INDIANAPOLIS – First rule of our pretend NCAA tournament selection committee: You do not speak ill of the real NCAA tournament selection committee.
Second rule of our pretend NCAA tournament selection committee: You DO NOT speak ill of the real NCAA tournament selection committee.
OK, fine: It’s not really a rule. But that’s the main takeaway when you spend two frigid February days huddled in a conference room at NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters: The process of compiling a fair and equitable 68-team bracket for March Madness is really, really, really hard. For hundreds of teams, we compared the same six metrics, things like RPI and KPI and KenPom, that the NCAA uses to compile the real bracket on Selection Sunday. We chatted with athletic directors – 10 people who are on the real-life NCAA selection committee that will hole up in Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis hotel for five days in March – about the difficulties of picking one team over another when those teams have nearly identical resumes. And we heard what a former committee member used to say if an argument over two teams extended for too long. He’d pound his fist on the table and say, “Shirts and skins. Who’s gonna win?”
Here are 11 things that might surprise you about the way the 68-team field is selected, seeded and bracketed for Selection Sunday. But the two takeaways should be this: Year in and year out, the committee tends to do a bang-up job on a nearly impossible (and totally subjective) task, and every single year, there are going to be things that you, me and Jay Bilas all disagree with. But as David Worlock, the NCAA’s media coordinator and director of statistics, told us, if there’s only one thing that the media gloms onto as a mistake – like when UCLA made the field a year ago over other teams thought to be more deserving – the committee pats itself on the back.
It’s when there’s a half dozen controversies that the committee wonders whether the job it did wasn’t quite up to snuff.
“On Selection Sunday night, there’s always going to be something for people to criticize,” Worlock said. “That’s the beauty of the process.”
1. The selection process is so, so subjective – and that’s a good thing. What, you want to plug the records and advanced metrics for 351 Division I teams into a black box and have it spit out a bracket? No thanks. The NCAA weighs everything out there. There are the aforementioned metrics. There is the context — like the context this year with LSU, a talented team that had two starters miss significant time in November and December. And there is the eye test. The eye test, by the way, is a good thing. It’s one thing to take the resumes of bubble teams like Texas Tech and St. Bonaventure and stack them up next to each other: Texas Tech is 32nd in RPI and 41st in KenPom with four top-50 wins; the Bonnies are 34th in RPI and 64th in KenPom with one top-50 RPI win. It’s quite another thing to take all that into account and say which one looks like the better team. “If you just make decisions based off RPI, you don’t need to be here,” said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, a member of the selection committee. “This is an engaging process. It’s meant to stimulate conversation.”
2. The phrase “eye test” need not be considered a four-letter word. “Maybe ‘eye test’ is just the short way to say it, but it’s the human element,” said Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma’s athletic director and the chair of this year’s selection committee. “It’s hard to avoid the concept of am eye test. That’s what we’re trying to do, combine the study of teams from human perspective with all the analytical data we can mesh together.” I have another phrase for “eye test”: common sense. We should use common sense when we are evaluating these teams, not simply the numbers.
LSU won’t get favorable treatment just because we all really, really would like to see Ben Simmons in the tournament.
3. NCAA tournament conspiracy theorists are full of it. The idea that the NCAA put UCLA into the field last season because of UCLA’s history of titles and that big national brand? Bogus. The theory that the NCAA will put LSU into the field this season because the NCAA tournament wouldn’t be the same without presumptive No. 1 pick Ben Simmons? Laughable. The NCAA tournament will be March Madness without the presence of any single blueblood program or any single star player. I’m sure you’ll be pissed if your team doesn’t make the cut, but you’ll still watch. The idea that the selection committee favors big-time, big-budget schools is true – but not because the NCAA likes the big-budget schools. It’s because those schools have higher RPIs from playing tougher schedules and therefore have more opportunities for good wins. The idea that a high major gets a bid over a mid-major because that school’s fan base would travel better or that school would draw better on television? Don’t buy it for a second. “There are conspiracy theorists who think we concoct certain matchups,” Castiglione said. “That doesn’t happen.” Example: The mock selection committee spent hours and hours compiling its bracket last week. We had no idea until the bracket was printed out that we’d created at least two compelling storylines: The chance that Shaka Smart’s Texas team could face Smart’s former program, VCU, and the chance that Sean Miller’s Arizona team could face Dayton, coached by his younger brother, in the Elite Eight.
4. Context matters. It matters whether a team has bad losses on its resume that can be explained by a star player missing those games. It matters that Marcus Paige was injured when UNC lost to UNI (RPI: 100). It matters that Wichita State’s five nonconference losses came with Fred VanVleet missing games while he battled hamstring and ankle injuries. It matters that UConn lost three games when big man Amida Brimah was out with an injury and looks like a better team now that he’s back. And it matters, fair or not, that Syracuse went 4-5 during Jim Boeheim’s suspension — and that the team that looks to be slightly inside the bubble is again coached by Jim Boeheim. And it will matter that Duke’s January stumbles came with its main interior presence, Amile Jefferson, out with injury — assuming Jefferson can ably establish himself back in Duke’s rotation before Selection Sunday. If a team performs significantly better after a player returns from injury than it performed when the player was out, committee members will take that into account.
5. The Pac-12 is going to get some teams into the tournament this season that don’t seem to belong. That’s because the RPI, the metric the NCAA relies on to help sort through the dozens of NCAA tournament resumes at the beginning of the selection process, seems to skew toward the West Coast this season. I’m not going to even attempt to explain what goes on inside the black box that is the RPI Machine — if you want an explanation, click here — but I will share with you what seems like some anomalous Pac-12 teams’ RPIs. Oregon ranks fourth in RPI this season; you think Oregon has the nation’s fourth-best NCAA tournament resume or is the nation’s fourth-best team? (I think the Ducks are good, and coach Dana Altman is great, but no, I don’t think they are close to having the nation’s fourth-best resume.) An inconsistent Utah team ranks 16th. Cal, a team that has won all its home games but only has one victory on the road or at a neutral site, is 23rd. This is a conference with a glut of pretty good teams in it — six in the RPI top 25 — but, in my opinion, nothing close to a great team. Call me on my Midwest bias if you want (is there such a thing?), but remember that I picked Arizona to win it all last season.
6. There’s no projecting, no guessing on what a team might look like in a certain scenario. “We try not to project what we think happen but more what they earned,” said Peter Roby, the Northeastern athletic director and a member of the selection committee. “If you have enough information on how a team’s playing now that a certain player is back, you try to make the best decision around that.” His best example was last year, when Justin Anderson, Virginia’s best player, broke his finger in the middle of ACC play when Virginia was rolling toward a one-seed. It was clear Virginia wasn’t the same team without him, and it was clear when he got back just before the NCAA tournament that Anderson wasn’t the same player as before the injury.
7.This might be one of the most competitive NCAA tournaments ever. Plenty of ink has been spilled about the unpredictability of this college basketball season. We’ve already had six different teams ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. More unranked teams have won games against ranked teams than ever before. There’s so little separation between teams. Seedings don’t matter nearly as much this year as in past years. If there’s ever a year for a 16-seed to beat a 1-seed, this is it.
Domantas Sabonis’ Gonzaga Bulldogs are far from the tournament lock we’re used to them being.
8. Schools from mid-major conferences are in more trouble this year than in years past. Some of the traditional national powers from mid-major conferences — Wichita State and Gonzaga and San Diego State — performed worse in nonconference play than we have come to expect. And that could mean these schools have to win their conference tournaments to get in. Yes, there is some context to all of this. With Wichita State it’s VanVleet’s injury. With Gonzaga it’s the fact that the Zags’ first five losses came by a combined 15 points. But right now it looks like Monmouth is the only school from a mid-major conference (and I’m not going to call the Atlantic 10 a mid-major conference) with a solid enough resume for a certain at-large bid. This is the year of the high major.
9. Valparaiso has the chance to be the Murray State of this year. Remember a year ago, when plenty of media members, including myself, were outraged at Murray State not making the NCAA tournament despite the Racers’ 25-game winning streak that ended when they lost their conference tournament title game? Well, Valpo, a team that’s ranked 66th in RPI and 61st in KenPom and has one of the nation’s best defenses, might have to win the Horizon League tournament in order to make the NCAA tournament. I say that’s not fair to what might be the best mid-major team in the country this season, and I argued as such in the mock committee meeting. I felt so strongly about Valpo that I drove 2 ½ hours each way to see it play conference rival Wright State on Saturday night, thinking I could make a better eye test argument by seeing the Crusaders in person. Then Valpo lost its fifth game of the year. Oh well.
10. Want to crack the RPI-centered code? Schedule tough. The selection committee loves to see teams test themselves. That’s why things like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge or the Big 12-SEC Challenge are huge positives in the eyes of the committee. These are big games that bring attention to the sport and that tell us something about a team’s ability to win in March. And the NCAA tournament selection committee will never punish a team for losing a difficult nonconference game; in fact, a good nonconference strength of schedule, win or lose, is one of the many metrics that can help a team get into the tournament.
11. There’s nothing that compares to this process in all of sports. The CBS selection show airs at 6 p.m. ET. The latest the committee has sent its finished bracket over to CBS, after much harassing from producers? 5:50 p.m. Maybe the process needs tweaked (like the overreliance on RPI). But it sure ain’t broken. Nearl every year, the product that comes out of Selection Sunday ends up being the most exciting playoff in American sports.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.