- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Magic Sports Genie has landed in your lap and says your sporting wish is about to come true. You get one choice. Pick one sporting event you’ve never attended and you’ll be on the way.

My genie might be a bit taken aback by my answer and it isn’t because my checkered career has taken me to tons of sporting events.

I’d want to be a fly on the wall as the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament committee met for three days to select and seed the field.

The NCAA tournament has always been one of my favorite events. I actually get a little giddy waiting for the selection show to begin. The process of picking the field has always fascinated me. The nine people on the committee get to do that, starting Friday and finishing — they hope — by 4 p.m. Sunday so they can take one last look before the draw is revealed on television a few hours later.

Call me a geek and you wouldn’t be wrong. I’ll live with it. I want to be in that room, especially after talking to Jack Kvancz about the process.

Kvancz is the former athletic director at George Mason and George Washington. He’s a former coach (and athletic director) at Catholic University. He played at Boston College. He’s a self-described basketball junkie.

Kvancz was on the NCAA tournament selection committee from 1998-2003. How much did he dig that job?

“Third best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Kvancz said. “Other than getting married and having kids. I loved it. If you are a basketball junkie, it is a great thing.”

Years ago, I approached Kvancz about getting into that room. I wanted to write a book, about the process and the people involved and some of the teams that hoped to make the field. Let’s face it, making the tournament is the measure of your season. What that committee decides is important, to a whole lot of people. I wanted to document it all, profile the people making the decisions, follow several teams through the course of the season as they worked to give that committee a reason to include them.

Kvancz tried. No go. Now retired, he did share some of what happens without giving away too many trade secrets.

The most important thing he emphasized is the human element is very important even with all the computer models that exist today. If picking the field was simply a matter of going by what the computers say, a couple of third graders could do it at recess. The myriad numbers are just a guideline.

“That is the greatest thing, that humans are making the decisions. There’s always another opinion,” Kvancz said. “All those numbers cloud the issues sometimes. Everyone is so close. The truth of the matter is you have to have the human element. You have pretty good people on the committee who have some basketball knowledge who can make those decisions.

“It can get nasty. You’d have some knock-down, drag-out arguments. But I never worked with anyone who I didn’t think was truly interested in getting the right teams in that tournament.”

Kvancz wouldn’t name names but he said one example involved an athletic director whose bitter rival was under consideration for one of the last spots. “He said, ‘It breaks my heart to say this, but that’s the team I wouldn’t want to play right now,’” Kvancz recalled. “That was good enough for me and for the majority.”

That became Kvancz’s eventual tiebreaker, if you will, when it came time to split a few hairs.

Expanding the field, which now includes 68 teams, hasn’t made the committee’s job easier. When the field was 48, the 49th team complained. When it was 64, the 65th team complained. If it goes to 96, the 97th team will complain. The majority of the field can be picked pretty easily. Determining which of the 12 of so teams should get the last 7-8 spots? Not so easy.

“You can give me all the numbers in the world,” Kvancz said. “One thing I always tried to look at: Would I want my team to play you right now? There’s eight teams left for the last 3-4 spots. Which teams would I not want to play?”

Matchups and seedings often get debated as much as selections and non-selections. Kvancz said seeding was important, but secondary to selecting the right teams. That’s a lesson he learned from C.M. Newton, the former Vanderbilt coach and Kentucky athletic director who served as a chairman part of the time Kvancz was on the committee.

“C.M. said you can play your way out of a bad seed. You can’t play your way in if you’re not chosen,” Kvancz said. “My concern was let’s get the right teams, then let’s get the right seeds.”

Kvancz still keeps up with basketball. If he still had a vote, VCU would be in even if it doesn’t win the Atlantic 10 tournament. Virginia would be one of those final teams that leads to the knock-down, drag-outs. Maryland? The committee doesn’t get to choose the automatic bids that go to league champions. That’s the Terps’ only hope at this stage.

“No matter what the committee does,” Kvancz said, “you’ll get people griping and complaining for a couple of days. Then they’ll play the games. It really is a terrific event.”