To college basketball fans, it’s a dream world.
The reality is that for Wellman and the other nine members on the NCAA tournament selection committee, this will be a long, stressful weekend with tougher questions and debate than anybody would have expected back in November.
“This year is unlike any of the five years that I have seen,” said Wellman, the committee chairman. “There is an awful lot of parity and balance in the game, which will make it more challenging for the committee, but should produce a really exciting tournament.”
It’s never easy getting this 68-team tournament bracket right, but this year’s field is rife with questions from top to bottom.
Five teams have been ranked No. 1 this season, but No. 2 Wichita State, the Missouri Valley Conference champion, is the first team in 23 years to enter the tourney with a perfect record.
Syracuse was unbeaten until a month ago but has now lost four of its last six.
Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season champion, is trying to show the committee it still deserves a No. 1 seed even though star center Joel Embiid is expected to miss the conference tourney and the first weekend of NCAA play with an injured back. The Jayhawks are 1-1 since Embiid went down, and Wellman and his committee will spend part of this weekend getting updates before emerging Sunday evening with the bracket.
“We will be following it throughout the week. We will be in contact with Kansas,” Wellman said before the meetings began Wednesday. “So we will be in as good a position as we possibly can be to place Kansas on the right seed line and in the right location.”
There are no guarantees, though.
When national player of the year Kenyon Martin broke his right leg during the 2000 Conference USA tournament, the committee dropped Cincinnati from a No. 1 seed to a No. 2 seed.
Ten years later, the committee rewarded Syracuse with a No. 1 seed even though the Orange had lost two straight without injured starting center Arinze Onuaku. The reason: After consulting with Syracuse officials, committee members believed Onuaku would play in the NCAA tournament. He did not.
“We have to rely upon what the schools tell us. We don’t have a CIA operation here where we can go in the back door and find out information that they are not giving us,” Wellman said. “So we do rely upon the school’s truthfulness with us and we believe they do tell us the truth. Sometimes it doesn’t pan out the way they predict. But we believe they do their best to give us the very best diagnosis. The diagnosis of an injury can change from day to day, as well.”
Injuries will be only part of the discussion this weekend.
The NCAA adopted two changes in August that could help the bracketing process. New guidelines allow conference teams that played once during the regular season to meet as early as the first weekend of the tournament. The other change calls on the committee to avoid first- and second-round rematches with non-conference teams that have already met. That includes the First Four games in Dayton, Ohio.
Committee members must determine how to seed and bracket a team like Oklahoma State, which was ranked in the top five early in the season but went 0-3 after Marcus Smart was suspended for shoving a fan.
They’ll have to sort through RPI rankings and analytics, which have become a bigger and bigger part of college and pro basketball, to choose 36 at-large teams. They’ll have to weigh teams finishing strong against those that are fading, and they may have to give more consideration to placing teams closer to home to prevent attendance declines at second- and third-round sites.
All of this could force the committee to produce multiple brackets before unveiling the final one on CBS.
“There have been a number of years where there have been four or five brackets active very late in the game, whether it be the SEC (tournament) championship or other reasons,” Wellman said. “But the committee will be well prepared for any possibility (of upsets) late Sunday afternoon.”
Wellman is convinced that by the end of the weekend, the committee will come to a conclusion that fans will embrace.
“I think that’s good for college basketball that we have the parity that we do,” Wellman said. “It should produce, like I said, a great NCAA basketball tournament.”