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Bracket impressions: Committee continues puzzling obsession with mediocrity

March 14, 2016 Columns 1 Comment

The Enlightenment Period of NCAA Tournament selection has come and gone. Once again, we are back in the Dark Ages. And the tournament is far more soulless for it.

Continuing to turn back on its trend for a brief period earlier in this decade, a preference for middling major conference teams and overall mediocrity from major football conferences was again the resounding main message this year’s NCAA selection committee sent Sunday with the unveiling of its bracket-starting on CBS, then soon leaked in full on the internet well before the end of CBS’s show.

Also, to schools like Monmouth and Valparaiso: all those things you’ve been told in the past about playing a tough non-conference schedule? Yeah, you can forget about that too-we’re still not letting you into the party.

For reasons of inclusiveness but also consistency, these are frustrating developments, ones that are starting to shake our confidence in the selection process for this great event. What it all comes down to is this: in the current climate, the selection committee continues to find reasons to include teams like Michigan, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Vanderbilt. And it looks for reasons to leave out teams like Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s and Valparaiso.

This year’s committee was presented more than enough opportunities to make a clear choice and produce a more-inclusive and flat-out better tournament, one with more conference champions among the at-large teams and more conferences with multiple teams. (In fact, the committee chair said a few weeks before the tourney that as many as 14 leagues could get multiple bids) Instead, it was more of the same, the continuation of the committee’s unrequited love of giving mediocre teams from major conferences the final spots in the tourney, at the expense of teams with better records in leagues a notch below.

First off, before we go any further we must make note: the NCAA selection committee is made up good people, who are honestly trying to do a good job. By all accounts, they take the job seriously and work hard, and there is no joy in criticizing their work.

It’s not that they’re not trying to do well, it’s just that they continue to make the same mistakes. No team seeded ninth or lower from a BCS conference has made it to the Final Four since 1986, when LSU did it in no small part because it played the first two rounds on its home court. Only one of the six at-large teams at that seed level to reach even the Elite Eight since 1999 came from those leagues. When it comes to the final at-large selections, why on earth would the committee continue to give the benefit of the doubt to these teams?

Meanwhile, George Mason, VCU and Wichita State all have performed the feat of making Final Fours as at-larges from that territory just in the last 10 years. By any reasonable evaluation, it should mean more teams like them should be selected, not less.

A few years back, the selection committee as it was composed at the time seemed to realize this and was making a concerted effort to fairly evaluate and include teams like Iona, La Salle, Middle Tennessee State and the like, all the way back to VCU in 2011. The committee realized what should be obvious-that these teams are at a severe disadvantage in scheduling, that it’s not right to discount them solely based on quantity of big wins and that there needs to be some serious nuance in evaluating them.

It was rewarded when the Rams made the Final Four in 2011, La Salle got to the Sweet 16 in 2013 and the rest gave good accounts of themselves in early rounds. Rather than sticking with this, though, recent committees have decided that no, we really didn’t need more VCUs, Wichita States or George Masons. What the tournament really needed was more 13-loss teams from major conferences like Indiana, Texas and UCLA last year.

Like last year, this season offered the committee a choice between mediocre major conference teams that history says repeatedly will not go deep in the tourney, or conference champions of non-Big Football leagues that only couldn’t build a better resume because those middling majors so effectively avoid them.

Once again, the committee chose to reward the obstructors and give bids to those middling majors, and there’s little explanation for it other than pure brand name bias. It has the smell of a hostile takeover, these major conferences continuing to impose their will, as if this was one of the perks of that autonomy the self-titled “Power 5” conferences held up the remainder of Division I schools for last year.

The issues this year were both in selection and seeding. The most outrageous selection is Michigan, which got into the tourney with a 4-12 record against the RPI top 100 that frankly would make the NIT pause before taking a team, if it wasn’t looking at the name on the jersey.

To put this into perspective: James Madison (103 RPI) was 3-5 vs. the top 100. Siena (104 RPI) was 3-6 vs. that grouping. Pepperdine (129) was 4-5. None of them made so much as the NIT, but all illustrate that it wasn’t so much to ask the Wolverines to have done better than win 25% of their games against top 100 teams, or to expect more than four such wins, for that matter.

Quite simply, this goes down as one of the worst at-large selections in tournament history, and a tough Big Ten schedule is no excuse. Michigan has every bit of financial might to have scheduled good Missouri Valley or Mid-American teams at home to improve that record, but-like just about every school like itself-chose not to.

Syracuse at least had five top 50 wins, which committee chairman Joe Castiglione noted. What he didn’t mention is the Orange also went just 19-13 overall, lost on the road against the Georgetown team Monmouth beat (more on the Hawks in a bit) and lost at St. John’s. In Syracuse’s case, though, the good was considered far more than the bad-perhaps because of a suspension their coach got as part of NCAA sanctions-and so much so that it didn’t even need to go through a play-in game.

Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh didn’t have Syracuse’s might, with a combined four top 50 wins, yet both made it anyway. Vanderbilt went 2-7 vs. the top 50, 5-11 in road/neutral games and despite numerous chances at no time this season displayed a consistency that would suggest it can win 4-5 straight games in March, much less a national title. Pittsburgh also was 2-7 vs. the top 50 and played exactly zero non-conference games on the road, yet still get a 10 seed. (Yet Saint Mary’s was penalized because it played just one non-conference game on the road and also had two top 50 wins…just like the Panthers).

Oregon State and Wisconsin were egregiously overseeded. The Beavers are a great story making their first trip since 1990, but apparently the committee confused Gary Payton II with his father, for this year’s Beavers are just six games over .500 against D-I teams and look nothing like a 7 seed. Wisconsin lost to Western Illinois, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette and Northwestern early in the season, Nebraska late-and was also still rewarded with a 7 seed. The Badgers’ Big Ten performance-or more specifically their Big Ten wins-was clearly valued far more than their non-conference run was docked.

There are several teams with serious beefs, but none more than Monmouth. The Hawks went 27-7, won their conference regular season title, and did absolutely everything the committee asks teams like them to do out of conference. Monmouth won at UCLA and Georgetown, beat Notre Dame and USC at a neutral site, won at a Big Ten team (Rutgers) and in all played 23 of its 34 games away from home, a ridiculously brutal schedule. Exactly what more were the Hawks supposed to do?

Yet when it came down to it, Monmouth was told it didn’t deserve a bid not because of who it beat, but who it lost to. Specifically, there were three losses to sub-200 teams.

Like Murray State a year ago, the lack of nuance in looking at Monmouth is disgusting. The committee seems to fall into the same trap too many others do, thinking every game against teams outside the top 100 is the same, home or away.

Yes, Monmouth had three sub-200 losses, but all were on the road. Does the committee really have a framework for comparing this to major schools, though, when those teams play so few such games?

Want to know how many road games BCS schools played against below-200 teams this year, amongst all 65 teams in those five conferences? Eighteen. Total. And they lost four. Monmouth played 11 and lost three. The Hawks performance in those games was really no different than that by teams in the readily accepted superior leagues, except the latter have money to dodge them.

St. Bonaventure now holds the dubious distinction as the second-highest RPI team all time to miss the NCAA Tournament. The Bonnies were one of the hottest teams in the country the second half of the year, yet got left out because once again the committee thought little of the Atlantic 10, another trend with little good explanation. Again: there’s no explanation for rewarding a team like Vanderbilt or Michigan over this one, and its an insult to suggest St. Bona needed to do more, when those teams did so much less.

Like Monmouth, Valparaiso did its best to beef up the non-conference schedule, only to see teams like Rhode Island and Iona plundered by injuries. Valpo dealt with a host of injuries itself but still beat Oregon State comfortably-on the road. Oregon State was somehow valued as a 7 seed with a whole 18-12 record against Division I teams-shouldn’t Valpo winning there have been a significant chip?

South Carolina doesn’t win much sympathy because it plays in the SEC, but the Gamecocks were 8-6 vs. the top 100 and beat Tulsa and Vanderbilt teams in the field. Saint Mary’s posted a 27-5 record, and while their non-conference schedule was notably weak (and thus would’ve made their snub understandable on its own) one has to ask: exactly how many more games were the Gaels supposed to win? Thirty? Thirty-one? Hofstra won the No. 9 conference in the land, yet apparently barely got a sniff.

Every one of the four BCS teams could be out of this bracket, and the tourney would not be poorer for it. There is no mandate that these teams have to be in-at least not publicly. Yet the proclamation we heard through the conference tournaments was that with Monmouth, Saint Mary’s, Valparaiso and Wichita State all losing, the committee just couldn’t take all of them.

Why not?

Saint Mary’s, Valpo and Wichita State all even passed in those so-called “advanced metrics” that the committee loved using against Colorado State last year. Yet this year proved a truth about all forms of metrics, one that is hardly unique to the RPI: that it really doesn’t matter what metric you use, the metric only helps you if the committee wants it to help. And the teams it wants to use those metrics for are the ones it has preconceived notions of as being better.

We’ve always believed in the NCAA Tournament selection process, combining the use of simple grouping metrics and human evaluation using further numbers and information, but this year hurts. There was a real opportunity to do better, but this committee flat-out chose the opposite and doubled down on choosing mediocrity over achievement. And the message to teams like Monmouth is that there really is no point in playing a tough non-conference schedule, because if you don’t go at least 30-3 or so, the committee really will have no interest in you anyway. That’s simply an unfair standard to expect any team to live up to, much less one playing 67% of its games away from home.

We still believe the selection process doesn’t need a makeover. Contrary to what so many try to make it out to be, it isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t need more computers-the Bowl Championship Series in college football tried exactly that, and it was a yearly disaster.

This shouldn’t be that hard. The answers were clear as to who should’ve gotten the final at-large spots this year. All the selection process requires is the setting of standards, and then adhering to them. Unfortunately, perhaps because of paralysis by analysis, perhaps because of intentional vagueness in guidelines, the committee is struggling mightily with both in recent years.

The 2015-16 season has been one of the best in college basketball in years. It deserved much better from this committee.

More thoughts on the unveiling of the field

  • This year’s tournament has just nine conferences represented by more than one team, continuing a disturbing trend that has not slowed one bit even with three more teams added to the field in 2011. Since 1997, an average of just 10.9 conferences per year are receiving multiple bids, a severe drop from an average of 13.3 from 1985-96. The number is even lower since we went to 68 teams-an average of just 10.5 conferences per year. We noted it in a column a few weeks ago but must reiterate: the committee should be rewarding conference champions much more than they do-especially those who go through double round-robin slates playing every team in the league.
  • Seeded too high: California, Oregon State, Syracuse, Wisconsin
    The Golden Bears firmly earned their way in the field late in the season. They and Oregon State were particularly helped, though, by the committee’s ask-no-questions view of the Pac-12. When conferences like the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley or Mountain West in recent years have furnished multiple teams with RPI rankings that don’t seem to fit what most feel they see, they are readily punished for it (see: MVC in 2006, a should’ve-been six-bid league that barely got four). In the Pac-12’s case, though, the numbers were taken as gospel. The Badgers’ losses were documented earlier; clearly there was very little penalty for them. Syracuse would’ve been acceptable in a play-in game, but not as a 10 seed.
  • Seeded too low: Gonzaga, Indiana, Seton Hall
    We would’ve definitely placed the Hoosiers ahead of California and Iowa State too, and believe the Bulldogs should’ve been a line higher than their 11. That’s a tough first-round matchup for Seton Hall, which also could’ve been a line or two higher.
  • The pod system still stinks. You can set your watch to it-every year some teams will get rewarded more than others for no other reason than because sub-regionals were randomly assigned near them. This year, third-seeded Utah gets to play in Denver and Texas A&M plays in Oklahoma City, yet Miami has to go all the way up the east coast to Providence. The committee will never, ever be able to reward all of these teams remotely fairly, so it should not even be trying.
  • What the committee got right:
    Temple: We’re fine with Temple as an at-large pick. The Owls weren’t impressive out of conference, but they won the American Athletic Conference regular season title and clearly were a different team starting in January.
    Seedings: Overall, we typically have more complaints about selection than seeding, and this year is no exception. Most teams are seeded within a line or two of what’s acceptable, and especially the 3 line (Miami, Texas A&M, Utah, West Virginia) is very well done. Locations are something of an issue, though, as it’s clear the committee was trying to avoid putting some top teams in tough situations/greasing the skids for easier paths for others.
    Oklahoma City sub-regional: Both “pods” here are from the bottom half of the West bracket. While this should actually be a Midwest regional, it’s good to see that the two second-round winners of these games will meet in a regional semifinal. This is the way it used to be and the way it should be, if we weren’t disturbed with the pod system.

Best first round matchups And this year we can actually call them “first round matchups”:

  • Iowa State-Iona: For pure entertainment value, easily the best game of the first round. But when two up-tempo teams play, typically go with the more talented one, but the Gaels won’t be afraid.
  • California-Hawaii: The Rainbow Warriors are certainly capable of the upset here and are a fun team to watch, as is Cal.
  • Texas A&M-Wisconsin-Green Bay: The Phoenix are going to win some hearts this week with their exciting style of play.
  • Utah-Fresno State: Utes got a very, very tough draw for a 14 seed. Bulldogs are on a roll and have a star who can take over in Marvelle Harris.
  • Texas-Northern Iowa: Fascinating matchup between two schools supposedly with little in common, according to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby a couple years ago.
  • Seton Hall-Gonzaga: Pirates’ bruising frontcourt against Sabonis and Wiltjer is must-see. Beware the experience factor here-Zags are more used to this stage.
  • Miami (Fla.)-Buffalo: Another good 3 vs. 14 game. Hurricanes should win, but Bulls were here last year and won’t be afraid.
  • USC-Providence: First one to 90 wins. This should be fun.
  • Saint Joseph’s-Cincinnati: Forgot this one initially, but this is a terrific matchup of styles and equal teams. The Bearcats are tough, but the Hawks are too.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
E-mail: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com


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