Former NCAA tournament committee member on picking at-large teams

Green Bay's Keifer Sykes walks off the court after a win over Detroit on Sunday, January 26, 2014. (WLUK/Justin Felder)
Green Bay's Keifer Sykes walks off the court after a win over Detroit on Sunday, January 26, 2014. (WLUK/Justin Felder)
One of the toughest challenges faced yearly by NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, the group responsible for putting together the bracket that will be filled out by so many, is which teams get in as at-large bids. Debating and bemoaning the bubble has become an annual tradition; and it is a place where the UW-Green Bay men hope to find themselves as Selection Sunday approaches. After losing in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals to UW-Milwaukee, the Phoenix can only hope to be discussed by the committee and have their resume deemed worthy for a bid.

University of Texas-San Antonio Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey served a five-year term on the Selection Committee, ending in 2012. She can’t speak directly to Green Bay’s chances of making the field of 68 (her basketball viewing has dropped since she finished her term on the committee: she says she used to often watch 3 or 4 games at once), but she says there is always a debate between smaller conference schools who pile up wins like Green Bay and teams from more prestigious leagues with less wins, but tougher competition (like Minnesota or Tennessee this year).

“There's just no way to make it totally fair,” said Hickey. “I think the schools in the lower resource conferences have to be really concerned about what they do with their non-conference schedules. When you get an opportunity to play a team out of your league, you've got to show that you can handle that competition, and you need wins.”

In the middle of Hickey’s tenure on the committee, the field expanded from 65 to 68 teams. There is a perception that the committee wants to use some of those extra spots for teams from smaller conferences, like Middle Tennessee State getting an at-large bid in 2013. Hickey says that is not an agenda of the committee.

“The attitude in the room is that you're going to find best 68 teams,” said Hickey, who was the second female ever selected to the committee (Charlotte Athletics Director Judy Rose was the first from 1999-2003). “There is no thinking, 'is this from a larger-resource conference?' 'Is this from a smaller [conference]?' It is just doing the best job that group possibly can to find the best teams based on the games they played, the games they won. There's not a divvying out of, so many spots should go to the larger resource conferences, then we'll hold this for [the smaller conferences]. It just doesn't work that way.”

Those worried a team like Green Bay may be overlooked because they do play in a less-well known league should not be concerned, says Hickey. She says, during her 5-year term, she saw more and more attention paid to researching teams from those “one-bid leagues.” Each committee member is assigned several conferences to become intimately familiar with, so each conference has multiple committee members who have been studying the conference and its teams closely. Those people are called upon for information when that team is brought up for discussion.

Another concern for the Phoenix is that several of their losses came with players hurt: Alec Brown did not play in the loss at Valparaiso, for instance, and Keifer Sykes hurt his ankle during the Horizon League Semifinal loss to UW-Milwaukee. Hickey says injuries are part of the huge amount of information presented to the committee.

Overall, Hickey says, the goal is the best 68 teams. It’s a process, she says, that begins in October, with a strong majority of the research and work done well before Selection Sunday. The committee does their best, including the difficult job of comparing basketball’s version of apples and oranges: teams that excel in small conferences against more middle-of-the-pack teams from prestigious leagues.

“There is a tremendous amount of care taken that this is as fair a process as possible, but there is no set number of slots put on the board for one group or the other,” said Hickey.