Last week, I got to run a mock.
Along with 19 other amateurs, I was a member of the NCAA's Division I Men's Basketball Tournament Mock Selection Exercise. We did everything that the actual NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will do come March 10-14. Only we crammed a five-day task into roughly 25 hours, broken up over two days, all to learn more about what goes on in that room before Selection Sunday.
One thing I learned: It's harder than it looks.
Here's 12 more things I learned:
1. It resembles Groundhog Day . That's what Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president in charge of the tournament and the selection committee called it.
The tournament has 31 "AQs" or automatic qualifiers. It has 34 "ALs," or at-large berths. Remaining teams are "under consideration." Before we arrived in Indianapolis, we were to compile a list of "at-large" teams and "under consideration" teams. We mocks agreed on 19 at-large and 53 under consideration. When Shaheen saw the number 53, he said he knew it was going to be a long two days.
Next, you are given a list of "under consideration" teams and asked to list the eight best. Once the secret votes are tallied, eight teams are listed for you to rank. Once those votes are tallied, the top four go into the "AL" list, the bottom four are holdovers. Then you start the process again. And again. And again.
"Peeling the onion," Shaheen called it.
2. The RPI is not the be-all, end-all. The RPI is important. But you are given so many numbers, broken down so many different ways, the RPI becomes a guideline rather than a Holy Grail.
3. Some don't believe their lying eyes. Shaheen, who is entering his 10th year working with the committee, said some members place importance in the numbers. Others say, "I don't care what the numbers show. I've seen so-and-so team play and they have to be one of the best 65 teams in the country."
4. Like life, it's not always fair. In an effort to be fair, the system is sometimes unfair. For example, Big 12 associate commissioner John Underwood and I represented actual committee member Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe. Thus we could not choose any Big 12 teams on the consideration list. Nor could we participate in rankings if a Big 12 team was involved. Whenever a Big 12 team was discussed, we had to leave the room.
Meanwhile, Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and Lindsey Wilhite of the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago represented Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith. They could remain in the room when a Big Ten member was being discussed. Smith is an athletics director, not a commissioner. That's an advantage for the Big Ten.
5. Fan bases are considered. Kansas, Syracuse, Kentucky and Villanova were our committee's No. 1 seeds. As No. 3 overall seed, Kentucky was placed in the East Region, where Syracuse, N.Y., is host. The West Region, with Salt Lake City as host, was also a possibility. But the software the committee uses showed that, by mileage, Syracuse is closer to Lexington.
I asked Shaheen if the fact a team travels well is ever discussed. Shaheen said yes, it would often come up, but that it was usually not a deciding factor. For example, this year, 80 percent of the tickets are already sold at regional sites. That's before the public knows which schools will be going to which regions.
6. Human nature is involved. Used to be, weight was given to a team's final 12 games. The committee now considers a team's entire body of work. Sounds good, but when you look at a resume, or "team sheet," it's difficult not to notice if a team has lost four of its last five.
7. Conference affiliations mean little. When you are in that room, with all those numbers, the teams run together. By the end of the process, you might not be able to remember that Charlotte is in the Atlantic 10 or UTEP is in Conference USA, much less how many teams have already been chosen from which conference. You're just looking for 34 worthy basketball teams.
8. It's difficult to dictate matchups. The teams are seeded one through 65. When it comes time to set the brackets -- something that doesn't happen until maybe an hour or two before the Selection Show on Sunday -- the committee considers each team individually before placing it in a region and at a site.
Competitive balance among the brackets is important, but you also want to place a team at the closest site, if possible. Plus, there are also procedural rules to follow. You must put the first three seeded teams in a conference into separate regions. Two teams from the same conference may not meet before a regional finals. If possible, you are to avoid repeating regular-season games, or recent tournament games.
Try to do all that and still pit Kentucky vs. Louisville in the first round. Go ahead, I dare you.
9. Polls are meaningless. The NCAA does ask the committee to look at the Associated Press poll, the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll and the NABC regional advisory poll. Only I don't remember a single instance when a mock member cited a poll when making a case for or against a team.
10. History doesn't matter. What a team did previous to this year has no bearing. David Worlock, the NCAA's associate director of the tournament, was ready to admonish anyone who brought up Siena's past tournament wins when considering the Saints. No one did. Score one for the mocks.
11. At least this year, there aren't 65 deserving teams. When we got to the final spots, all possibles, there wasn't a dime's worth of difference. All owned significant flaws. As one mock committee member put it, "What you have here are a lot of good NIT teams."
12. It's fun, but taxing, and we were just the mocks.
Tuesday night in Starkville at the UK-Mississippi State game, I ran into C.M. Newton. The former UK athletics director is a former selection committee chairman. I told him I had served on the mock committee exercise.
"C.M., I have a newfound respect for you," I said.
The old coach smiled.