- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

It has been 14 years since little Manhattan College collectively whooped and hollered on Selection Sunday after being picked for the NCAA basketball tournament. That’s a long time ago, but former Jaspers coach Fran Fraschilla will always remember how it felt.

“There’s an intensity and a euphoria that’s indescribable when you’re not sure you’re in and then you see your name on the board,” he said last week.

Former Missouri State coach Barry Hinson has a different recollection of the tournament selection process, memories he would just as soon forget but likely never will. He recalls the high hopes and excitement, followed by silence and gloom after his team remained unannounced for an at-large bid as the brackets filled up three years ago.

“It never goes away,” he said.

Such are the conflicting emotions of Selection Sunday, a sports phenomenon where massive hype, anticipation and speculation precede an event where no games are played, sort of like the NFL Draft. Except here, fates and fortunes are immediately determined. It’s a day of skyscraping highs and Death Valley lows, where achievement is rewarded or ultimately disregarded.

In professional sports, the regular season mathematically determines most aspects of postseason play. On Selection Sunday, a human element prevails. A 10-member committee picks 34 at-large teams and seeds the entire 65-team field, assigning who plays whom and where. It’s an angst-filled, sometimes agonizing process for players, fans and most of all the coaches, whose emotional (and sometimes financial) investment surpasses that of all others. Careers can be made or broken on Selection Sunday.

“It’s suspenseful - let’s put it that way,” said coaching legend Lefty Driesell, who took Maryland and three other teams to the NCAA tournament.

In 1995, Manhattan handily won the Metro Atlantic regular-season title before losing the conference tournament final in overtime to St. Peter’s. As a so-called mid-major, a 25-4 record placed the Jaspers squarely on the tournament bubble as an at-large candidate from a traditionally one-bid conference.

“We were on pins and needles,” Fraschilla said.

Gathered in a dormitory lounge, the players erupted when Manhattan’s name was called.

“Fifteen people simultaneously jumping out of their seats, screaming and hugging,” Fraschilla said. “It went from zero to 60 in 0.2 seconds, sitting there, sitting there and then Manhattan College comes on the screen. It was an emotional outburst.”

Seeded 13th, Manhattan went on to upset fourth-seeded Oklahoma in the first round before losing to Arizona State. Fraschilla used the tournament as a springboard to coaching jobs at St. John’s and New Mexico. Now an ESPN analyst, he said the time between the end of the conference tournament and Selection Sunday constituted a form of torture.

“The stress level for six days is hard to describe,” he said. “The whole week was an emotional roller coaster. We really had no earthly idea. We dominated our league and lost an unbelievable overtime game to St. Peter’s. We spent the entire next six days having no idea whether we’d get in or not. That’s six days of no sleep, of analyzing RPIs and other teams’ records. And, quite frankly, we were rooting for other teams to lose.”

Fraschilla recalls driving to Baltimore on a recruiting trip when he stopped in a restaurant off the New Jersey Turnpike to find a TV and root for Virginia, another bubble team, to lose to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. It did.

“I remember being very happy with [then-Georgia Tech coach] Bobby Cremins,” he said.

Drexel coach Bruiser Flint can relate, but only to a point. In 2007, he and his team endured a full week on the bubble with a 23-8 record, low RPI and road wins against Creighton and Big East big shots Syracuse and Villanova.

“One of the things that made it tough for us was that our championship was done the week before,” Flint said. “So it’s that whole week, watching games, listening to what people had to say. I was on a lot of talk shows. That [Sunday] I was on three TV shows and two radio shows. It was crazy. No question, I know what coaches are going through.”

Even after a loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals, most of the presumed experts had an at-large bid waiting for the Philadelphia school.

“They talk about what you need to do,” Flint said. “We went on the road and played everybody and beat some good teams.”

The Dragons practiced on the morning of Selection Sunday because Flint knew they would play somewhere, in either the NCAA tournament or the NIT.

It was the NIT.

The players got a standing ovation as they walked into the sixth floor room of a campus building to watch the telecast, with plenty of media outlets on hand to chronicle the occasion.

When the bad news sunk in, “I didn’t say anything,” Flint said. “A couple of guys cried. I gathered them in the back of the room and said, ‘Look, we’re still gonna play.’ We actually didn’t a great seed in the NIT, either.”

Later, Flint told reporters, “There is no consolation.”

Consolation was the last thing on Hinson’s mind in 2006, even after his team lost in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Stress? No way. He enjoyed the nine days leading up to Selection Sunday. The Bears were 20-8 with an outstanding RPI - strong at-large credentials even for a mid-major.

“It was great, it was awesome,” he said. “Everybody had us in. I still have the e-mail from the conference commissioner saying we had a 99.8 percent chance of going to the NCAA tournament. We didn’t think we were in - we knew we were in.”

But the 0.2 percent chance kicked in. The Bears settled for the NIT with the lowest RPI of any team not to make the NCAA tournament.

As the players and coaches agonized in front of the TV in Hinson’s basement, “The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘There’s another regional [to be announced], isn’t there? There must be something else,’ ” he said. “For 30 seconds, nobody knew, nobody did anything. We just stared.”

Then a couple of his players started crying.

“Look, it wasn’t like we had lost a family member or a close friend, or found out somebody had a terminal disease,” Hinson said. “It’s still a game. I’ve certainly had more crushing news in my life, but it definitely was the lowest moment in my career.”

Hinson was fired after last season despite averaging 19 victories and collecting eight winning seasons at Missouri State. He now works at Kansas, but not as a coach. He is grateful that his old friend, Jayhawks coach Bill Self, gave him a job with the vague title of director of external relations.

“When I get on the bus, my seat’s right next to the bathroom,” Hinson said jokingly.

He is certain he would be sitting elsewhere if his 2005 team made the NCAA tournament. But he said he wouldn’t be at Missouri State.

“You know that, and I know that,” he said. “I probably would have tripled or quadrupled my salary and would be coaching somewhere else now.”

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