Nov. 16, 2010

With the Division I men's college basketball season officially underway, Gene Smith, the Associate Vice President and director of athletics at Ohio State and chair of the Division I Men's Basketball Committee, shares his insights into what makes the college game great, why the NCAA tournament has become the spectacle it is, what committee members do to prepare for selections in March, and how the new 68-team bracket will affect the committee's work.

There's already great anticipation building toward the first March Madness to include 68 teams, but what is making college basketball so special right now in November?

It's the start of something special. The great thing about college basketball is that the excitement is renewable. Everyone wants to know which teams and which players will emerge. We always have the teams that resonate with most people because of their historical success, but who's going to be different? Who will be the new coaching stars? Who's going to be the next great player?

People often wonder if there's a better way - or at least a more collective way - to tip off the season. College football typically has an opening weekend on Labor Day but basketball's "opening" is more staggered. Has the committee ever talked about this?

As a matter of fact, at our committee meeting last week in New Orleans, we spent time talking about this very thing. While it wasn't an agenda item for us, it emerged nonetheless as part of a long-range planning discussion. It's not within the committee's purview to create or mandate an official start of the season, but we will continue to discuss this topic and perhaps explore options. Perhaps there is a way to create that big splash that is currently lacking. We suspect fans would like it, television networks would rally around it, and frankly, the game deserves it.

Right now, the staggered approach to opening the season kind of gets lost in a time when the tension in Division I football is so huge. We're right in that window where the awareness of BCS football is so prevalent. Can we create something in that space to raise awareness and attention for basketball? Even if it's not an "official start date," perhaps there could be a more coordinated effort among a number of teams to begin their seasons on the same day, or maybe there's one multi-team tournament or event that distinguishes itself as the de facto tip-off to the season that
everyone would want to be involved with.

At the committee meeting last week, you unveiled the logo for the 2012 Men's Final Four in New Orleans. That will be a special event, not only because it's the Final Four but also because of its location. Talk about the committee's decision to take the Final Four there and what it will mean to the city of New Orleans.

Every person who follows college basketball understands the impact the Final Four will have on New Orleans. That city has gone through unbelievable adversity with Katrina and the oil spill in the Gulf, but officials have done a great job of bringing the city back. When we were going through the site-selection process in 2009, we thought it was important for the committee to have a social conscience and contribute to the effort to revitalize New Orleans. Then-NCAA President Myles Brand had made a commitment for the NCAA to bring championship events to New Orleans. That resonated with us. We all know the economic impact a Final Four has on a city, but it also serves as a catalyst. When we awarded the 2012 Final Four to New Orleans, it provided additional motivation for the people of New Orleans to come together to make sure that everything was in place to properly host an event like this.

There will be a number of people who come to the Final Four in 2012 who haven't been there - or who wouldn't have been motivated to go there - since Katrina. They will be pleasantly surprised with the great work that New Orleans has done to bring that city back. I was certainly surprised when we were here for the committee meeting last week. The 2011 Final Four in Houston is the third straight to use the new seating configuration for larger crowds. Is the committee pleased with the format to accommodate these record crowds?

We've received nothing but positive feedback from student-athletes, coaches and fans who have attended the previous two Final Fours in Detroit (2009) and Indianapolis (2010) that have used the new configuration. We are excited about Houston, as well. We were concerned initially about the raised-floor concept, but we've had great feedback from coaches and players and fans. We don't anticipate any hiccups in that regard for Houston, either. We learn and enhance the layout with each passing year. The primary benefit is that a lot more people are getting a chance to enjoy the Final Four in person, including thousands of students from the Final Four institutions - it has truly elevated the energy level throughout the building.

Last year's tournament ended with the Duke-Butler thriller that captivated the country. Talk about the state of the game, from its popularity to its parity. What fascinates us about college basketball?

Over the years, so many different aspects of college basketball have inspired us in different ways. Last year was one of those aspects where you had the David and Goliath matchup. That resonates naturally with people. We wanted to know just how David would fare. And it went down to the wire. The 2010 championship game certainly was a great example of what's so good about the game - two teams with a great reputation for winning the right way, a young up-and-coming coach who is recognized as a true talent versus an experienced coach who was mentored by some of the best in the game and who has developed a great program and has represented our country in the Olympics. What a story.

College basketball has so many of those elements, and there is so much parity in the game. We have 345 teams, and on any given night, there are X number of teams that can beat anyone. There also is unbelievable diversity in the game, not only among the players but also in the communities represented by those teams. There are so many inspiring stories that emerge through college basketball. The Duke-Butler matchup is one that will be talked about for a long time.

This also is the first year of the new contract with Turner and CBS. What will the look and feel of the broadcasts be in March?

We had a two-hour meeting with CBS and Turner last week. Having broadcast entities like that come together - even though they represented different cultures and different visions at the beginning of the negotiation process - to work collaboratively to do what's in the best interests of the student-athletes and the game makes us feel comfortable that they will be outstanding partners moving forward. Sometimes when you merge corporations together in an endeavor that comes with so much financial responsibility, things don't always go so smoothly. That's not the case here.

We talked about what we could do to help in the transition - we need to help our fans be aware where the games are because they'll all be televised on multiple platforms (CBS, TNT, TruTV, TBS). Previously our fans were looking at one channel or one place - now they can move around a little bit. There will be more opportunities to see more games in different ways.

How does the 68-team bracket change the committee's duties during selection week?

Our selecting, seeding and bracketing won't change much - we will continue with the same policies and procedures. The difference will be when we are to the point where we select those last at-large teams and realize an "aha moment" about how all of this will emerge, but the process will essentially stay the same. On the bracketing side, we'll have to be a little more aware of managing the travel issues appropriately, since that Tuesday-Wednesday format for the First Four presents some challenges for the winners that advance from those games.

Do you think the addition of bracket spots will increase or reduce questions about which teams on the bubble didn't make the field?

Once you select any final teams - regardless of the size of the bracket - there's always going to be someone else who feels they should have been that last at-large selection. That's natural, and it speaks to the parity in the game. And that's why it's going to be just as difficult as it's always been to select the field. The teams are so much better now, the coaching is so much better now - whoever that 38th or 39th team that is not selected will see themselves as having deserved a spot.

Talk generally about the work of the committee. For example, what will members being doing in November and December? Talk about the expectations of committee members and the integrity they have to bring to the table in order to serve in this role throughout the year.

We'll be watching a lot of game in November in December, that's what. But it's a lot more involved than it sounds. Committee members have different methods in how they monitor and track the conferences they've been assigned. Some use charts - you don't just watch games as an ordinary fan might. You are paying attention to the players, the types of defenses they play, what offense they run - you're juggling a lot of different aspects in your head. There are times when I will watch four or five games in one night. Then as the year goes on, you take injuries into account - how does a team play without one of its starters, how does so-and-so play on the road, how deep is Team X? You start taking more and more into account in January and February.

Within the past decade, we have seen the activation of a National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) ethics committee, a joint NCAA/NABC ethics coalition and the establishment of a focus group at the national office devoted solely to Division I men's basketball enforcement, all in an effort to protect and ensure the integrity of the game. Talk about the effect of these initiatives.

We need to have as many initiatives as we can to protect the game. I applaud the NABC for encouraging coaches to make the right decisions. Still, we have an outside element that we can't control and we need to do everything that we can to teach all coaches, administrators and student-athletes to build firewalls against some of the temptations. As for the state of the game, it improves every year, but whenever you have a sport where there is so much money involved, there will be unscrupulous characters why try to take advantage of our kids or programs to monetize their own opportunities. It takes a village to deal with all those issues.

I'm a big believer in having different groups and processes where you bring people together to think something through, because you never know what mind or minds will come up with the next best idea. The game is in great shape right now because of the players and coaches and the support that institutions and fans provide, but there always will be issues to reconcile, and we'll keep an eye on them.

When you speak to various publics, what do they say to you about college basketball? What's the one thing people wish we could change?

I can't really narrow it down to one thing. People have different views - some want a uniform start date, others are concerned about agents or the one- and-done phenomenon. This past year, expansion was obviously on people's minds. But I don't see these types of comments as griping or complaining about the game - I see it as a demonstration of passion and interest. When you are blessed with this responsibility of helping to protect and develop this great game, you have to be open to different views. If someone has a comment or a thought, whether I agree with it or not, at the end of the day that person supports basketball. They may not like the answer I provide, but they'll either be watching the game or at the game in person, and that's the most important thing.