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Selecting tourney an unenviable task

Gary Walters is calling his committee into session one day earlier than is the custom, but if I could offer one bit of advice to the 11 people in charge of picking the 65 teams for the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament field, it would be this:

Don't wait until March 7. Start your meeting today.

The parity among major conferences, the rise of mid-major conferences and the recent tournament success of teams in those leagues will make picking this year's field impossibly difficult.

The charge of the committee is to discount past performance in selecting and seeding the field.

On the other hand, when it comes down to granting the final at-large berth to a 20-win team from the SEC or a 24-win team from the Colonial, how could any member be asked to forget George Mason's stunning run in last year's tournament? Remember, George Mason was an 11 seed, and Bradley and Wichita State from the Missouri Valley Conference also reached the Sweet 16 — effectively erasing the "mid" from mid-major.

Filling the top of each region is the easy part. UCLA, North Carolina, Ohio State, Florida, Kansas and Memphis already should appear in pen as top-two seeds.

If you are fortunate enough to have opening-weekend tickets to ARCO Arena, feel free to start stocking up on your Bruins gear for their first-round game against Weber State.

We could sit back and try to make guesses about which teams are in and which teams will be scrambling to sell seats for NIT games, but that's the committee's job.

It's why I don't envy the task that awaits Walters and his clan of 10.

Walters, the athletic director at Princeton University, will call the NCAA Tournament selection committee into session on Wednesday, March 7.

Normally, the Wednesday before Selection Sunday is reserved for mid-afternoon arrivals at Indianapolis International Airport, and perhaps a quick nap before the group commands the back room at Iaria's, a legendary local Italian restaurant, for an informal dinner.

The NCAA is nothing without its traditions.

But this is Walters' fifth and final year as a member of the committee, and having sat through the last four marathon sessions he saw how an extra day in the chambers would better prepare his group for the challenge.

Walters looked at the numbers and moved up his dinner reservations one day.

It used to be that 20 wins was the point at which teams could expect to be invited. But as of Monday afternoon, 69 Division I teams already reached 20 wins, and another 28 have either 18 or 19 wins. Two conferences will crown regular-season champs (automatic qualifiers) that won't reach 20 wins, but both are from leagues that traditionally qualify one team.

We're already up to 99 teams waiting to hear their names called March 11, and we haven't yet reached the list of very good major-conference teams with 17 wins. How about this at the top of an NIT field: Stanford, Georgia, Rhode Island, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph's, Missouri, DePaul, Providence and Connecticut.

At least the NCAA has the right person in place to lead the committee. Walters played basketball at Reading (Pa.) High School for Pete Carril, then was the starting guard on Princeton's 1965 Final Four team.

In 1970, he became the youngest head basketball coach in NCAA history at Vermont's Middlebury College, and he coached at New York's Union College, Princeton and Providence before taking a job as an investment representative with Kidder, Peabody & Co. Walters left as a partner 10 years later and in 1994 returned to Princeton as athletic director. He also has served as the color man for Big East basketball telecasts.

Why the long biography? To show that the NCAA got this part of the decision correct. Walters' pedigree for the job is flawless. He has seen every side of the tournament process — as a player, coach, athletic director and media member — and he's firmly footed in all financial aspects of the event.

Walters will keep the committee focused on the task, then emerge from his hole on Selection Sunday to handle the media scrutiny with grace, honesty and humor.

The invariably thankless job involves the distribution of millions of dollars ($489 million this year in CBS rights alone), making Walters one of the NCAA's more powerful administrators.

It's a huge task that carries monumental financial and emotional impact.

Start now.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or bvanderbeek@modbee.com.

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