Pandemic makes this Big Dance a challenge
The NCAA’s football and basketball committees have vastly different jobs.
The football committee generally ponders five or six teams for four slots. The committee does its due diligence and spreads out the task over multiple days, but let’s be honest, you could pick the College Football Playoff during a Happy Hour Sonic run.
The basketball committee, not so much. Sixty-eight slots to be seeded. Thirty-seven at-large teams to be selected. Regional assignments. Keep fellow conference members separated on the bracket. Maintain some regional balance but keep geography in mind. Remember to not schedule Brigham Young on a Sunday. Lots to unpack.
All while trying to compare Saint Louis of the Atlantic-10 to Colorado State of the Mountain West.
And now the pandemic has made the basketball committee’s task even more challenging.
COVID wiped out the 2020 NCAA Tournament, depriving college basketball of not only the four-week stretch of March Madness, but of one of the best sports days of the year: Selection Sunday, when the 68-team bracket is revealed.
The tournament is back, and Selection Sunday has arrived, but COVID’s effects linger.
• Reduced non-conference schedules, making conference comparisons squishy. The Big Ten and Big 12 look powerful, but how do we really know?
• Fewer games overall. If college basketball played a 60-game schedule, that Saint Louis-Colorado State deal would sort itself out. But Saint Louis has played 20 games this season; normally, the Billikens would have about 30 on their ledger.
• Results that have been skewed by COVID protocols.
The committee pioneered the god complex, gauging not just résumés, but extenuating circumstances. Injuries. Mid-season transfers. Eligibility issues. It’s a ridiculous concept, projecting what could have been, but the committee lives by it, which means you live with it during COVID.
OU, without Austin Reaves, beat Alabama 66-61. Two days later, the Sooners, again without Reaves, lost 57-52 at Texas Tech. OU lost 63-59 at Kansas without Brady Manek. The Sooners won 80-79 at Texas, when the Longhorns were without Courtney Ramey and Jericho Sims.
OSU, without Cade Cunningham, lost 81-66 to Baylor. The Cowboys beat Kansas State and Iowa State when both had depleted rosters.
How much slack does a team get for players quarantined? Do teams get full credit for beating opponents diminished by the virus?
Those OU/OSU stories are just two teams and the most severe cases of this crazy COVID season. Now factor in every squad, the 75 or so under consideration for the NCAA Tournament, and absences of players a little less prominent.
And just exactly how will the committee keep up?
As well as it can.
“We've got a really strong conference monitoring system,” said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, chairman of the committee. “Every committee member is assigned conferences to work with. Each conference has two people assigned to them, and they work with those liaisons with the conference offices to continue to take a look at player availability and who has played games, missed games, all of those things.
“We actually put another component on our monitoring sheets to sort of take into account this unique circumstance. I think we're tracking it as well as we can, I think at a pretty high level.”
The good news locally is that the Bedlam rivals are safely in the field. Both were bubble teams in 2018; OU made it, OSU didn’t. The Cowboys were a darkhorse contender a year ago, until the pandemic popped everyone’s bubble.
No such intrigue exists this year. The Cowboys and Sooners have swapped places. A month ago, OSU was considered a likely 7-8 seed, while the Sooners were a 2-3 seed. Now, OU has slipped into the mid-range of the bracket, while the Cowboys stormed into the Big 12 Tournament championship game and clearly are a 2-3 seed.
“I’m not sure anybody’s played a tougher schedule the last three weeks than we have,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said. “Nobody.”
In a 19-day span, the Cowboys beat six top-25 teams. That’s the second-shortest span ever for six top-25 wins, according to ESPN. Connecticut in 2011 had six top-25 wins in an 18-day span.
The committee will take notice of that. Then again, the committee has a lot to dig through.
“To say that you're going to be able to factor in every one of those player availability issues is probably going to be difficult,” Barnhart admitted. “But we will do the best we can.”
That’s all we can ask for in 2021, a college basketball season affected, but not ended, by the pandemic.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.