INDIANAPOLIS — NCAA selection committee chairman Gene Smith hopes he’s seen the last of this week’s complications.
The Ohio State athletic director is already dealing with a scandal in his own football program and a delayed arrival in Indianapolis. Two committee members are also dealing with what Smith calls “significant” personal issues he didn’t specify and Wednesday’s news conference had technical difficulties.
And Smith’s committee hasn’t even gotten to the hard part yet — selecting the first 68-team field in NCAA tournament history.
“This committee is very close, very cohesive and we’re supported very well by the NCAA staff,” Smith said. “I’m ready to roll.”
This will not be just another typical selection weekend for Smith and the other nine committee members.
They’ll spend the next five days holed up in an Indianapolis hotel trying to find the 37 best at-large teams — three more than previous years — and then seed all 68 properly.
Nobody’s perfect, and it’s never easy, but this year’s selection process could be more challenging and face more scrutiny.
The new format has created added some different debates to the regular mix of who is in and who is out.
Some believe the Big East should get a record 11 bids, raising concerns about whether the expanded field has simply become a way to get more teams from the six power conferences into the field.
Plus, Smith’s committee will likely face criticism about which teams play in next week’s four opening-round games in Dayton, Ohio. Two games will feature the bottom four seeds in the tourney while the other two will feature the last four at-large teams.
The NCAA has dubbed this group the First Four, though those eight team probably will not feel the same way. Smith has already prepared some answers.
“We will go through one through 68 and we’re very confident that the 35th, 36th, 37th slots that the at-large teams going to Dayton will be excited to go,” he said. “Every single year we evaluate what we did the previous year. Anything that we feel we need to modify based on that experience we’ll modify.”
Smith is getting pretty good at adapting on the fly.
On Tuesday night, he attended a hastily called news conference to announce Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel had been suspended for two games and fined $250,000 for violating NCAA rules. Tressel, school officials said, waited more than nine months before notifying school compliance officials about his players’ involvement in selling signed memorabilia in exchange for money and tattoos.
After that news conference, Smith drove from Columbus, Ohio, to Indy for the selection marathon.
Then, Wednesday morning, while Smith was making his opening statement to reporters, things went awry.
“We’re excited to select the 37 at-large teams coupled with the 31 automatic qualifiers,” he said, before the phone line went dead.
Two or three minutes later, Smith was back explaining what had happened and what he would and would not discuss.
“Sorry we had some technical difficulties, we had to move to a different room,” he said. “I know there may be people out there who may want to ask questions about the Ohio State University case. Please, I ask that you be respectful. I’m here today as chair of the men’s basketball committee. Those questions are reserved for later days.”
Bear in mind, too, that the Buckeyes men’s basketball team is currently ranked No. 1 and could wind up the tourney’s top overall seed. Smith will need to leave the room when Ohio State is discussed, per committee rules.
But even without that, it will be complicated enough trying to sift through all the data and this week’s conference tournaments to devise a 68-team bracket everyone likes.
“Really, there’s 5,000 games played throughout the season,” he said. “You might be able to have an impact in your first (tourney) game, maybe your second game. The reality is that most teams that will be advantaged by the tournament are those who come through and win it.”