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Bracket Impressions: Selection process with misplaced priorities in need of fix

March 12, 2018 Columns No Comments

From once being a tournament of champions, the NCAA Tournament has come a long way.

For most of those years since first expanding to take in more than one team per conference in 1975, it has been nothing but positive, growth and good for what became as great of a sporting event as there is in this country. That has not been the case the last few years.

If the NCAA Tournament selection committee continues on the path it has been treading down, an event that long ago was for only champions may soon became a tournament of mediocrity. It’s becoming ever more clear every year that the selection process for this event, if not actually broken, has some misfiring spark plugs and is leaking a bit of oil, and it needs a mechanic.

Sunday night’s unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament bracket was a mess from the start, beginning with Turner’s inexplicable decision to mess with the selection show itself, the second time in three years the TV networks have done so.

Somehow, Turner figured that what fans really want out of Selection Sunday is a small live studio audience to awkwardly pipe up with occasional cheers or whoops for certain teams, as if they were at some low-quality Turner comic show. And rather than the drama of pairings, fans of one of the most suspense-packed days of the sport year also really desired an alphabetical release of all teams in the tourney first, and only later the brackets released.

It was senseless, didn’t improve the show a bit, and the idea should be sent back to mothballs forever. The original selection show is perfect entertainment. Turner showed to be horribly out of touch with college basketball fans with its ideas for this.

It continued with final selections that, once again, are incredibly unsatisfying, if not terribly surprising. If those selections didn’t make clear enough, though, that the committee has a College Football Playoff committee-like desire to keep the tourney a private club as much as possible, then a couple seedings did. And if that wasn’t enough, perhaps the biggest punch in the gut came when the first four teams out were revealed, and it became apparent that if an influential TV network-with a heavy financial stake in certain leagues-stumps hard enough for a team, the committee just might be duped into picking them.

Most fans and bracketologists-who have now been conditioned by the committee’s very specific (and convenient, it might be argued) emphases of good wins and bad losses in recent years-will think this year’s bracket is fine. And by those standards, it is. Fine. Not great. Not the worst. In other words, not 2016-bad.

This year’s bracket, though, does drive home again that something very simple seems to have been lost in the selection process. For all but a few games in some teams’ seasons, the committee has made an afterthought the one thing that should be emphasized most:

Winning games.

A series of light changes in the selection process have brought us here. Ever since the pod system was introduced for the 2002 tourney, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee has continued to make subtle but noticeable tweaks to the process that conveniently and almost uniformly just happen to favor the richest schools and conferences.

It actually started even before then, when the committee started de-emphasizing regular season conference championships. There was the removal of the last 10 games criteria. Recent years have seen an emphasis on ‘good’ wins and ‘bad’ losses, an increased ignoring of road performance (the move to quadrants has essentially given the committee license to now ignore actual road record), and now the latest movement to try to remove non-conference strength of schedule from team sheets, as if schools playing bad non-league slates and hiding behind their conference affiliation should be A-OK.

It all has left us in a really confusing place, one where somehow a team going 2-9 in Quadrant 1 games is an 8 seed, another losing 75% of such games in a whopping 16 chances and finishing three games above .500 against Division I teams just misses the field, yet another almost gets in because it has essentially half of its season ignored because of injury, and a team that finishes eighth of 12 teams in its conference gets an at-large bid because of what it accomplished in…November?

Meanwhile, teams with terrific seasons are completely ignored. Something is wrong when the likes of Louisiana-Lafayette (25-6) or Vermont (26-7) are considered not even worthy of discussion for at-large berths, or when a Saint Mary’s (28-5), regardless of what one thinks of its coach’s scheduling philosophy, goes from being ranked in the top 15 a few weeks ago to missing the tourney behind the eighth-place team in the Pac-12. If the data being used is treating these teams as non-entities, then maybe some truths and influencing factors need to be faced about that data.

Meanwhile, the likes of Alabama (19-15), Butler (20-13), Oklahoma (18-13) and Texas (19-14) get in the field, and no one bats an eye. Six teams with 13 losses or more made the field as at-large picks. Arizona State and Oklahoma haven’t looked like even NIT teams for the last two months and yet get in, the committee hellbent on sticking to its new mantra that every game counts the same, no matter how obvious it should be that it sounds nice but isn’t always practical. Shoot, even 10-loss North Carolina was discussed for a 1 seed, the fact that the Tar Heels lost that many times apparently forgotten by even bright minds.

This year’s lead up to Selection Sunday included a bunch of word salad from the committee about the importance of things like scheduling intent, winning on the road and just winning games. It meant nothing. The case for Arizona State, Oklahoma, Syracuse and similar teams getting in the field-this year and always-essentially comes down to a couple games of their season.

It’s a pretty simple formula: get a few big wins in numerous chances at them and the rest of the schedule is almost academic. And it’s awfully convenient that a committee with five of its 10 members from the top six conferences decides to focus on these, when it’s so clear that financial advantages in scheduling allow certain teams far more opportunities for those big wins than others.

These teams acquire a massive number of chances at top-flight wins on the basis of home-loaded non-conference schedules, for themselves and all of their conference mates. So pumped up are their ratings from staying at home in November and December and then playing each other in January and February that in essence almost every single one of these games after the first 2-3 wins is a free shot: there’s no penalty for their losing games against approximate at-large caliber competition, the old top 50 grouping, now known as Quadrant 1. None. And there’s no penalty for their playing the ridiculously favorable non-conference schedules, either. So long as a team gets close to 20 wins and doesn’t have too many losses against bad teams, it’s golden.

Of course, it’s awfully hard to lose many games against poor competition when one is always playing them at home. For years, we’ve heard charges leveled by some at certain teams as ‘gaming the RPI.’ In many cases, we don’t buy it. But if there is gaming of power ratings, it should be indisputable that the guiltiest are teams and leagues where true road games make up barely over 10% of their out of conference games.

The entire Big 12-its 10 teams combined-played 14 true road games out of conference. Fourteen. And six of those were mandated by the made-for-TV Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Texas Tech played nine home games, one on the road. So did Kansas. So did TCU. West Virginia played eight at home and one on the road. Oklahoma and Texas really got wild-they played two non-conference road games each.

The Big 12 is an excellent league. But if one wants to know why leagues like the Big 12 go 105-22 in non-conference games, leading to teams like Texas fattening up their strength of schedule and playing 17 games against Quadrant 1 competition? Scheduling like that is why. Add a couple road games per team against even moderate, top-150 or better competition, and those non-conference records almost certainly go down. And then power ratings go down. And then it’s a lot harder to build resumes where six wins in 17 Quadrant 1 games is considered an asset.

Many have tried to pin any selection issues on the RPI for a number of years now, and seem to truly think that eradicating the RPI will fix all selection ills. We’d love to think this is just an RPI problem, and that the advanced metrics championed by so many on social media would fix this.

But do they? We’re extremely skeptical when we see teams like Indiana (with a 16-15 record), Vanderbilt (12-20) and Wake Forest (12-20) showing up solidly in the top 100 of margin of victory-based rankings. We’re especially skeptical when teams like Indiana and Wake Forest lose multiple non-conference games at home to the likes of Georgia Southern, Indiana State, IPFW and Liberty, yet rankings essentially insist those games are flukes and that they would be winning almost every single other game-home or away-if playing in those teams’ respective conferences.

For all the tar-and-feathering of the RPI that has gone on in recent years, it certainly seems the RPI is more on target-and in turn fairer to teams outside the TV conferences-ranking those teams in the 120s and below, at least getting a start on penalizing teams for losing. Where the RPI is hurting those teams is in how easy it is for the top conferences to play lame non-league schedules and then puff each others’ rankings because of them. We’d be all for the RPI getting some tweaking that puts less weight on strength of schedule, more on winning, but at the very least, thorough discussion of various ratings and the strengths and weaknesses-of all of them-is needed.

All the current criteria points, though, are exactly why a team like Middle Tennessee State got the shaft from the committee for the second year in a row. Last year, it was with a disturbingly low seed after a 30-win regular season that included a blowout win over a 15-loss Vanderbilt team that somehow was seeded three lines higher.

This year, despite another excellent season and three years of evidence now that Kermit Davis has built a top-40 level program, the Blue Raiders were left out completely, the reason cited being their inability to win a couple games against Auburn, Miami (Fla.) and USC, teams they lost to by six, three and five points, respectively. MTSU did go 2-3 against Quadrant 1, 5-4 against quads 1 & 2, won the No. 15-ranked conference, posted an incredible 12-1 road mark and faced the No. 11 ranked non-conference schedule in the country.

Selection committee chair and Creighton A.D. Bruce Rasmussen and others pushing for non-conference strength of schedule to be de-emphasized makes it convenient for the committee to ignore that last number, as well as the fact that Middle Tennessee is at a severe scheduling disadvantage because its conference doesn’t have a billion-dollar TV contract. The Blue Raiders had to work tremendously hard to put together a quality schedule, but did exactly that this year, defeated two conference regular season champions on the road, went 2-1 against the SEC, and were in every single game they lost.

In short, there were plenty of good reasons for the committee to put MTSU in the tourney. Clinging to ‘good wins/bad losses only’ is an easy way to keep them out, but only displays how out of whack the committee’s priorities have become. Not long ago, before all the recent criteria twists, the Blue Raiders would’ve been almost a shoo-in. Even five years ago, in a year with much better bubble teams, Middle got in the field with a lesser resume than this year. Now, it is left out not because its record against the top teams on its schedule is bad (it’s not) but because it basically doesn’t have a built-in opportunity to lose more.

Quite simply: the committee is holding teams like the Blue Raiders to a standard that is almost impossible to reach.

MTSU was the closest thing to an egregious snub from the field, though USC out and Syracuse in was almost as bad. In their own way, the Trojans were penalized strictly for lack of top-flight opportunities; just three of their games were against RPI top 30 teams. Southern Cal lost all of them, but still went 4-6 vs. Quadrant 1 and 9-10 against the top two quads. The committee told us that USC-the second-place team in the Pac-12-was out, though, while eighth-place conference finisher Arizona State was in.

The Pac-12 has an unbalanced schedule. It’s not that unbalanced.

Comparatively, Syracuse played 10 games against top 30 teams, winning three of them. Somehow that was considered enough to put the Orange in the field even as they were just 7-11 against quads 1 & 2 combined and went just 3-4 against teams in the 51-100 range.

If that doesn’t prove just how easily the committee will ignore losses as long as it sees a few big wins, we’re not sure what does.

There also was a horrendous seeding error with St. Bonaventure, which became yet another team penalized solely for lack of birthright opportunity against top 10 teams. It certainly couldn’t have been because of the Bonnies’ numbers: 3-4 vs. Quadrant 1, a perfect 6-0 vs. Quadrant 2, and four wins over conference regular season champions, plus one on the road at Syracuse-a team they apparently slipped in just before. Two years after St. Bonaventure was wrongly left out, at least it made the field, but the seed and forcing it to take on UCLA in a play-in game is a slap in the face.

Perhaps the only seed approaching the Bonnies’ in repulsiveness was the No. 8 seed to Creighton. Look, the Jays were fine being in the field. But a 2-9 record vs. Quadrant 1 (and just 7-11 vs. the top two quads) is a bubble team, not an 8 seed. Such overrating only gives rise to conspiracy theories that schools who have representation on the committee will be cut a good deal.

The most chilling part of this year’s selections, though, just might’ve been the teams who almost made it. On the Turner selection show, it was revealed that Baylor, Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and USC were the four teams who just missed. Meaning Middle Tennessee State wasn’t even in that final cut, yet Baylor was with a 17-14 record against Division I teams, a 4-12 record vs. Quadrant 1 and good wins against Kansas and Texas Tech that were offset by more than enough losses to teams below those.

Even worse was when committee chair Rasmussen-widely regarded as a good guy in college athletics and who in the chairman’s role takes the arrows for the whole committee-was asked point blank who the first team out was and we were told it was Notre Dame. That would be the same Notre Dame who a certain cable TV network seemed on a crusade for all the last week, one with a 19-14 overall record vs. D-I teams and a less-than great resume that we were supposed to excuse because its All-American was hurt for half the season.

Apparently the committee members were very close to buying it, for the Fighting Irish were knocked out of the tourney earlier in the day when Davidson won the Atlantic 10’s automatic berth. It would’ve been a disastrous precedent, but the fact we were so close to it happening is scary. Apparently now if you have an injured player in one of the top leagues, it literally doesn’t matter what you do with half of your season.

Middle Tennessee State coach Davis was exactly right Sunday night: fans-who with their love of the Cinderella aspect have made the NCAA Tournament the must-see event it is-would rather see teams like his and Saint Mary’s filling out the bracket over teams finishing seventh or eighth in their conferences. There is absolutely no charm in putting in teams like Arizona State or Oklahoma, Baylor or Notre Dame. And there’s no reason why they have to be there.

Selection committees have continued to tweak and form their criteria and preferences to give us more of these teams, though. It certainly leads to questions of if the athletic directors and conference commissioners on the committee are too influenced by the dollar signs they see in it for them and leagues like theirs. To say nothing of whether or not they are following any criteria at all, or if they just pick the teams they like and then find reasons to put them in or take them out, as has been a suspicion in recent years.

It’s also not a good thing for the tournament. At the risk of it sounding like some social engineering experiment, this event is at its best when at its most inclusive. It’s a lesson that was taught several years back when teams like George Mason, Butler, VCU and Wichita State were making the Final Four.

It’s an awful message to send when winning games is almost optional for NCAA Tournament selection, and losing a lot appears more valued than winning. Moreover, it makes for a diminished event. If that’s the goal, then the selection committee can just keep going down the current road it’s on, oil dripping behind it the whole way.

More thoughts on the field:

  • This is the third straight year that just nine conferences received more than one bid to the tournament, a bad trend only continuing. From 1985-96, an average of 13.3 conferences per year received more than one bid; since 1997, just 10.7 conferences per year get more than one bid, and even less since the tourney expanded to 68 teams. File that away the next time someone pushes for expansion of the tournament and claims it will help leagues outside the Big Football sphere.
  • As usual, there isn’t much to complain about with seeds, with a few exceptions:
    Seeded too low: St. Bonaventure, New Mexico State, UCLA. The Bonnies should’ve been absolutely no lower than a 10 seed, certainly not in a play-in game. The Aggies deserved to be a line higher, and the committee needs to get off its seemingly unofficial rule of late that play-in teams can’t be seeded lower than 11th. Like St. Bonaventure, UCLA should’ve been able to avoid the play-in game while teams like Butler, Oklahoma and Texas skated free of it.
    Seeded too high: Creighton, TCU, Wichita State. The Bluejays were a bare minimum of two lines too high, probably three. The Horned Frogs deserved to be in the field, but a six seed is way too high for a team that went 4-8 against Quadrant 1 and just 3-7 on the road. Hopefully we can also put to bed the analytics-loving myth of recent years that the Shockers are “always” underseeded, because they’re a 5 seed or better for the third time in seven years and this year were more than generously seeded, two lines ahead of a Houston team they lost to twice.
  • None of the multi-bid conferences have much to complain about in seeds. The Pac-12 is probably the conference of all of them that got the shortest shrift, with just three teams getting in, two in play-in games. That was fair, though, even as we’d suggest USC absolutely should’ve been in over Arizona State.
  • The 12 and 13 seeds in this tourney are loaded. Murray State, New Mexico State, South Dakota State, College of Charleston, Marshall, UNC Greensboro-all are very capable of winning not just one game but several. This is a superb group of teams with a number of stars, from Murray State’s Jonathan Stark to New Mexico State’s Jemerrio Jones and Zach Lofton, to South Dakota State’s Mike Daum and Marshall’s Ajdin Penava and Jon Elmore.
  • What the committee got right:
    Cincinnati as a 2 seed. To be sure, the Bearcats are going to be seen as a vulnerable two seed. But if we’re honest, just about every seed is vulnerable this year. Other than perhaps Michigan State-which is also notably lacking in top-notch wins-there is no one who had much argument to be higher than Cincy.
    5-12 and 4-13 matchups. Almost every game on these two lines is outstanding, and there is ample potential for 12 and 13 seeds in this year’s tourney to win some games. And maybe even 14 seeds too.

Best first round matchups:

  • Clemson-New Mexico State: On paper, may well be the best game of the entire first round. The Aggies are good enough to stick around for a while in the tourney.
  • Miami (Fla.)-Loyola Chicago: Two excellent defensive teams, and this is a doable game for the Ramblers.
  • Kentucky-Davidson: One team barely shoots any 3s; the other shoots almost nothing but 3s.
  • West Virginia-Murray State: The Mountaineers’ press will be met by a freshman point guard, though Ja Morant is no ordinary frosh point. The Racers’ relatively thin rotation will get tested, but the talent is there if they can break the press.
  • Texas Tech-Stephen F. Austin: Don’t be misled by the seed difference-the Lumberjacks are fully capable of pushing the Red Raiders.
  • Houston-San Diego State: Very good opening matchup. Teams making their first appearance in a while as 6 seeds have frequently met trouble in their first round games.
  • Ohio State-South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits are going to be a very popular upset pick, and wouldn’t surprise us at all if they stick around this tourney for a while.
  • Gonzaga-UNC Greensboro: The Bulldogs have been on fire of late, but the Spartans play some sticky Virginia-like defense and have some athletes.
  • Creighton-Kansas State: Marcus Foster faces his former school.
  • Auburn-College of Charleston: The Cougars are another lower-seeded team with a real opportunity to pull off a surprise.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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