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10 Questions With Women’s Basketball Committee Member Mary Ellen Gillespie

Mary Ellen Gillespie

Mary Ellen Gillespie, director of athletics at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a member of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee since 2015, provides her perspective on what it takes to perform the job of a committee member and to look behind the scenes at the upcoming championship selection process.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a member of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee?

The biggest challenge is the pressure to get it right. I have a sign at my desk that I look at every day, and it says, “For the good of the game, let’s get it right.” So preparation is key. And that brings on the second biggest challenge, and that is time. On top of regular committee meetings and calls, I need to make time to watch games, time to gather intel on teams through conference liaisons, time to digest information from coaches on regional calls, time to analyze the additional data that is available to us. The volume of information available is incredible and very helpful to us in getting it right. Last year was my first year on the committee, and it is overwhelming just trying to organize yourself, manage time, etc. That’s probably why it’s a five-year commitment — it takes one whole year just to figure it all out!

What is your favorite part of being a committee member?

I love so many aspects of this committee role, but my favorite part of being a committee member is the role that I can play in helping elevate the sport of women’s basketball. Some think we meet once a year, set a bracket of 64 teams and then sit back and wait till next year. The committee spends significant time throughout the year discussing marketing the game, televising and increasing the visibility of the game, increasing attendance, telling the story of this great sport and then working with a great NCAA staff team to put on a top-quality championship experience that student-athletes will remember for the rest of their lives. I also love working with great people both on the committee and on the NCAA staff. They are passionate about women’s basketball and work very hard to get it right and to create a great championship.

How many games do you typically watch in a week during the season? How many total throughout the season?

I average about 15-17 games per week. Right now, I should be on track to finish the season before conference tournaments with approximately 140-155 games watched. I DVR most games. If someone were to look at my DVR scheduled recordings for this week, they would see “Madam Secretary” and then women’s college basketball 12 times this week! I also have Apple TV and watch ESPN3, and I log onto the apps and websites of the conferences, as well. Not watching live allows me to fast forward through commercials, halftimes, etc., and helps save time. I usually get up at 4 a.m. and watch about three games before heading to work. Then at night I watch another three, and on the weekends, when I’m not watching my Green Bay basketball teams playing at home, I hunker down and marathon watch games. I have a game journal, and every game I watch has notes, some of which include starting lineups (especially in the beginning of the season so I get to “know” the players), injured players, officials, key players, key moments in the game and my observations of team strengths, challenges, etc. This year I will also see some games in person at Northwestern and Wisconsin, given my proximity to those schools and since the Big Ten is one of my primary conferences. I try to imagine what the committee experience was like 15-20 years ago before ESPN3 and Apple TV, before streaming and before smartphones became the devices they are today.    

How do you balance being director of athletics at Green Bay and being a member of the committee?

I won’t sugar coat it — it’s very challenging, but I love wearing both hats. I am very fortunate to have a fantastic staff who keeps the trains running on time when I’m at committee meetings and also from the time I leave for selection weekend until the time I get back from the Women’s Final Four. I also have an incredibly supportive chancellor who supports me in this role, values women’s basketball and understands the visibility that this important role brings to Green Bay. That being said, I save my game watching for early mornings, nights and weekends, so I can be present at my AD job. My Green Bay athletics director role comes first, and the student-athletes, coaches and staff at Green Bay are my top priority. Do I have a life from November until April outside of being an AD and serving on the Women’s Basketball Committee? Probably not, but I do it because I love it. I have made great friendships and professional connections that I will keep for a lifetime.

The committee has announced that three times this season the top 16 seeds will be revealed. What is the committee hoping to accomplish with these early announcements?

Two main priorities with announcing the top 16 seeds. First and foremost, we want to drive attention to the game and generate buzz and excitement. The timing of the announcements are strategic and will be marketed well. ESPN shared the results of the announcements last season, and the numbers were very positive when we did 10. This year we do the top 16 seeds, and we are confident the numbers will be very strong again. Second, we do it so the top 16 seeds can start to plan and market to host first and second rounds. While nothing is final about the top 16 until Selection Monday, those 16 schools should start making plans, and the schools near the top of that list of 16 really need to get to work on plans for hosting and communicating with fans. Those that do start preliminary work with marketing and selling tickets have better attendance and an overall better organized event.

How many times does the committee meet in person or via conference call to talk about teams during the season? What is gained most by that interaction?

The committee meets several times throughout the year, but once the basketball season starts, we have two in-person meetings before selection weekend (NCAA Convention in January and in Indianapolis in February) and approximately five conference calls. Those calls are solely the committee and the women’s basketball staff. That does not include our individual monthly calls with our primary and secondary conferences or the 12 regional calls with coaches that all committee members attend.

These meetings and calls are important because each committee member gives a deep dive on those teams in her/his primary and secondary conferences. And when I say deep dive, I mean deep dive. It is more than wins, losses or RPI. We discuss the entire body of work up to that date. That is why our game watching, our calls with conference office staff and regional calls with coaches are so important. All of those provide what I call “good intel.” Preparation is key to these meetings and calls, and we need to be prepared to answer questions from other committee members, such as “When did so and so get hurt?  Was she out of the game against team X?” or “They have a bad loss against Team A. What happened?” 

What do you enjoy most about selection weekend?

I’m a data, information and process junkie, so I love that all our work, all our preparation of game watching, conference calls and rankings get poured out one last time at selection weekend and a bracket is born. I love the conversations, debates, arguments, at times, and the excitement of watching the last of the conference tournaments that have the potential to put selection on hold while we await the outcome of the games.  

What is typically your first reaction when the bracket is revealed on Selection Monday?

I’m excited for the 64 teams. I’m also proud of our committee’s work, and I’ll be honest — there’s a little bit of exhaustion. That can’t last long because it’s a return to Green Bay on Monday to pack and get ready to head to the location I am assigned to for first and second rounds of the championship.

What are some of the most common misperceptions of the selection process that you deal with as a committee member?

From conversations and questions I get from fans, coaches and administrators, I think people are under the impression that there is one formula for gaining entry into the championship and that the committee uses one or two pieces of criteria to make their decisions. I think that perception is waning because of the mock selection that the NCAA coordinates for coaches and media every August, but it does still exist to a degree. At the end of the day, every year is different, and there isn’t one recipe for success.

Another misperception people have is they think RPI is the end-all, be-all when it comes to selection. RPI is only one part of the very long equation. Another perception is team performance in past tournaments makes a difference in at-large selection or seeding. Every year is different, and how a team did in last year’s tournament has no bearing on selection or seeding. Finally, there are some that think lobbying the committee right before selection weekend or during selection weekend, similar to how some schools put together PR packets to receive a football bowl bid, has influence on the committee. Nothing could be further from the truth. Believe me, we have all the data we need. Everyone on the committee works tirelessly to get the bracket right and put together a great championship.   

Each of the 10 committee members processes team performance differently. What are your defining points when deciding if a team is worthy of at-large consideration for the championship field?

The 10 of us do weigh criteria differently, and it can lead to some great debates in the selection room. When it comes to determining at-large bids, after looking at the team’s entire body of work, we drill down deeper because we probably, at that point, still have too many teams for available at-large spots. When drilling down I want to see that a team has challenged itself. Did the team schedule up? Does it have games against teams in the top 25 or 50, or did they play it safe and play too many games they could control against teams of 150-plus? The most important task for each committee member is to stay consistent with how she/he makes at-large decisions. When I arrive in the selection room, I have a Post-it that I put on my computer keyboard with my top criteria, and I stick to that when I advocate for teams, when I debate and when I cast my vote for at-large teams.