Keeping a watchful eye
How chair Scott Barnes prepares for Selection Sunday
Here is a typical night in the Scott Barnes house this basketball season. The television is on. Maybe a movie, a sitcom, a reality show. The kids and wife are watching. And then he shows up.
"They know when I walk into the room, it’s my clicker. I own it. Absolutely own it," he said. But let’s give the man a break. When you’re the chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, and Selection Sunday is suddenly weeks away, there are games to watch. Always more games.
"The blessing is my daughter plays college basketball at Utah State, my son plays in high school, my wife loves it. We’re a basketball family. So I could bury myself in the den on another TV, but I try to incorporate the family. Turn it on, and let them hang out."
And so it goes, for this year’s target in the shooting gallery. The NCAA tournament bracket is a committee’s work, but the chair is the face the world tends to sneer at if Selection Sunday is disappointing. They all understand the deal.
Now it’s Barnes’ turn. He is Utah State's athletic director, once played pro ball in Germany, and former general manager of the Fresno Flames of the World Basketball League. And at 6-foot-8, one of the few committee chairs in history who could dunk.
So how’s it going here in mid-February, with the moment of truth not a month away?
"You think you know what you’re getting into. Until you’re really in it, it’s hard to get your head around it,’’ Barnes said. This is his fifth year on the committee, so he knows how it all goes together. But the chair is different. As a committee member, he would be assigned a handful of conferences to monitor. Now the nation is his province -- and so is directing the group.
"One thing is just having the discipline, and every night making sure I’m watching globally across everything," he said. "I think the other is understanding the pace and the timing in the room as we go through it.
"What makes this committee great is dialogue, and as chair, my responsibility is being a catalyst for that dialogue. Making sure people are talking, making sure there are not any questions unanswered, making sure that tough conversations are had, in a professional manner, but it’s put all out there.
"We’ve got one chance to get this right.’’
It's not going to be easy. College basketball is awash with the p-word -- parity. Kentucky might be the unbeaten monolith, but there’s a crowd after that. As of Monday, there were already 88 teams with 17 or more victories. The 20-win club is going to be massive.
"Last year we had 50 teams in the under consideration bucket, when normally it might be 30 or 35. And we thought that was hard," Barnes said. "This could be at that level or even more."
Which means lots of discussion in that hotel suite.
"Second guessing, it’s almost part of the mechanics. You’re going to vote one way and you’ll hear a compelling argument on why it might be different, and you might change your mind. As paper thin as the margins are between some of these teams, it’s going to be a tough assignment.
"There’s been kind of an evolution to this season. Early on you saw teams like Eastern Washington go somewhere and win [at Indiana]. Then you saw the elite teams begin to develop. Then, as the season has gone on, you see in the major conferences in the middle, teams just beating each other up. You might lose by 15 and then win by 15. There are a lot of really good teams that haven’t separated themselves as elite teams, but are fighting for positions in the field.’’
Then there’s seeding. Take Duke, Virginia, Wisconsin and Gonzaga, for instance. They can’t all get No. 1s. Not with Kentucky. So who gets left out? And how do you put it all together and try to maintain some sort of geographical sanity?
"In our conversations with the NABC [National Association of Basketball Coaches], they would much rather protect the seed line than have a short trip," Barnes said. "That seed line is really important to them. We’re going to do that to the best of our ability."Things are different these days in the committee room. Barnes mentioned a chat with Bernard Muir -- now Stanford athletic director and a new committee member, but with the NCAA tournament staff 15 years ago -- and how back then, "the most up-to-date technological asset was Velcro." No more writing and rewriting teams’ names during discussion, as they wandered in and out of the field.
"They had a copy machine running and it was a big deal when they got two TVs," Barnes said. "West Coast teams, they weren’t watching much because there were so few games on TV. It was all stats, all pieces of paper. The dynamic has changed."
One thing hasn’t changed. Millions will be looking over the shoulders of the committee in general, and Barnes in particular.
"We’re going to take our role very seriously, but we’re not going to take ourselves too seriously. We’re going to have fun. You have to," he said. "But it’s very important. To say there is not some angst or anxiousness to make sure we get it right would be a false statement. The nervousness is like getting ready for a big game. You have that knot in your stomach."
And that Sunday, when Barnes steps in front of the cameras for post-selection questions, which sometimes have the tone of the Spanish Inquisition?
"The thing about this process is you can’t please everybody. You just won’t. It’s about picking the best teams. I’m really confident we’ll do that. What’s important to me is that we follow the prescribed principles, we do our homework and we make informed decisions. If you feel good about that when you come out of the room and sit down with the guys and talk, it’s not nearly as hard as you might make it out to be.
"At least, I’m telling myself that."