Before the selection committee hands out the final few at-large NCAA tournament berths, it must decide between marquee programs that have seemingly played their way out of the field in recent days and less heralded mid-level schools with gaudy computer ratings.
How the committee addresses the issue, which some describe as the calculator vs. common sense, promises to affect two area schools, George Mason and Maryland, and to be one of the most hotly debated topics on Selection Sunday.
The committee's bottom-of-the-bracket decisions could have long-term implications as well because some high-profile coaches have suggested that they would consider scheduling differently if the committee relies almost exclusively on computer rankings.
"The process is interesting because no one can come to a consensus as to what all the numbers mean," Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton told reporters Wednesday at the ACC tournament.
Should the committee take schools such as Michigan and Seton Hall to fill the last of the 34 at-large bids? Each has 18 victories in two of the nation's best conferences, but each also has lost four of its past six games.
Or should the committee select programs such as George Mason and Missouri State? Each ranks among the top 30 in the Rating Percentage Index, and no school with an RPI ranking better than Oklahoma's 33 in 1994 has ever been excluded.
Much of today's focus will be on the RPI and the Missouri Valley Conference, which some coaches have accused of outsmarting the mathematical formula the committee uses to help determine berths.
The Valley, which has never received more than three berths, has a good chance of sending five schools to the NCAA tournament today. Only one other conference — the Big East with seven — has more schools in the top 40 of the RPI than the Valley, which has six. The Valley school with the shakiest profile appears to be Missouri State, even though the Bears have an impressive RPI of 19.
Doug Elgin, the Valley's commissioner, said his conference is as good as any in the country except for the Big East, which could earn a record nine bids. But numbers are only one tool the committee uses when it deliberates about tournament candidates.
Craig Thompson, the Mountain West Conference commissioner and former chair of the selection committee, said committee members also ask one another blunt questions such as, "Which team would you least like to play? Which team has the best chance to advance?"
That is good news to Maryland's Nik Caner-Medley, who is "very confident" the Terrapins will hear their name called today. He believes the committee's aim is to select the best 34 at-large schools and that Maryland is among that group.
"They look at your schedule; they look at who you played," Caner-Medley said. "I think we put ourselves in good position."
The committee is not expected to agree, according to analysts. Maryland (19-12) is 6-8 since losing leading scorer Chris McCray to poor academics, and three of those victories came against Georgia Tech, the ACC's 11th-place team.
Last year, Jerry Palm, who projects the tournament field, said Maryland's "body of work is a cadaver." It is not as poor this season, Palm said. More than anything, its profile is bland, absent of a bad loss or a recent quality victory.
One of the most intriguing cases involves the Colonial Athletic Association. George Mason (23-7) has a road victory against Wichita State, the Valley's regular season champion. Hofstra (24-6) beat the Patriots twice since Feb. 23, but the Pride has a nonconference strength of schedule rating of 283.
They are competing with more recognizable schools such as Michigan, Seton Hall, Florida State and Houston for the last two spots, according to an examination of the tournament field.
The situation is complicated by the fact that George Mason's Tony Skinn is suspended for the next game, the result of the low blow he delivered in the final minute of the Patriots' loss to Hofstra in the conference tournament semifinals. The committee could decide to exclude the Patriots in part because they won't be as strong in the first game without their second-leading scorer.
South Carolina also could affect George Mason's chances if the Gamecocks win the SEC tournament today and claim the conference's automatic berth, which would take away an at-large bid from another hopeful.
Regardless of how many local schools make the NCAA tournament, four will come to Washington for a regional between March 24 and 26. The most likely scenario is that Connecticut will earn the top seed in the Washington regional and play the first two rounds in Philadelphia.
There seems to be some consensus about which schools will earn top seeds — Duke, U-Conn., Villanova and Memphis — even though the four have lost a combined six times since Feb. 26. Other schools still with hopes of a No. 1 seed include Texas and Ohio State.
When asked yesterday whether Duke is vulnerable, Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser perhaps best characterized the state of all 65 teams soon to begin play: "Who isn't vulnerable?"