The annual march toward madness is worth the wait

All aboard . . . nirvana the next stop!

All hail the NCAA. How's that for a switch?


For no less than 49 weeks a year, the august body charged with the responsibility of overseeing collegiate athletics catches more flak than a B-17 flying over the French coast in early 1944. Then comes March.

"March Madness," someone dubbed the organization's basketball tournament a few years back and what more fitting introduction for the wacky weekends to follow than "Selection Sunday" three days hence?


The next 72 hours is when the term "on the bubble" takes on more meaning, passion and drama than almost any other three words you can conjure up, except maybe "no new taxes."

To the moment, 17 conference or tournament champions have passed muster, to be joined shortly by 13 more. That's the easy part.

Enter the fun, frustration, folly, hysterics, threats, weeping, wailing and, finally, resignation. And, oh yes, politics.

The hoops version of the age-old stickler, to be or not to be, is who deserves the 34 at-large berths, the teams with the best players from the best conferences or the teams with the best records made against the best schedules they could come up with?

A simple and politically correct answer is an equitable combination of the two. OK, next question: How do you achieve that?

If you have anything even resembling a satisfactory answer, send it off to Kansas City, where the men making the final decisions are apt to name you a permanent member of the selection committee (with oak leaf cluster).

As surely as spring arrives on March 21 (or thereabouts), the questions seem to come up the same:

Just how strong are the ACC, the Atlantic 10, the SEC, the WAC, the Midwestern Collegiate, the Metro and the Bigs Eight, 10, Sky, East, West and South? And how come there's no Big North?


How important are impressive showings in those cash-cow conference tournaments, especially when some leagues don't have them?

Is strength of schedule as important as big wins vs. big losses?

What value is given to 20 victories?

How much weight is given to the visibility and/or sneaker contract of a coach whose team is on the borderline, and is the school's athletic director a big man in the association?

What part does TV play other than to toss about a zillion dollars into the pot?

Should a team be required to win at least half its games in a potent conference?


Regarding the latter, the chairman of the selection committee, Tom Butters of Duke, comes down on both sides of the question: "Though I would prefer a team be .500 in conference, you cannot do that [make it a stipulation] without building safeguards for extenuating circumstances."

The Blue Devils athletic director reminds one of the guy who answers a tough question with the reply, "I feel very strongly both ways."

Checking out records heading into league tourneys beginning today and tomorrow, no fewer than five teams apiece in the ACC, Big Eight, Big East, SEC and Atlantic 10 have credentials running from strong through arguable to make the 64-team field, and that's not taking into account teams that could come out of the weeds, stage upsets and make it as conference champions.

That's 25 potential starters to begin with and, out in the Big Ten, there are a half-dozen more that can talk a good game, down from an earlier total of eight. That doesn't leave much room for the runners-up in solid conferences like the Sun Belt, Metro, Southwest, Mid-American and Big West, does it? And how about an independent like Wisconsin-Milwaukee and its 23-4 mark?

No matter what happens this weekend, the NCAA steadfastly backs the process that deals in power ratings, road victories, records against ranked teams, strength of schedule, number of losses affected by key injuries and how a team is playing at the end of the season. Then a computer takes over.

Of course, there are flaws all over the place, like a conference tournament winner getting an automatic bid over the regular-season champion. But then what would be the reason for staging the tourney other than to make money, which is not totally evil, after all.


As selection chairman Butters says, "The process is fair and it is unbiased." At least as long as television (CBS) keeps its hands to itself and until it is your school or favorite team that doesn't make it.

In any case, it's all worth it. All hail the NCAA.