By Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer
The season-ending NCAA tournament isn't the only competition that matters for men's and women's college basketball teams.
Throughout the regular season, teams have to post impressive records to even qualify for the NCAA tournament, and then they must also perform well at their conference's season-ending tournament. A team's performance throughout the regular season and in the postseason can determine if the squad makes the NCAA tournament, and what seeding it may receive.
The men's NCAA Division I basketball tournament expanded from 65 to 68 teams in 2011. The final four at-large teams and final four automatic qualifiers in the tournament field will meet for the right to enter the traditional 64-team draw. This "First Four" set of games will now be played on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday.
The bracket on Selection Sunday will have both teams listed for the same seed line, just like it has for the two teams playing in the opening-round game between Nos. 64 and 65 since that game's creation in 2001.
The winners of the four games will advance to what will now be called the "second round" on either Thursday or Friday. The newly named third round -- with 16 games -- will be Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the tournament -- regional semifinals (Sweet 16) and regional finals (Elite Eight) -- will remain as they have been, as will the Final Four.
The women, on the other hand, are sticking with a basic 64. As recently as 1979 -- the watershed year that pitted Magic Johnson and Michigan State against Larry Bird and Indiana State -- only 16 teams qualified for either the men's or the women's tournaments.
The top brass in the NCAA appoint selection committees, but nearly half of the entries are determined by conference tournament winners. In the men's tourney, 31 teams receive automatic entries and 37 are determined by the selection panel. For the women, 31 squads again are automatic and 33 are picked at large.
Selection Sunday is annually on the second Sunday in March, but selection committee members are hard at work ahead of time. Part of the job is science and part is speculation. Selection committee members compare scores from throughout the season, usually giving more weight to contests later in the season. This can lead to some confusion if Team A defeated Team B, which defeated Team C, which defeated Team A. Then there are issues involving home games versus road games, temporary injuries to key players, even in some cases involving coaches who are known to run up scores.
The men's and women's NCAA basketball committees both are made up of 10 members, with positions filled by athletic directors and conference commissioners. They avoid conflicts of interest by leaving the room when their own school or conference is discussed, although they may answer questions.
Each year, several schools feel they are unfairly excluded. With more than 60 slots available, the cutline is fairly wide and some teams qualify with as many as a dozen defeats. There also is a yearly push-and-pull regarding whether more weight should be given to the major conferences, or whether the so-called mid-majors should receive more respect. The six conferences considered to be major are the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeast Conference, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-10.
Each selection committee first picks the teams, then attempts to seed the teams and place them in the brackets. The challenge to make sure that each of the four regions -- East, South, Midwest and West -- will ideally offer the same degree of difficulty. To make the brackets equal, the region with the top-rated team in the nation, in theory, will have the weakest second seed, and so forth, so that regular-season accomplishments are rewarded.
The next issue becomes location. Efforts have been made to minimize travel by letting teams play in the tournament location closest to the school, but the selection committees still try to spread out teams so that conference rivalries are not repeated during the early rounds. No teams are allowed to play on their home courts during the NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments, although they may play in their home regions.