On Tuesday the conclave convenes. Its members will go into strict seclusion, insulated by sturdy walls and steely-eyed security. Its methods will be largely mysterious to the outside world, and the results subject to the thoroughest of autopsies.
Nobody leaves until Sunday, when all 68 teams of the NCAA basketball tournament have been seeded and bracketed.
Obvious comparisons to what will be happening soon at the Vatican — and right now Cardinals Angelo Scola, Peter Turkson, Marc Ouellet and Tarcisio Bertone appear to be No. 1 seeds — can be taken only so far.
“We don’t have the white or black smoke,” smiled Mike Bobinski, who will not move into his position as Georgia Tech’s new athletic director until after his job of selection-committee chairman is done.
Right now, know him only as the man who will build the bracket that will break your heart.
Picking a pope may be an easier job than making sense of the Jackson Pollock-like abstraction that is college basketball. The No. 1 ranking has been passed around like the black-eyed peas at Mary Mac’s.
There is little form, no norm. Seeding this bunch of interchangeable Lego pieces may be a task better left to a blind draw, in the same way they determine Kentucky Derby post positions.
At no time, Bobinski assures, will a Magic 8-Ball or Ouija board be used to set the field. Nor are there any plans to form a rock-paper-scissors subcommittee.
“This year I think the seeding job will be a real challenge,” Bobinski said. “We are aware of that, anticipate that going in. I think we’ve really tried to plan out our week in a way that gives us plenty of time to really be diligent about the seeding process.”
The result of such chaos is high expectation for a tournament that concludes with an Atlanta Final Four in April. “The teams that are looked to be in the upper group, nobody is infallible. I think that makes for a heck of a tournament,” Bobinski projected.
Whatever the madness to come, the next few weeks actually will provide for Bobinski a path back to sanity.
Since he was hired from Xavier in January to replace Dan Radakovich, Bobinski has led a most uprooted existence. He has visited Atlanta a couple of times for some meet-and-greets, but has not moved so much as the first family snapshot into his new office. Realizing the demands of selection-committee chairman — an unpaid position — he decided not begin digging really deeply into Tech athletics until his multiple duties intersect in Atlanta in a little more than three weeks.
Apparently the God-like power to decide the fate of college basketball programs around the country does not come without a heavy sense of responsibility. In his fifth and final year on the committee, Bobinski paints the volunteer position as a demanding temp job within his full-time job.
It has been estimated, he said, that over a five-year term a selection-committee member will spend the equivalent of six months or more preparing for Selection Sundays. This season, for example, Bobinski will have met a couple of times a week with his assistant at Xavier, reviewing results and reconfiguring his personal spreadsheet of teams.
He will have traveled the land watching games, believing it important to both be a symbolic presence and to step outside the cold calculations of RPI and BPI rankings to get a more visceral reading on certain teams. Therein lies the art of the selection process.
He had tried to develop a feel for what a team is — “a little bit of a subjective evaluation about who they are, who they have been over the course of the season, who they are right now,” he said.
“The numbers don’t do it for me. They leave me a little cold. It’s an incomplete picture as far as I’m concerned.”
The 10-member selection committee, made up of conference commissioners and athletic directors from around the country, will report to the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis on Tuesday. They will commandeer a floor, which will have an around-the-clock guard posted to keep away the curious and the meddlesome.
Sequestered juries get more room to roam. After dining out Wednesday, the committee will begin taking meals in the hotel until the field is set Sunday afternoon.
In a small meeting room, the committee will be divided between two facing tables. Each member will have an array of three laptops spread before him/her (Judy MacLeod, Conference USA associate commissioner is the lone woman member). Apparently there is too much informational volleyball going on for any single computer to handle.
In an adjoining room, there will be a collection of televisions tuned to various conference tournament games, for those doing their last-minute shopping.
First they try to set the field. Committee members initially vote on teams they consider sure things for the 37 at-large spots. Any team getting eight of 10 votes is in. Then comes the hard work of sorting through the more marginal candidates.
Each voter has pet criteria, and for Bobinski, he rates two very high: the ability to win big games on the road and non-conference strength of schedule.
“Have you been willing to put yourself out there a little bit? That’s not an in-or-out criteria, but if you choose to play a relatively week non-conference schedule you have narrowed your margin of error.” (Note to Brian Gregory: Your Novembers and Decembers may be getting a little more complicated).
Midway through the selection process, the committee begins to work on the seeding, from the top down. Once that is done, there is the chore of plugging teams into brackets, so that we all may get on with the business of squandering our wages on our keen insights. (Bobinski is barred from entering any bracket pools, even fun ones with his family).
As chairman, Bobinski is the final arbiter, but he said he has not seen a dispute yet that the committee couldn’t eventually vote its way out of. Take note, Congress.
“We get to Saturday, that becomes a very long day. Usually that’s the day we make the last selections to the field. That night we’ve been in that room until midnight or so. Sunday becomes a sprint to the selection show at 6 o’clock. Last year we didn’t finish the bracket until 5:25 or so.”
By then, brains filled with all the minutiae of a college basketball season are spinning like disco balls.
And in the end, he gets to enjoy having his work criticized and ridiculed by every amateur “bracketologist” with a microphone or a modem.
Bobinski has girded himself for the inevitable fallout with the conviction that his committee’s heart is in the right place.
“There’s always a 69th team,” he said.
“We’ve charged ourselves with being as informed and as aware and as briefed on these (borderline) teams as we can be, so we can make the best decisions possible. The real big issue for us is that we all know how much it means to a group of young men, an institution, a community to either be in that tournament or not. It’s not getting criticized because someone is always going to disagree with how we end up with our answers.”
Because of his work with the selection committee, Bobinski was not able to begin at Tech as immediately as he would have liked. But this time has not been wasted, for the grumbling and the gnashing of teeth to come on Selection Sunday certainly should prepare him for his first season of football on The Flats.
2004-06: Associate VP of development, Xavier
2006-13: Athletic director, Xavier