O'Connor
GMU

Tom O’Connor knows the feeling of excitement this year’s committee members are experiencing  as they begin arriving in Indianapolis Tuesday to select, seed and bracket the 2011 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

O’Connor served on the committee from 2004-09, and each year the level of anticipation for the upcoming deliberations with his colleagues never waned.

For five years, the George Mason director of athletics was one of 10 voices that had a say to which teams made the field, where they were seeded and where they would play. This Sunday, O’Connor will be on the other side as he waits to see if George Mason is selected as an at-large team into the tournament. The Patriots lost their chance at automatic qualification into the field when they fell 79-63 to Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last Sunday.

The loss snapped George Mason’s 16-game win streak, which was the longest in the nation at that time. Now, they will see if their body of work which includes a 26-6 mark and a CAA regular-season title is enough for the committee to place them somewhere in the field.

No matter the outcome, O’Connor knows the process is done with the utmost integrity.

“If we get in, it will be because the committee believes we are one of the 37 best teams in the country,” said O’Connor, who chaired the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee in 2007-08. “If we don’t get in, I know the people involved will have made a professional decision that says we aren’t one of the 37 best teams in the country. I can live with the committee’s decision.”

When he was on the committee, O’Connor said his stress level remained under control. He likened the process to taking a final exam in college.

“If you haven’t done all your work during the year and had to cram for the exam, then you are feeling a lot of stress,” said O’Connor, who has been the athletic director at George Mason since 1994. “I didn’t feel stress leading up to selections, because I followed the teams I was supposed to in the monitoring process, and I was prepared.”

Each of the committee members is assigned three to four conferences to follow primarily and secondarily during the season. They easily watch between 200-300 games a season, and they try to see as many teams play in person.

Combined with their day jobs, it adds up to a heavy workload. “It was all a labor of love,” O’Connor said. “I enjoyed what I was doing, and I wanted to do it.”

O’Connor said one of the most trying aspects of the process is selecting the final few at-large teams into the field.

When he was on the committee, there were 34 at-large positions available. This year the tournament is expanding to a 68-team field, which adds three additional spots for the committee to award.

This is where the trust in fellow committee members comes in handy.

“At that point, the teams you are studying look the same, and you can slip a piece of paper between their resumes,” said O’Connor, who was the former coach at Dartmouth and Loyola (Maryland) in the 1970s. “You can have a difficult time. What I’ve done is listen to other people who were assigned to monitor a particular team. I want to listen to what that person has to say because that’s the person that has the best knowledge.”

Every aspect of the teams are discussed such as style of play, defensive intensity and whether a team is good at limiting its turnovers. Of course, there are less subjective standards like the team’s record and who and where they played throughout the season that are major factors too.

There is one underlying theme for all the committee members.

“You have to get it right for the student-athletes who play the game all year long and their  coaches,” O’Connor said. “We all know that we have a very important professional task at hand. You want to do it to the best of your ability.”

In early February, the committee convenes in Indianapolis to discuss teams and re-familiarize themselves with the software program used in the process. It is especially helpful to the members going through the process for the first time.

When you are a rookie on the committee, the first selection, seeding and bracketing weekend can be compared to fast-forwarding through the commercials on a DVR. This is where mentorship can help slow things down.

O’Connor counts fellow directors of athletics Bob Bowlsby (then-Iowa and currently Stanford) Craig Littlepage (Virginia) and Gary Walters (Princeton) among those who advised him in his early days.

“The first time you are involved it is like going through basketball Disneyland,” O’Connor said. “It feels that way the other years too, and it is a tremendous ride. It’s the most challenging but most rewarding professional experience I’ve ever been involved with.”