- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Even though the bracket has changed a bit, the way it is filled in by the NCAA tournament selection committee remains the same.

Wins matter more than conference affiliations. Schedule strength and road wins get more credit than margin of victory, and finishing strong matters.

Selection committee chairman Gene Smith believes the first 68-team bracket in NCAA history will be as competitive and upset-friendly as the 65-team brackets have been.

“I think this year will be a lot more unpredictable,” the Ohio State athletic director told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.

So, what’s new? Plenty.

All games will be televised to all regions of the country, from start to finish, and the game times will be staggered. Instead of choosing 34 at-large teams, the 10-member selection committee will select 37. Instead of pairing two teams against one another in the opening round, the last four automatic qualifiers and the last four at-large selections will all play one extra game.

“Once we select and begin to bracket, I think (the last four at-large seeds) will fall into place,” Smith said. “It’s not anything different than what we’ve done before. It’s the four automatic qualifiers and the four at-larges, so it won’t be that much of a difference.”

Inside NCAA headquarters, where the committee is meeting this week, Smith insists little has changed.

He brushed off the annual questions about how many teams could make it from one conference, how schools can overcome weak nonconference schedules and whether teams from the West might get “overlooked.”

Smith offered a simple solution to all three: “You win. I think at the end of the day, winning is a very important criteria.”

In theory, increasing the field by three should help cut down on teams feeling slighted by being left out. The reality is there will always be complaints on selection Sunday.

The new format has already spawned some new jargon. The teams fighting for those precious final spots are now on the “soft bubble.”

One team still trying to make its case is Butler.

After starting February on a three-game losing streak, last year’s tourney darling and national runner-up has won five straight and needs one more victory for another 20-win season. The Bulldogs still visit Illinois-Chicago and host Loyola (Ill.) before starting Horizon League tourney play.

It could be enough to get back into the tournament, but at least it’s put the Bulldogs back in the conversation.

“This program has a consistency and a way about it that demands we have to stay together through tough times but that there are going to be tough times,” coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday. “That’s why I am so proud of these guys to step up in Cleveland after a heartbreak two days before. It’s given us a chance.”

Hot or cold teams could make things more difficult for Smith and his committee members.

And if there’s anything Smith has learned in his first four seasons on the committee, it’s that everything is up for debate.

“I wouldn’t say we use the eyeball test like you’re reflecting on it, but we use it based on who they play and how well they play,” Smith said. “I never look back and say, ‘We should have done this or we should have done that.’ We really love just all the exciting things that happen. The unpredictable part of March Madness is part of what makes it great.”

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