Forgrave: What I learned going behind the scenes of the seeds
FEB 17, 2014 3:51p ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- I spent my Valentine's Day in a windowless conference room with a few dozen college hoops aficionados -- mostly grown men who can argue for hours, coherently and vociferously -- over why the Kansas Jayhawks' historically difficult schedule (by far the toughest in the past two decades of college hoops), means they are under consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Or why St. Louis and its 23-2 record get a lower seed than a seven-loss Michigan team. Or why Colorado might end up the single most difficult-to-seed team come March Madness.
My wife is one lucky woman, no?
Last week was my first time going through the mock NCAA tournament selection process in Indianapolis. In that conference room, NCAA officials and tournament selection committee members put a handful of college basketball writers through a sped-up version of the five-day process from which 68 college basketball teams are selected, seeded and then sent around the country in what I'd argue is the best event in American sports, Super Bowl be damned.
The point of the exercise seemed to be to show the massive amount of detail and care the committee takes in putting together the bracket. But the point easily could have been to teach the media -- and, by extension, college basketball fans -- to not be so quick to throw stones after the pairings are released on Selection Sunday on March 16.
Because despite the massive amount of mathematical comparisons that goes into the selection process -- weighing RPI and SOS and BPI and Sagarin and KenPom and good road wins versus bad road losses -- it really all struck me as so damn subjective.
You could argue Michigan, which has beaten five teams in the top 40 in the RPI rankings, deserves a higher seed than St. Louis, which has beaten only one team in the top 40. I could argue -- in fact, I did argue -- that St. Louis has only two losses compared to Michigan's seven and that those two losses were by a combined 11 points to two teams, Wisconsin and Wichita State, that are in the top 10 in RPI. (I'd also bring up that St. Louis, starting five seniors, is the most experienced team in the likely tournament field and that experience ought to matter when we look at seedings.) We could talk in circles for hours and never come to an exact resolution.
The seeding list (above) and the mock bracket (below) that we put together was completed Friday, so it reflects neither Arizona's road loss to Arizona State nor Kentucky's home loss to Florida, nor Michigan State losing at home to Nebraska, etc. I have no doubt you'll disagree with some of the seedings. I caught some hell on Twitter about Virginia, red-hot in ACC play, being as low as a 5-seed, which I think is a pretty solid placement. I also caught it about North Carolina State not making the field, no doubt from folks wearing fan-colored glasses.
I'm still trying to make sense of the process, to be honest. It all seemed incredibly even-handed and detail-oriented. I came out of it believing the "biases" we presume committee members have toward blueblood schools and the manipulations of the seedings we presume take place to create intriguing story lines ("Hey, let's put Louisville and Minnesota in the same region -- Pitino vs. Pitino!") don't exist.
We each listed which schools we thought should be lock at-large teams and which should be under consideration. If a team got eight of 10 of our votes for at-large, it was automatically placed in the field. If a team got more than three at-large or under-consideration votes, it was placed in a pool of teams that would be debated for before inclusion.
The 25 teams we immediately selected to get at-large bids went like this: Arizona, Cincinnati, Creighton, Duke, Florida, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Diego State, Syracuse, Texas, UCLA, VCU, Villanova, Virginia, Wisconsin.
The 39 teams we chose as under consideration for at-large bids: Arizona State, Arkansas, BYU, Baylor, Boise State, Cal, Clemson, Colorado, Dayton, Florida State, George Washington, Georgetown, UW-Green Bay, Indiana State, Kansas State, Louisiana State, Louisiana Tech, Marquette, UMass, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Oregon, Providence, Richmond, Southern Methodist, St. Joseph's, Southern Miss, St. John's, Stanford, Tennessee, Toledo, UConn, UTEP, West Virginia, Xavier. (Note that Illinois, which wasn't in discussion for an at-large seed, made our field. That's because in the hypothetical, NCAA officials had Illinois winning the Big Ten tournament in order to throw a wrench into our plan.)
Then it was time to argue.
Below are a handful of observations from the process -- observations I hope I'll keep in mind when I'm in a rage on Selection Sunday after Michigan is seeded higher than St. Louis. I hope you will, too.
-- Injuries matter. A lot. Earlier I mentioned that Colorado will be the most confusing team going into Selection Sunday. That's because its star player, Spencer Dinwiddie, tore his ACL in January, and the team hasn't been the same since. So even though Colorado was creeping up the top 25 last month and had some big home wins over Kansas and Oregon, the Buffaloes haven't been the same since Dinwiddie was hurt and they haven't been nearly as good on the road as at home. Injuries to less vital players matter, too: How Arizona adjusts to life without Brandon Ashley. How Oklahoma State comes back from an injury, a suspension and a player dismissal. How Michigan State weathers its string of injuries. Injuries impact seeding more than inclusion in the field: See UCLA last season after Jordan Adams went down in the Pac-12 tournament. "It doesn't take away from anything they accomplished on the court, but you have to take it into consideration if they're now without a key player," said David Worlock, who ran the session for the NCAA.
-- Conference strength is not a measurement. I kept wanting to bring up things like the Big 12 being tops in the country in conference RPI, or the ACC ranking a surprisingly low fifth in conference RPI. That's not a metric. Each team is judged on its own merits. Of course a team like Kansas will have its strength of schedule, a vitally important metric, boosted by playing in the strong Big 12, but conference affiliation in and of itself is not part of the process.
-- The process reminded me of going to the optometrist for an eye test. "Which one is better, this one -- or this one?" And what might have been a valid argument on Friday might not be one on Monday. We spent a good amount of time debating whether Kansas and its brutal strength of schedule deserved a 1-seed over Florida. After Florida's road win against Kentucky on Saturday night, I can't imagine we would have even debated that.
-- All those who think RPI is a flawed formula should take heart that the selection committee says it references all sorts of metrics, not just RPI.
-- People are going to argue against Wichita State being a 1-seed, even if the Shockers make it to the NCAA tournament undefeated. Those people are wrong. As longtime Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy put it, "You can't fake undefeated." He's right. As of now the Shockers are absolutely a 1-seed. You can't hold it against them for trying to schedule a difficult nonconference schedule, then having a few of those nonconference opponents underperform.
-- The way we set it up was to have 1-seed Arizona in a possible matchup against 6-seed UCLA in Anaheim, UCLA's backyard. Ditto for UNC starting off in Raleigh. It was not a conspiracy, as many people would shout on Selection Sunday. It was just the way things worked out. Part of the reason was we selected seven Big 12 teams in the tournament, more than from any other conference, and making sure the Big 12 teams didn't play one another early was a beastly puzzle.
-- Several teams have been greatly affected by injuries this season, none more than Michigan State. The Spartans might be a team that doesn't get a great seed -- after their home loss to a surging Nebraska on Sunday, they will surely be downgraded to at least a 3-seed -- but they might be a team that's well-positioned for a March run, as they project to be healthy by tournament time. CBS Sports Jerry Palm: "I think a healthy Michigan State is the best team in the country -- we just haven't seen them in a month and a half." I agree. If they're healthy and clicking by mid-March, the Spartans are still the team I'll pick to win it all.
Reid Forgrave, senior college basketball writer, has worked for The Des Moines Register, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.