Illini Wonk
Thursday, March 23, 2006
  Dancing with Feinstein
As the final horn sounded on last year’s national championship game, Roy Williams scanned the floor for Illinois coach Bruce Weber. When Williams finally caught up with him, just before Weber left the court, Williams told him: “You had a great year. You will be back here. Your time will come, you’re a great basketball coach.”

This story is one of many that are told by College Basketball chronicler John Feinstein in Last Dance : Behind the Scenes at the Final Four, his latest tome on the sport. The good folks at Little, Brown were nice enough to send me a review copy to read during this year’s Final Four (note to roving publicists: send me free stuff related to the topic of this blog and there’s a good chance you’ll read about it here).

The exchange between coaches is one of many with an Illini flavor in the book, which is yet another example of the added exposure the Illinois program has received from their “March to the Arch” (title of chapter seven).

But it is this year’s trip by the Illini to the NCAA Tournament that made me look at this book with redoubled interest. Two chapters in particular: chapter ten, The Committee and chapter eight, Refs.

In his chapter on the 10-member committee, Feinstein reveals the secretive nature of their deliberations in deciding who gets in and where they’re seeded. In looking at their past mistakes, the year that stood out was 2003. That was the year the committee put BYU in a bracket where it would have to play on a Sunday. BYU is a Mormon school and has always made it clear that it will not play on a Sunday. They also put Arizona and Kentucky (clearly the two best teams) in brackets that would have them meet in the national semifinal.

I don’t claim to be an expert on seeding or tournament history, but I wonder if the committee has ever done a worse job of seeding a bracket than they did with the Washington DC bracket this year. Connecticut was a clear #1, but the 2-5 seeds were, in the words of Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy: “an absolute joke.”

The AP voters agreed with DeCourcy: when the final top 25 came out (after the brackets were announced) North Carolina was ranked 10, Illinois 13, Washington 17 and Tennessee 18. Somehow, Tennessee was seeded ahead of three teams in their bracket that were ranked ahead of them in the final AP Poll. Tennessee then went out and proved the committee horribly wrong by barely escaping a first-round embarrassment and then falling in the second round to the 7 seed Wichita State Shockers.

But enough about seeding, how does one become a ref in the NCAA tournament? A better question for Illinois is how these three refs got their game against Washington. Illini Wonk has documented the complaints about the officiating from the news media, but there’s one more worth mentioning. I listened to the March 20 edition of Tupper on Sports (unfortunately, unless you archived the episode on iTunes, you won't be able to hear it anymore) and here was his explanation of the officials: Now, I was sitting courtside and watched that game pretty closely and if you asked me ‘Did Illinois foul a lot I would say absolutely.’ It was a very, very physical game. But Washington fouled too and you could not only see them foul; you could hear them. And when you can hear fouls, they’re real fouls.

So how are the refs selected? In chapter eight, Feinstein tells us how. Essentially, it comes down to the opinion of one person: Hank Nichols. Sure, there is a nomination process, meetings with the committee and the Officials Subcommittee, but it’s ultimately up to Nichols who refs and how long they stick around.

But anyway, back to the book. In addition to the portions of the book relevant to Illinois, the book is an excellent history of college basketball’s biggest event. Once you get past Coach K’s name-dropping intro, the history of the tournament comes alive in the 300+ readable pages. I think it’s Feinstein’s best effort since A Season on the Brink and if you get into the Final Four as much as I do, you’ll definitely enjoy Last Dance.
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