be angry if it wasn't close to home and Duke was? Especially after the Heels had just pounded Duke? Or would Carolina be glad it wasn't in the same regional as the overall No. 1 seed?

Such are the questions the committee must deal with over and over. It's like working your way through a maze. I've included here what we came up with … again, with the stipulation that you please remember this was only an exercise and does not take into account all the things that might change in the next month.

Our field and our top 16 are not flawless … but by going through the process, we got an even better understanding than any of us previously had about all the twists and turns and roadblocks the committee has to work its way around.

Next week, I'll go into some more detail about other things we learned and issues that we discussed. For now, though, I'll just say thanks to the NCAA for the experience.

And that if I were interviewing myself on the post-bracket conference call, I sure hope I'd be able to answer for all "our committee's" decisions. Or really give myself hell if I couldn't.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.