Method to the Madness
Mock selection opens eyes to complex bracketing process
INDIANAPOLIS – In a luxury hotel near the center of downtown Indianapolis, the mystery to the Madness was unraveled.
Twenty media members, conference representatives and college basketball influencers gathered to pull back the curtain on Selection Sunday.
“We are doing this to show the conspiracy theories are not real,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State athletic director and NCAA Division I men's basketball committee chair. “There is a reality to this process.”
If you think the Selection Committee sets up the field so Duke will reach the Final Four because it draws a large television audience, or Butler is a lock for the tournament because it was last season’s Cinderella – sorry to break it to you, you’re wrong. Remember last year’s instant classic? Well, you won’t be seeing a first-round rematch. There is, for the lack of a better term, a method to the Madness.
The Committee has the information at its fingertips, lots of information, mountains of information. Whatever bit, byte or nugget of knowledge that could be scraped together was there, waiting to be digested. The data included conference records, road/neutral records, strength of schedule, non-conference strength of schedule, opponents’ strength of schedule, non-conference opponents’ strength of schedule, record vs. teams selected into the tournament field, record vs. teams in common, and how good the teams look when they play basketball. The technical name for this is called "the eyeball test."
A decade ago, the Committee went through 100,000 pieces of paper, now it is practically paperless.
“Now the computer lets Committee members focus on the teams and not the process,” NCAA executive Greg Shaheen said.
There is a science to Selection Sunday. It involves RPI, sheets, conference scheduling and good old-fashioned debate.
Welcome to basketball nerd heaven. Hoop geeks on parade. The stats have to been sliced, diced and stir-fried. The motto of the Committee is simple: “Don’t buy the school’s brand, buy this year’s resume.”
UCLA deserves a spot in the Tournament because the school won 11 championships – right? How about Kentucky – it is the winningsest program in NCAA history – and has to be a lock every year. Sorry kids, you earn your way in every season.
Every game counts equally – from the early season tournaments in exotic locations right up to the conference tournament. Home, away and neutral courts – it all matters.
The process to selecting the 68 teams can be boiled down to one word: grueling.
Members are holed up in a conference room for hours and there is rarely, if ever, a unanimous decision. Majority rules and the Committee strives to create a "balanced bracket." Each member represents a number of conferences. They must decide which teams from each conference are "under consideration" or if it’s only an "AQ" league. (That means "Automatic Qualifier;" only the conference tournament winner is going to the Big Dance.)
The media group session compressed what would normally be a five-day process into two days. It was an abbreviated exercise, but the same practices were followed. The media session used all the same tools the Committee would have available.
Despite the condensed sessions, members still debated issues for as long as a half-hour. There would be an intense back-and-forth and then someone would break the tension by saying, “And Andy Rooney will be reading the brackets ...”
The NCAA did its best to simulate the weekend as the real Committee would experience it, from refreshments and snacks provided by Corporate Champions to announcing conference tournament results in real time.
The conference tournament is where the selection got interesting.
Late in the evening the group learns that Utah State did not win the WAC tournament and now the Aggies are debated if they deserve an at-large bid. The discussions ranged from heated to passionate. The Committee decided Utah State has zero “quality wins,” but also a great overall record and only one “bad loss.” It helped that they played a couple of high-quality teams in their non-conference schedule.
After several back-and-forths, the Committee welcomed the Aggies to The Dance.
The Committee had Virginia Tech squarely on the bubble, and it looked like Hokies were about to be awarded an all-expense trip to New York to play in the NIT. Then it was announced the Tech had upset Duke in the ACC conference finals.
Hello, Hokie Bird. Welcome to the 68.
After a 30-minute debate over the quality of UAB and the lack of big wins by Memphis, the Blazers win the (hypothetical) C-USA tournament.
The event was moderated by Shaheen and his favorite phase of the evening was “it’s up to the Committee members.” In other words, there were no dumb questions asked during the forum. Everything was up for debate – from the No. 1 overall seed to the First Fours to No. 68. Everything was up for a vote.
One of the first questions the media members brought up was the potential conflict of interest. Everyone on the Selection Committee works for a conference or a school, how to get around that rather large elephant in the room?
It’s simple – those people must leave the room when their school or conference is up for vote or discussion.
“We must remember to kick them out,” Smith said. “And we must remember to bring them back in.”
Ask any participant who took part in the mock session and the word you will hear the most is “eye-opening.” Even America’s bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, learned a thing or two about the process.
The Committee has one of the toughest jobs in sports and they make the right call more often then not. They are not conspiracy theorists, and they don’t care about pre-fabricated storylines. It turns out the Committee roots for chalk. Smith said he was proudest of the selection when all the top seeds reached the Final Four a few years ago.
Any fan will tell you – chalk makes for a boring tournament.
But as Shaheen tweeted on Saturday afternoon as one top team fell after another:
gashaheen Greg Shaheen
Breaking re: 2011 NCAA Men's Bkb: 68 tms WILL be in bracket. Ea W/L moves chairs, opens/closes doors, but FOR NOW: 0 tms in.
Get ready for the Madness.