College basketball fans are now only a few days away from getting unprecedented exposure to the men's NCAA Tournament selection committee's thought process and in-season evaluation.
I spoke with this year's tournament chair, Mark Hollis, by phone on Monday. He was in the midst of a four-hour drive from East Lansing, Mich., down to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Why? Remember, CBS and CBS All-Access will be airing a one-time-only, 16-team bracket reveal at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Hollis and the other nine members on this year's selection committee are convening in Indy this week to build out the top four seeds in each region. Those meetings begin Tuesday and finish Thursday afternoon. The committee will even make contingency brackets to send to CBS depending on who wins Thursday night's games. There are eight teams, conceivably, playing Thursday night that are/could be in the mix for a 4 seed or better: SMU, North Carolina, Duke, Purdue, Wisconsin, Oregon, UCLA and Gonzaga.
The top-16 reveal came as a surprise to some because so few are aware that the selection committee holds a private bracketing exercise every February. For nearly a decade, the NCAA invited select members of the media and did a mock selection in addition to their own test-run selection. This was done, in part, to help new committee members on a year-by-year basis get a feel for the room, the resources available, etc., so the week of real selection in March wouldn't be overwhelming or confusing. February is the dress rehearsal, a method of loosening up the selection muscles.
Now, in lieu of the media mock, the committee is committing their energy to putting out the top 16.
"This week really launches the intense portion," Hollis said. "That's not to say we haven't been doing our homework. You can't come into February without doing that. Watching games, watching various metrics. Every committee member is watching games. (Committee member) Peter Roby for example noted Wichita State-Illinois State as a good game for everyone to watch (over the weekend) because they could be in the conversation. Now, that's just an example. Everyone has a tendency to focus on teams higher in the bracket. We want to watch teams that are going to be in the conversation in the entire bracket."
Hollis, who will be going on a tremendous two-week college basketball road trip later this month, told me he keeps tracks of the sport by arranging a list of teams, tiering them out, every Sunday.
"Sometimes I check myself against others, and I don't do it to change my opinion, but sometimes I do, because someone might see something I don't see," he said.
The one thing I couldn't get out of Hollis: specific thoughts on specific teams. But that's coming soon. Though the NCAA's directive is to not discuss debate or details about any teams until the bracket is revealed, Saturday provides a loophole. Hollis will be on set in New York at the CBS studios, so we'll get an unprecedented explanation of at least 16 teams, though Hollis is already warning against taking any validity into those rankings. Instead, his directive here is to inform the public on the process, not the results. In short: he wants people who love the bracket to better understand how it's constructed.
"The 16 teams, I'm not sure how much of a news item that is," Hollis said. "My focus, here on February 6, is on March -- not what comes out this week. I just want to make sure what we do this week doesn't harm the process for March. Things can change so fast. Whatever comes out, hopefully it's about some people saying, 'Now I understand the process.' I don't think it's going to be a revelation on what the teams are or anything like that. I think it's a cool thing to put out there, to let people see where we're at. Our committee is in full swing right now."
The move to do an in-season peel on the top 25 percent of the bracket -- resisted by some and celebrated by others -- is the NCAA's latest step toward transparency in building the tourney. It's the biggest change the committee's undergone over the past five years.
"Transparency's always been a focal point, but in today's world, transparency is a necessity in almost everything that's done," Hollis said. "It used to be that you threw it (the bracket) out on (Selection) Sunday and that was the end. Now the evaluations are ongoing. The level of accountability and responsibility for the committee has always been high. I just think it's out there a little bit more, like anything else in the world. It's a harder job in year five, and it's not just because I'm the chair. A lot has changed in five years.
"We have more information today than every before," Hollis continued. "Some of that factual, some of it opinionated, and all of that has to be consumed by a group of 10 volunteers that are also trying to do their job at the same time. Top to bottom, and I think it's one of the rare things in college athletics, that there's a lot of good put into it and a lot of good that comes out of it."
Some have argued that the top 16 isn't where the drama is, though. Why not seed out the 9, 10, 11 and 12 seeds instead? If you're going to put out an early look at the bracket, don't give us the safe teams -- give us the unstable ones. Hollis had a good argument to that: It's not practical.
"That would put us into a role of having to make a lot more predictions," he said. "You have to start dropping in some conference champions in the process or make assumptions, or you make a bracket that's not true because you don't have conference champions in there. Once you get beyond 16 teams, it's very much a bracketology process than committee process there. Once you get that deep, you step outside the norms. That's something we have to fight and not do, in my opinion. There's a lot of qualified people out there who do bracketology, and that's their role. We have to stick to the ground rules of what we do, and so we'll stick with the top 16."
Hollis remains as open-minded as you could want a tournament chair to be. He's diligent about watching the games in person (he's already done a West Coast trip this season, in addition to being in New York in November), but also knows that there are many research ways necessary to do this job effectively. He's also expecting this to be a test run. Who knows what is or isn't guaranteed for 2018 and beyond.
"You're always going to have opportunities for suggestions, criticism, and I think that's good," he said. "If there is a positive that's going to come out of the 16, I think that there's going to be a flurry of suggestions."
The NCAA will succeed this weekend in getting enhanced coverage of the sport. But be on the lookout to see if more reaction comes from which teams are seeded where, rather than responding to Hollis' explanation of how those teams were selected in the first place. He's hoping for the latter.