The flips and flops of this college basketball season keep coming. Seldom does a night go by without something unexpected, or inexplicable. But come the second weekend in March, a committee will have to make sense of it all.
What must the guy who will one day face the world and explain the selection process be thinking?
"Sometimes it’s closer than a razor’s edge. To use the metaphor, you couldn’t slide a piece of paper between them, it’s that thin of a margin,’’ Joe Castiglione was saying over the phone about what it will be like choosing who gets in the NCAA Tournament door, and who doesn’t.
"We can only imagine the challenge that is going to present itself when we get to the seeding process.’’
Castiglione is Oklahoma’s athletic director, but more to the point, chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. The folks who fill the bracket. That is never, ever, ever easy, but what about a season when the No. 1’s have fallen like November leaves, and a gaggle of unexpected faces are crowding into the top 10? When you try to define the upper tier, and there are more possibilities than you can shake a basketball metrics printout sheet at?
"Based on what we’ve seen thus far, it feels like we’re going to be working with a lot of really good, competitive teams. As a whole, a group of teams that are much more balanced,’’ he said. "Some people use the word 'parity.’ I’m not using that word. I just see much more balance. Some teams are very good with a lot of young players, and their rosters have turned over, but we’re also seeing more and more teams with student-athletes that are playing three and four years, so they have some veteran leadership.’’
In other words, it’s kind of a mess. Last year was more orderly, at least in seeding.
"About this time of year, we started to see some teams that could separate themselves from others, and that became increasingly evident in the middle of February,’’ Castiglione said. "When we got to selection week in March, we publicly acknowledged that there were eight teams locked into the top two seeds. At that point in time, from the statistics we had, many people felt that was unprecedented.’’
Kansas might be a symbol of what’s happening this season. The Jayhawks are No. 3 in the latest coaches’ rankings – but tied for fourth place in the Big 12. Then there’s the ACC, where you have to go down nine spots at the moment to find Duke.
"At this point in time, there seems to be, on the whole, a larger group of teams that have very compelling resumes,’’ Castiglione said. ``Some people argue for having dominant teams versus teams that are all competitive. But from a fan’s standpoint, they’re watching great deal of excitement night after night in college basketball, and that has to be good for the game.’’
But good for the committee in March? Not so much. Castiglione prefers to look at the upside.
"It promises to be another year when college basketball lives up to its moniker of March Madness, and certainly reinforces why this is one of the world’s greatest sports events, and an important piece of Americana.’’
Castiglione is also facing another interesting scenario. He’s chair of the committee. His Sooners are also No. 1 at the moment. That is not unprecedented – Ohio State’s Gene Smith was chair in 2011 when the Buckeyes ended the season No. 1, and same for Arizona’s Cedric Dempsey in 1989 and Kentucky’s Bernie Shively in 1966. But it is unusual.
"Obviously, I’m taking my committee member hat off and being the athletic director at Oklahoma when I say I’m unquestionably proud of what our team has done to this point,’’ he said. "They are certainly a fun team to watch.’’
Not that he’ll be around when the committee gets to talking the Sooners.
"Having gone through the process and really understanding how the process works, I really haven’t thought about it as a unique challenge. Any time the committee discusses a team or a group of teams that one of the committee members represents, they have to get up and leave the room."
And go where? "It’s a room with a TV. Sort of a soundproof room, so you’re away from any of the dialog. There’s never any downtime. You can watch other games or study your notes. You’re there until you hear the doorbell ring, and you can come back in.’’
And should Oklahoma still be top of the heap?
"I guess I’ll be experiencing something for the first time. I’ll have to fill you in how much time I spend sequestered."
For the record, the only committee chairs/athletic directors to ever preside over a tournament won by their own schools were Kentucky’s C.M. Newton in 1998 and Kansas’ Arthur C. Lonborg in 1953.
Castiglione’s big moment will be Selection Sunday, when he has to present the bracket to the public, and answer any blowback.
"At the end of the process,, I have to be the one that can clearly and cogently express the view of the committee and how we made certain decisions,’’ he said. "This particular year, that’s going to be very challenging.’’
Surely, he must have thought about that moment, and maybe noticed how chairs before him have handled the task.
"Yes, and yes. I can remember watching committee chairs of many years gone by, before I ever became a member of the committee. So I’ll be ready.’’