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A lot of questions precede NCAA 64

By Monday morning, the list will have been pondered and perused, the selections condemned and condoned. Terry Holland knows all too well. When he was head coach at Virginia, he often wondered whether his team was getting a fair shake from the men who pick the NCAA Tournament field.

But now that Holland is one of those nine men who make up the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, his questions from years gone by have been answered emphatically.

"I can honestly look anybody in the eye and say there is nothing the committee didn't know about any of those teams who reach the board for consideration," said Holland, who coached for 16 years at Virginia and is now the athletic director at Davidson. "Overwhelming is probably the best word to describe the process. We look teams over very carefully. By the end, you know everything."

Gary Cunningham, the former UCLA coach who now is the athletic director at Fresno State, agrees.

"Before I came on the committee, I had no concept of the intensity and the work," Cunningham said. "Or the time you spend talking on one or two teams. You might have three slots left and eight schools. You might spend three hours talking about them. We'll break that down and four hours later be talking about those teams.

"Once you get the automatic qualifiers, you can get down to 18 to 20 fairly easy. And then it's very hard."

The process begins in a Kansas City hotel Thursday afternoon, when the committee will convene to take care of a few housekeeping chores. By Friday morning, the serious work of putting the field together gets started. By early Sunday evening, the nine men's work is the world's to see.

"We're not throwing darts on a board," said Ralph McFillen, commissioner of the Metro Conference. "These are very well thought-out decisions."

For nearly the entire weekend, the committee members are sequestered on a working floor in the hotel. It's not your classic smoke-filled room (smoking is prohibited), but it is close. They eat together, watch conference tournament games together, laugh, argue.

And with the assistance of NCAA staff members, there is access to every conceivable document that could help them make their decisions.

"There's an incredible pressure that goes along with it," said Bill Hancock, director of men's basketball championships for the NCAA. "I've never seen it get ugly, but it gets intense. I've never seen one person go after another, but I've seen them state their position very intensely."

There are 30 automatic qualifiers, 27 of which are determined by conference tournaments. The remaining 34 spots in the 64-team tournament are at-large qualifiers.

By now, all committee members have been given information on the teams ranked from 1 to 102 by the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), a computer ranking system. Each member votes for 34 teams to be considered for at-large bids (he may not vote for a team he represents as a director or commissioner), so the committee has a pool of at-large teams from which to select.

Among the factors committee members consider are Division I record, RPI, non-conference record, conference record, road record, record in the last 10 games, record against teams ranked 1-25 in the RPI, record against automatic qualifiers, record against other teams under consideration for an at-large berth and injuries that may have affected a team's performance.

Winning 20 games is not a guarantee. Wisconsin-Green Bay went 25-4 last season but didn't make it. Won-lost record means little if the school has played a poor schedule.

Conference affiliation is important, but not for reasons people typically believe. The committee does not put minimums or maximums on the number of teams from a conference that get in. However, playing in a strong conference improves a team's strength of schedule, and that is a huge factor.

The RPI is a big factor, too. It has been used since 1981 to aid in the selection of at-large teams and the seeding of teams. The NCAA does not release its ratings, but there is a publication called the RPI Report, which tries to duplicate the NCAA's formula. It is based 25 percent on a team's Division I winning percentage, 50 percent on its schedule strength and 25 percent on its opponents' schedule strength.

Yet the computer ranking is not everything.

"I don't think there is any subject that gets more attention than the RPI," said Tom Butters, athletic director at Duke and chairman of the committee. "It's an imperfect science. It is a tool. It is one of the many, many factors used in the process."

Something to keep in mind is that the RPI often differs from polls. Missouri is ranked first in the latest RPI Report, and Arkansas is fourth. But in the Associated Press poll, Arkansas is first and Missouri third.

Perhaps more telling is Connecticut. The Big East champion Huskies are ranked No.

2 by AP but are only 12th in the RPI.

In other words, the polls can be misleading.

"I simply treat them as one very small part of the process that is before us," Butters said. "I'm not overly influenced by it. I think all of us could have serious arguments about where the teams are in the poll. I can't put a great deal of weight on it."

Perhaps even more difficult than selecting the field is seeding the teams. The committee ranks them 1 through 64, then places them into the bracket, which is divided into four regions of the country: East, Southeast, West, Midwest.

The committee goes to great lengths to make sure each region is balanced, but several factors may keep a team from being given its true seeding.

For example, Kentucky, currently 13th in the RPI, would be in line for a third or a fourth seed. But the Wildcats are limited as to where they can play. They are prohibited from being placed in Lexington, Ky. _ one of the Southeast Regional sites. They also cannot play on the dates (March 17 and 19) when games are being played on their home court. That leaves only four sites: St. Petersburg (Southeast), Landover, Md. (East), Oklahoma City (Midwest) and Sacramento (West).

(C. M. Newton, Kentucky's athletic director and a committee member, must leave the room whenever the team is up for discussion.)

Take it a step further. The NCAA tries to keep teams close to home. Under that logic, Florida (RPI rating of 16th) could come to St. Petersburg. But Florida and Kentucky are in the SEC, and no more than one team from a single conference may be seeded in the same group of four. And conference teams are not to play each other before the regional final.

Tough decisions, for sure.

"It's an exhaustive process," Holland said. "We literally don't leave that floor. We're there until we're through. Everyone takes their responsibility very seriously, and it's a responsibility we all feel."

Who is on the committee

Tom Butters, Duke athletic director (chairman)

Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse athletic director

Gary Cunningham, Fresno State athletic director

DeLoss Dodds, Texas athletic director

Bob Frederick, Kansas athletic director

Charles Harris, Arizona State athletic director

Terry Holland, Davidson athletic director

Ralph McFillen, Metro Conference commissioner

C.M. Newton, Kentucky athletic director

To order tickets

A phone line for ordering NCAA Tournament sub-regional tickets will be open after the pairings are announced Sunday (6:30 p.m., ESPN). Tickets ($36 each, good for all three sessions) can be ordered at (813) 825-3334. MasterCard, VISA and Discover will be accepted. The ThunderDome box office will open at 10 a.m. Monday. There will be four games March 18 and two March 20.