The few puffs of smoke emanating from the NCAA tournament selection committee so far suggest their room-service tab at a downtown Indianapolis hotel this weekend will be enormous.
Committee chairman Bob Bowlsby is already throwing around phrases like ''it's going to be pretty muddy'' and ''I don't think it's a foregone conclusion,'' hinting that deliberations will be even more daunting than usual. And even that phrasing sounded decisive compared to this:
''We've had a lot of shake-up in the past seven days,'' Bowlsby said. ''In some ways, things have changed. In some ways, they have not.''
In fairness, there are plenty more games to be played, and no matter what you think about the commitee's handiwork come Sunday, keep this in mind: That room-service tab is the only thing that keeps college basketball out of the clutches of an evil cabal like the Bowl Championship Series.
A knuckleheaded decision on seeding and there have been a few through the years can make it tougher for a deserving team to win the national championship. But it doesn't take the chance away. After the committee is through playing games on paper, they get out of the way and let teams decide matters on a court.
But that's not to say that the 10 angry men on this year's committee couldn't use some help. Because angry is exactly what they'll be until somebody opens the door to the conference room late in the afternoon and invites the TV cameras in. So here goes:
Don't lose sight of the big picture. Worry less about who gets the No. 1 seeds and see to it that the rest of the veteran coaches with good squads all get a good shake. That's all there is to it. That means Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, Mark Few at Gonzaga and Tom Izzo at Michigan State. At least one of them likely will be around at the end.
Don't fixate on what happens the next few days. For all the things that have changed about the tournament during the last two decades, the most reliable predictor of a team's success has been the experience of its coach.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence. John Wooden was 54 when he won the first of a record 10 titles, Dean Smith, who still tops the win list, was 51 when he got his, and even Mike Krzyzewski didn't turn the trick until he was 44. ESPN.com found that during the last 20 years, more of the same faces have been turning up, the most familiar ones have been going the furthest, and that gulf is only getting wider.
In 1985, a coach making the field, on average, was in for the fourth time. Last year, that number was six. Over the same time, Final Four coaches have averaged four more trips to the tourney 9.5 versus 5.6 than their counterparts in the rest of the field.
So get the upsets out of the way early. There are fewer and fewer, anyway, and they're impossible to predict. Spend more time plotting when and where exactly the Kentucky-Louisville match should take place, since both Tubby Smith and Rick Pitino have earned that much consideration and few games are more compelling than one that threatens to unhinge an entire state.
Next, think story lines. A month from now, nobody will care about all the thumb-wrestling that went on to determine any places below line three except, maybe your orthopedists. What the rest of us will remember then besides how much we hate the unofficial CBS anthem, ''One Shining Moment'' is whether somebody deserving is wearing a cut-down net instead of a noose.
Last year, it was Calhoun winning his second national championship the day after finding out he was turned down by the Hall of Fame (he's reportedly a finalist again this year). Two years ago, the role of long-suffering coach and the national title went to Jim Boeheim, who likewise finds himself at the Hall's threshold. Both those outcomes should get the committee thinking.
The sentimental choice at last year's Final Four was Sutton, one of the game's living encyclopedias and the oldest ever to make it that far. Getting there was no small accomplishment. Barely three years had passed since the Oklahoma State basketball family was devastated by the crash of a private plane ferrying two players and eight other members of the program back from a game at Colorado.
If he wins it all, you folks look like geniuses. Even better if Sutton happens to face Roy Williams and North Carolina in the final. Two years ago, the almost-as-long-suffering Williams was in his final season at Kansas, arguably with the best of his many good teams, and got stuck playing second fiddle to Boeheim.
So get to work on that Oklahoma State-North Carolina matchup. If you can't get it done with a weekend's worth of deliberations at a nice hotel, we know who can. Those BCS computers don't take up much space and they never, ever call down to room service.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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