Committee chairman is, as usual, on hot seat


As chairman of the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee, Jim Livengood is livin' dangerously.

How else do you explain some of the decisions Livengood and his committee made in seeding the 65 teams for this year's tournament?

Considering that Liven- good's day job is as athletic director at the University of Arizona, there's a good chance his most valued employee, basketball coach Lute Olson, might have reason to be a little miffed for the company the top-seeded Wildcats were given in the West Regional.

Arizona should have an easy time with No. 16 seed Vermont in Thursday's opening round in Salt Lake City, but it will have to play Gonzaga or Cincinnati to reach the Sweet 16, and could eventually have to beat No. 2 seed Kansas or No. 3 seed Duke to get to the Final Four.

Asked last night about how top-heavy the West Regional seemed compared to the other three brackets, Liven- good said, "We try to do the very best job to balance the regions. What might look balanced to us might not look balanced to somebody else."

Said Olson: "There's so many good teams. In the West, we've got some heavy hitters."

As for whether Olson will still be on speaking terms with his boss when Livengood returns to Tucson, that doesn't seem to be a problem.

"Lute talks to me every day, and in a very good way," Liven- good said. "He will talk to me on Monday, probably by phone though because I'll be gone for a while."

Livengood might not want to plan any trips to a few locations, such as Lexington, Ky., Pittsburgh and, most of all, Lubbock, Texas.

There is the possibility that arguably the two best teams in the country for most of the regular season, Arizona and Kentucky, would face off in one of the two semifinal games at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on April 5 rather than playing for the championship two nights later.

"I think we would do the process a great injustice if we were trying to put teams together because it would be an intriguing matchup or we try to look ahead and say, 'These two teams have a chance to meet for the national championship. Why would we want to have them play in the semifinals?' " said Liven- good. "It's just the way it happened to work out and the committee doesn't try to predict in any way who might win."

If fans at those schools are upset about their teams playing before the final, what about those poor folks in Pittsburgh who figured their Panthers would be seeded in the East after winning the Big East tournament? They figured they could drive to Albany, N.Y., if Pitt advanced to the Sweet 16. Now, they would have to drive to Minneapolis for the Midwest Regional.

"The committee spent a tremendous amount of time talking about where teams would play, maybe more time this year than any year I've been on the committee," said Livengood. "At the end of the process, the feeling was that Pittsburgh wasn't disadvantaged at all in regard to where they were sent."

Given Arizona's loss to a 10-win UCLA team in the opening round of the Pac-10 tournament, and the fact that Texas, the No. 1 seed in the South, also lost in the Big 12 tournament, this year's NCAA tournament appears to be more wide open than any in recent memory.

Only Kentucky, which takes a 23-game winning streak into the tournament is considered nearly unbeatable going into its opening-round game against IUPUI (pronounced ooey-pooey, but stands for Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis).

The other No. 1 seed is Oklahoma, which nudged out Kansas on the basis of winning the Big 12 tournament. While Livengood said that he and his committee didn't use the results of the various conference tournaments to sway many of their decisions, some choices appear to be in direct response to what happened in the past week.

Consider this:

Defending national champion Maryland, which many thought was, at worst, a candidate for a No. 4 seed going into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, tumbled to a sixth seed after losing to North Carolina in the quarterfinals in Greensboro, N.C.

Auburn, which was thought to be in jeopardy of not getting a bid because of a weak, nonconference schedule, essentially earned the Southeastern Conference's sixth bid by knocking Tennessee out of the SEC tournament and, ultimately, the NCAAs as well.

Yet Colorado and Texas Tech had their fates sealed by what they did during the regular season, rather than the Big 12 tournament. The Buffaloes got an NCAA berth based on the strength of four wins over Top 25 teams, while the Red Raiders, despite making the conference semifinals, did not earn an NCAA invitation because of its weak strength of schedule.

"One of the things that made Friday [when the selection process begins] so interesting and difficult both is that Friday afternoon and evening, there were a lot of games that probably did not go the way that some may or may not have predicted," said Livengood. "The committee does not predict. We react to what happens."

If there is time to react. In the case of Illinois, which, late yesterday afternoon, won the Big Ten tournament, the committee didn't appear to give the Fighting Illini any props. Illinois received a No. 4 seed in the West, the lowest seed of any major conference tournament champion.

"Would it help to have the tournament played earlier? It could," said Livengood. "We try to make sure a team isn't disadvantaged, but often times it's hard because the tournament is played so late."

As for the committee favoring major conferences over the mid-majors, it seems that a peaceful middle ground was found. While the Big 12 and SEC each got six teams, the committee gave mid-major teams that won their regular-season conference title, but not the conference tournament, better treatment than in past years.

Aside from Gonzaga, the list includes Creighton, which received a school-best No. 6 seed in the West, as well as Southern Illinois and Butler.

But Livengood made it clear that Butler's bid was not the result of the school not getting in last year.

"There might be make-up calls in some sports in other things, but there's no make-up call with the committee," said Livengood. "One of the principles that is a guiding principle for us is that we start over new each year. It does not matter who's been in the tournament."

Nor does it matter what a team has done recently. Creighton senior guard Larry House can't wait for a chance to play three-time national champion Duke in the second round in Salt Lake City.

"That makes your eyes light up," said House. "When you see Duke's name up there, you want a piece of them."

There are a few coaches who might say the same about Livengood and his committee.

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