The selection committee never sleeps

Jamie Zaninovich

LAS VEGAS -- Jamie Zaninovich turned on his laptop at 7:45 a.m. on Saturday and opened a color-coded spreadsheet that featured a ranking of all the teams he believes are still in contention for invitations to the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"I want to show you this," he said to a reporter and cameraman who had invaded his spacious suite at The Orleans Hotel & Casino. "But don't get too close with the camera."

Zaninovich, the West Coast Conference commissioner and a member of the 10-person tournament selection committee, has developed his own personal college basketball ranking system, not unlike what you would see from the major media "bracketologists." His personal prioritizing of six different measures and metrics, however, is not for publication. It's for his own personal use with the selection committee.

"I weigh the different ranking systems and I put them into my own composite ranking," he said. "I can immediately see if something jumps out -- 'Look, they are only 1-4 in top-50s."

Zaninovich was preparing for an 8 a.m. conference call with committee members, his 29th such teleconference this season. A very long day in a season of long days is just beginning. Zaninovich's "day job" is pretty demanding, and the WCC men's and women's basketball tournament at the Orleans, which ran from Thursday to Tuesday, is the conference's biggest and most important event. It features 18 basketball games, and Zaninovich will watch just about every one of them. He also will take care of sundry administrative duties, conduct media interviews and preside over inductions into the conference's Hall of Honors, all the while trying to keep up with college basketball's twists and turns across the country.

You've got to be a basketball junkie to do this.

-- WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich

After the WCC tournament ended on Tuesday night, he took a red-eye to Indianapolis, where he will cast his first ballot for the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket on Wednesday. He and the other nine members of the committee then will hole up in a hotel for the next five days through this coming Selection Sunday.

It will be basically selection and seeding each day from 8 a.m. to perhaps as late as 11 p.m. Committee members get breaks to eat catered meals and work out and keep up with the various conference tournaments, but otherwise it's voting and discussion, voting and debate, and then filling out preliminary brackets until the official announcements on CBS.

"Once you get there, it's intense," he said. "It's dynamic, it's relative and it's complex."

It also requires an extraordinary time commitment for roughly four and a half months in advance of the committee meeting. Zaninovich, who has a wife and two young sons, said he spends about five days at home in March. His time management is better in his third year of a five-year term on the committee than it was in his rookie year, but adding 25 hours a week of watching and analyzing college basketball outside your bailiwick as an athletic director or conference commissioner means little down time.

And watching a lot of basketball.

"You've got to be a basketball junkie to do this," he said.


While sitting courtside and watching San Francisco have its way with San Diego during the opening game on Saturday, Zaninovich had four other games going on his laptop: Oklahoma State at Iowa State, Pittsburgh at Clemson, Texas at Texas Tech and Oklahoma at TCU.

He's heavy on the Big 12, because it is one of the three primary conferences he is assigned to monitor, along with Conference USA and Southland. But he'll watch no fewer than 12 different games on his laptop this day. He even checks in on Duke-North Carolina on his iPhone.

Tennessee is blowing out Missouri. Says Zaninovich, "This is an important game."

Arizona State loses at Oregon State. Says Zaninovich, "I'm not surprised ... Arizona State is not very good on the road."

He's asked what Arizona's loss at Oregon means. Says Zaninovich, "A lot of basketball left."

When Oklahoma State's four-game winning streak ends in overtime at Iowa State, it's a missed opportunity for the Cowboys. But Zaninovich emphasizes it doesn't fall into a major category that can move a team's estimation significantly up or down: A big road win or a bad loss.

"Oklahoma State losing a tight one at Iowa State is neither," he says.

While Zaninovich's college basketball immersion on this day is significant, it's not total. Because he's away from home so often in March, he's brought along his family, which includes wife, Karen, and sons Max, 7, and Lucas, 5.

Max shares his father's passion for hoops, and he sits transfixed much of the day. It's difficult not to take note of the poignancy of the scene, with Zaninovich, arm around Max, explaining the game's nuances. These father-son moments, however, are even more meaningful than they normally would be. The previous week, Zaninovich buried his father, George, a former political science professor at Oregon who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s.

"In some respects, it's good to be busy at a time like this," he said. "I'll take my moments when I need them."

Zaninovich grew up watching games with his father at Oregon's celebrated McArthur Court, "running around the third balcony as a kid."

"He's where I got my passion for basketball," he said. "I don't think I'd be sitting here if he didn't instill that in me."


Zaninovich's preparation for his third year on the committee began in November after he received his list of primary and secondary conferences (Pac 12, Big West, Summit and Big Sky). He and his WCC staff put together a spreadsheet of every game in those conferences that will be on TV -- date, time and station -- in chronological order. Slingbox and DVR are essential tools for committee members.

He also saw teams firsthand at a number of early-season tournaments -- the Champions Classic in Chicago and the Maui Invitational in Hawaii during Thanksgiving weekend -- as well as a number of Pac-12 home nonconference games. He keeps track of how often he sees each team. If he hasn't seen a team, he makes plans to see it.

He's not much into preseason previews, nor does he pay much attention to early-season "bracketology."

"I try not to let predictions influence me," he said. "From the integrity of the process standpoint, it's really important to treat the current year as the current year and not let a historical brand or expectations influence you. Look at Kentucky this year. Or even Michigan State. Those are teams you've got to evaluate on what they did [this year]."

What he will pay attention to is regular feedback from the conferences he is covering. Two weeks ago, he chatted with Pac-12 and Big 12 representatives.

"I'll ask them, 'Rank your teams for me and give me a sense of what their seed range is,'" he said. "And they'll say, 'Team X, we really think they deserve a 1 or 2, and this team we think is more of a 4 or 5.' That's certainly not going to determine what we do; plus, I only get one vote. But it will inform in the room. [As in,] 'Here's how I see it. Here's how the conference sees it.' It's pretty much aligned."

That's one of the dynamics about the selection committee. Each member wears two hats during his or her tenure that often could seem at cross-purposes. Zaninovich listens to folks pitching their conference's teams, but his dual role as WCC commissioner and selection committee member means he doesn't do that himself. Within the committee, he leaves the room when any WCC team is discussed, and outside the committee, he's not going to reveal much about the WCC's tourney selection outlook.

Before BYU took on Loyola Marymount on Saturday, Zaninovich did an interview with BYU TV. He was asked about the WCC's chances for multiple at-large berths in the tournament.

"It's just a really hard thing to be an at-large program," he replied.

When Santa Clara was giving Gonzaga all it could handle, Zaninovich was asked what a loss might mean for Gonzaga. He smiled, paused and said, "Just one more game on a résumé." It was his least forthcoming moment of the day.


What Zaninovich is forthcoming about is what he believes are the important measuring sticks for teams trying to receive at-large berths and higher seeds in the tournament.

Multiple times he mentions winning on the road, particularly winning road conference games. He notes that home teams win 70 percent of their games, so that's a way a team can distinguish itself.

"That's a big differentiator for me," he said. "If teams can't win meaningful road games in conference, then you have to take a second look at them."

Then comes nonconference strength of schedule.

"It's not definitive, but if you're getting towards the bubble, you better make sure you've at least shown some initiative to play some teams in the nonconference schedule or then it could become an issue," he said.

Then comes wins over top-50 and top-100 teams. Obviously, beating multiple good teams -- tournament teams -- shines on a résumé.

Yes, it matters what conference you play in, but I've never heard the word 'conference RPI' uttered in the room. We don't even look at conference standings that much because there are so many unbalanced leagues now where teams don't play each other twice.

-- Jamie Zaninovich

What's not as important as you might think? RPI.

"It's a valuable tool," he said. "There's no better tool to organize things. But it's way overvalued on an absolute basis. It's the relative basis [where it is useful]. It helps us organize batches of top-50 teams."

What isn't important? A team's conference.

"Conference is so overvalued, relative to its true value," he said. "Yes, it matters what conference you play in, but I've never heard the word 'conference RPI' uttered in the room. We don't even look at conference standings that much because there are so many unbalanced leagues now where teams don't play each other twice.

"We look at individual teams on the team sheets. We recognized individual games. We know what conference teams are in, but we never think, 'Oh, are we going to put six or seven in from that conference and three from another?' That really never comes up."

He also thinks fans lean too hard on individual games -- seemingly big wins or big losses -- taking on huge meaning, particularly late in the season.

"This notion that any one win or loss is somehow definitive related to tournament selection is pretty overblown," he said.

He also wants fans to know the committee isn't into mischief-making with its bracketing process, which is practically automated with its emphasis on geography and balance.

Particularly intriguing or potentially controversial matchups falling in a large-market venue?

"None of that is ever discussed or even contemplated during the process," he said.


So what does happen inside a committee meeting?

On Wednesday, the committee members submit an initial ballot via a computer program with the names of all eligible 339 Division I college basketball teams on it. In the first column, they vote "In" for as many as 36 teams. Those teams, in the committee member's estimation, should get an at-large berth, regardless of what happens in the conference tournaments. In the second column, they vote for teams that should be "under consideration" for an at-large berth, with no minimum or maximum restrictions.

A team that gets all but two "In" votes gets a berth. A team that receives three or more "under consideration" or "In" votes gets put on the "under consideration" board, listed in alphabetical order, along with teams that won their regular-season conference titles.

In ballpark terms, that typically means 22-27 teams are "In" for 36 at-large spots, with additional at-large spots opening as those "In" teams win their conference tournaments. So the average starting point for discussion is over roughly nine to 14 slots open for at-large teams.

Then, of course, the fun starts. A working list of the top eight teams is pulled from the "under consideration" board, and committee members rank each in a series of votes, with the top four eventually getting into the field. Before the votes to list and rank teams occur, of course, there is discussion, with "team sheets" being put before the committee members to allow them to compare teams' credentials, head-to-head.

Here's an example of a conversation that might take place, adopted from a description from Zaninovich:

Committee member 1: Team X's road record is better, but Team Y's nonconference is better.

Committee member 2: Yeah, but I've seen Team X play. That team is better than Team Y.

Committee member 3: What does the conference monitor think of Team X?

Committee member 4 (conference monitor): I've seen them play 10 times. They had an injury here [points to red area of team sheet indicating losing streak].

Committee member 2: Let's take down Team X and compare Team Z to Team Y.

At any time during the process, the committee can begin seeding teams, using a "true seeds" list of 1 through 68.

In Zaninovich's experience, feelings don't get hurt, nor do emotions rise during the discussion.

"It's healthy debate. I'd say it's spirited. Certainly not contentious," he said. "I think that is because we all come into that room with a college basketball hat, not a [conference or school] hat. We all take it seriously. No one is in there pounding a table for their team. It's not structured that way."

Injuries and/or player suspensions are part of the discussion, as they fall in line with understanding a team's body of work. Take Oklahoma State, which had a monthlong tailspin from mid-January to mid-February that included a three-game suspension for star guard Marcus Smart.

The Cowboys already had lost four games in a row with Smart playing, but it also lost all three when he was suspended. Then, when he came back, they reeled off four consecutive victories before falling in overtime at then-No. 16 Iowa State.

"We can't assume those games don't matter just because Marcus Smart didn't play," Zaninovich said. "They still played with five people. But by the other token, it's not exactly the same, either. That's where it becomes more art than science.

"You can't treat them as the same team because they are not the same team."

Ultimately, the committee has to make difficult distinctions and decisions, both with selection and seeding. Despite all the metrics available to the committee, the reality is these are subjective judgments. The committee also is well aware of which decisions will be most controversial.

That means when Wake Forest athletic director and committee chair Ron Wellman goes on CBS to discuss the new bracket on Sunday, he will be armed with several talking points to help explain the most controversial inclusions, exclusions and seeding decisions.

"We're not going to make decisions based on public reaction, but you've got to try to anticipate it and address it versus looking reactive," Zaninovich said.


Just after Gonzaga guard David Stockton, son of John, sank a layup with 1.4 seconds left to give the Bulldogs a 77-75 win over pesky Santa Clara, a happy Zaninovich says, "A good television game. That's how commissioners think." He also is happy there were no officiating controversies on the day. That's also how commissioners think.

More than once, when commissioner duties call him away from his courtside laptop and tight basketball games going on across the country, he notes, "Well, we do have a tournament to run."

That, of course, is part of the challenge of being on the tournament committee. You think like a commissioner or athletic director 80 percent of the time, then the committee requires you to pretty much ignore that aspect of your professional life and to become as objective and widely knowledgeable as possible, instead of representing and advocating for a specific institution or collection of institutions.

The resulting public perception of potential conflicts of interests on the committee, which some fans and media members often cite as root causes for various conspiracy theories, is the reason why the NCAA has moved toward more transparency with its selection process. The NCAA has hosted a "mock" selection committee for media members the past four years. The "team sheets" used by the committee members are available online. Just about the only part of the process that is off-limits is the actual committee deliberation.

The committee, in fact, has even taken to social media with a #wearewatching hashtag on Twitter.

"I really thought it would be a good way to debunk some of the black-box, conspiracy-theory stuff," said Zaninovich, while giving credit to the NCAA's Nate Flannery as the originator of the hashtag.

"It's about, 'Here's how we do it. We have nothing to hide.' We watch games, we evaluate games. Even inside the room, we will be tweeting stuff out. Nothing specific. With the College Football Playoff committee coming, it's going to be important for us to do even more. We're going to be compared to them. And one is governed by the NCAA and one isn't."

What about the rise of "bracketology," the most prominent and unifying public aspect of college basketball during the regular season? Zaninovich said he pays attention to it and respects it, but it doesn't play much of a role in his own thinking. That said, he appreciates it being a meeting place for obsessive fans during the regular season.

It's all about what's good for the game.

Still, when he walks out of the Orleans arena at 11:30 p.m., after a nearly 15-hour day, knowing the hours are only going to get longer and more intense the next week, it's a wonder why anyone would want to be on the committee.

Sure, he gets a $75 per diem while on committee business, but it's a demanding, highly scrutinized volunteer job that takes him away from his primary professional responsibility and his family.

"When I start feeling sorry for myself, I remind myself that some people have to mine coal for a living," he said.

So what did he do after Saturday's WCC games? He went out to grab a quick bite to eat and watched more college basketball on a late-night highlight show.

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