Before March Madness comes the March mystery.
Every year as Selection Sunday approaches, you hear of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament committee sequestered for five days in an Indianapolis hotel. For college hoops fans, it has a James Bondian allure. What goes on in there? How secretive is it? How much smoke is in the smoke-filled room?
To educate the public, the NCAA invited the media to participate in its February Media Mock Selection. The process took place over two days instead of the five days the real committee uses, but the idea was to educate the public on the nuts-and-bolts of the process.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the eighth exercise last week. I had an idea of what to expect, but I was curious to see just how immersive it really is.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Here’s how it all panned out.
• Structure: Each of the 10 committee members was represented by a member of the media. In my case, I was teamed with Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star columnist Kirk Wessler and we represented Conference USA associate commissioner Judy MacLeod. That meant we couldn’t take part in any committee business involving C-USA teams.
Before we met, our duty was to determine which teams were at-large locks and which were under consideration. If 77 percent of the committee determined a team was a lock, it was put in the field immediately. If three committee members picked a team in the under-consideration category, it was put into the pool of at-large candidates we’d vote on later.
Wessler and I met before Wednesday’s ISU-Bradley game and firmed up our ballot.
• RPI? Much is made of the Rating Percentage Index during the season, but here’s how I interpret its meaning. It’s like the password, or bouncer at a club. It gets you in the door.
Once you’re in the door? The meat of your resume takes on far more importance than the raw RPI number does. RPI forms a general baseline, particularly as far as the top 50 is concerned, but no more. Attributes like wins and record against the RPI top 50, strength of schedule, wins against tournament teams and road wins mean far more than the raw RPI number does.
This is what got Indiana State in the door.
ISU’s official RPI at the time of the mock selection was 55. The Sycamores were briefly discussed during this phase and they were ultimately voted in as under consideration, the only Indiana school to be so considered.
But then, the Sycamores were never discussed again. The lack of any wins over NCAA-level competition and a below-average nonconference strength of schedule (dragged down by an off year in the Missouri Valley Conference) gutted ISU’s case. A down year for Notre Dame, ISU’s one visible win, has hurt ISU a lot. Major down years by Ball State, Eastern Illinois and IUPUI have also dealt ISU’s nonconference strength of schedule a big blow.
The one thing in ISU’s favor? Road wins. It has nine and has the chance for two more at Missouri State and Illinois State. Those will carry weight if the Sycamores keep winning, but ISU needs to accumulate wins for it to have a long-shot chance at an at-large bid.
• Pick 8/Rank 8: Once the committee had the list of teams in the field and under consideration firmed up, we began what’s called the Pick 8/Rank 8 process. It’s used as the means for both picking teams for the field and seeding them.
To start, we were asked to pick the eight best teams in the field. Once that was established, we were asked to rank the eight teams chosen by the committee. The top four teams ranked by the committee comprised the four • No. 1 seeds — in this case, Syracuse, Arizona, Wichita State and Florida, in that seed order. Seed order matters because it later determines the order for how you bracket teams. The field is seeded from one to 68.
The four teams left over automatically go into the pool for consideration for the next seed. The Pick 8 is then repeated to get four more teams to join them, then, the Rank 8 is done to determine the next seed line.
The same process is used to pick the at-large teams.
In effect, it’s a series of run-off elections, and without a doubt, it was the most mentally exhausting part of the process. You think you have a team pegged in a certain spot. Then another team is added to the mix and it changes your original perception. It’s like looking at a diamond. You see something different (and sometimes, an attribute/demerit you missed) almost every time.
We mixed it up. We went through several rounds of choosing at-large teams, then we went back to seeding and vice versa. It tested your concentration.
You have to keep copious notes to keep your mind from getting scrambled. NCAA Vice President of Men’s Basketball Championships Dan Gavitt told me that the real committee will call a recess when they feel the process has them mentally frazzled. They’re doing this repeatedly over five days. We did it over eight hours and it was a grind.
Keep in mind, you’re sitting constantly and not moving around. Gavitt told me it’s important for committee members to get a workout in during the process. You’re also staring at banks of computers with every scrap of detail you’d ever want to delve into.
More than anything else, I gained a respect for grind that selecting the field really is. It’s a fun grind, mind you, but it’s serious too, because even in our meaningless mock exercise, you strive to get it absolutely right.
• Information overload: The amount of information at your disposal is endless. Four sets of computers are set up for view by the entire committee that have individual team nitty-gritty (their overall resume), comparisons of teams, the field as its presently constituted and so on. At any point, you can ask for a comparison of two teams and the NCAA staff can pull them up.
Each individual committee member has a computer he uses to vote in the Pick 8/Rank 8 process. You can also peruse team sheets that have each team’s game, strength of schedule, nonconference strength schedule, record against the chosen field and so on.
It looked like an advanced Strat-O-Matic sports card from the long-time sports board games.
• Bobbing and weaving: To make the process realistic, the NCAA created conference tournament scenarios that could shake up the field. Some of our automatic qualifiers reflected this. Eastern Illinois won the OVC tournament in our scenario, which is not likely, but these kind of upsets happen every year.
As we went through the process, we’d get an “update” on a conference tournament that just “ended.” There weren’t many upsets — sorry ISU fans, but WSU won Arch Madness — until the last.
More germane to the seeding and picking was the conference tournament scenarios the NCAA scripted. For example, the NCAA had bubble team Oregon losing in the Pac-12 quarterfinals. That knocked the Ducks out of favor.
The surprise was saved for last ... at-large no-hoper Illinois played Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament title game, the last one played. We were in the bracketing process at the time (more on that later) and we had to have a scenario for whether the Illini won or not. We were told the real committee has two to three scenarios at the ready for this situation.
Saint Joseph’s was the last at-large chosen so the Hawks were truly on the bubble. Complicating matters? By rule, Illinois could not be placed in one of the 11-12 first round games at Dayton. Those are reserved for the at-large teams chosen. So if the Illini won, it could have a ripple effect on the fate of several teams on the 11 and 12 lines.
The Illini, in fact, did upset the Spartans in our scenario. We wedged Illinois into the 12 line late in the process. Out went St. Joe’s.
n Scrubbing: At various parts of the process, the committee looks at the totality of what they’ve done and reviews it. They look at the seed list, or later, the bracket, and decide what doesn’t look right.
For teams, it’s called scrubbing, and it requires a specific process. A proposal must be made by one committee to “scrub,” or move, a team up or down the seed list. The proposal has to be seconded and then voted by a majority of the committee. The trick? You can’t move a team four spots down at a time. You have to have a separate vote for each team the scrubbed team is going to move past.
Kentucky was scrubbed hardest. After the first day, the Wildcats were originally our top No. 3 seed. Nearly all of us felt it was too high. It took four votes, but we scrubbed UK down to the four-line. NCAA representatives told us the most a team had ever been scrubbed over the years was six spots.
During this process, Gavitt explained that the first order of business the committee does to start the day is to look collectively ask, “does anything bother you?” In other words, it’s a subjective look at the field, the candidates to be in the field, etc., to see if anything has been overlooked.
It through this process that Virginia Commonwealth was placed into the 2011 field. The Rams went on to advance to the Final Four.
This is also the time where tempers can flare and arguments can be more forcefully made as scrubbing is more of a subjective process. A spirited discussion on the importance of a team’s final games (the NCAA officially removed the emphasis on the last part of a team’s resume from its principles a few years ago) heated up the room as some members still used it as a means to make a case for a team.
Committee members made cases for and against teams and the give-and-take sometimes led to a change, and other times, went down a dead end.
• Bracketing: On Friday, the last of two days of the mock selection, the NCAA expedited proceedings and seeded the Nos. 12-16 lines. It allowed us to move on to bracketing.
Bracketing has undergone a significant change this season. After Oregon slipped to a No. 12 seed a year ago due to rules preventing conference matchups until the Elite 8 — despite being far higher on the seed list — the NCAA has mandated that, unless completely unavoidable, a team must stay on its seed line.
To accomplish this, bracketing principles were relaxed as to how early two conference teams can play each other. Teams from the same conference can meet in the third round (round of 32) if they met just once in the regular season. Schools that played each twice can be bracketed to meet in the Sweet 16.
The field isn’t bracketed strictly by seed, but rather, priority is given to putting a team in its best geographic site. The teams in the first four seed lines are chosen first as they are given priority to be placed in the most advantageous regional site when possible.
Choosing the first four teams locks in the sites for all of the seed lines below it. For example, No. 1 seed Syracuse was chosen to play at Buffalo in the opening round. That locks in the 8-9-16 seeds at the same site since they play each other in the opening weekend.
It’s all pretty straightforward until conflicts begin to arise as you get near the middle of the field. Despite the relaxed guidelines, the sheer amount of teams in the newly realigned conference creates conflicts. That’s when teams might not get their ideal site. Teams from the No. 6 line down to the No. 12 line (where most of the at-large teams are seeded) are moved around frequently to avoid conflicts.
The first-round games in Dayton also create a logistical issue. Because of the short turnaround time to play Tuesday-Thursday or Wednesday-Friday, the NCAA will not place those games against a team in the bracket playing at a distant site. Spokane and San Diego are two second/third-round sites that are off the board as far as the Dayton teams are concerned. That created a lot of scrambling during the bracketing process.
The actual committee likes to have the outline of its bracket done by mid-afternoon on Selection Sunday to provide time for conference tournament contingencies and for review.
• Impressions: The process was fascinating. What I took away from it was that it’s an objective process that has subjectivity built into it, i.e., what philosophy each committee member emphasizes as important when assessing teams.
As nearly every part of the process — scrubbing being a notable expectation — is subject to a run-off style election, it is very hard to game the system to fit a certain agenda.
The oft-heard “NCAA likes to set up so-and-so matchup” — think Wichita State vs. Kansas in an Elite 8 game — is also difficult (though not impossible) to set up as there are strict principles at work for bracketing teams. Gavitt said little thought was given to TV-friendly hypotheticals.
The process does create anomalies that you see will be parsed after the fact. To wit, we had Duke as the No. 2 seed in the West Regional with its first weekend of games in Raleigh, N.C. We had North Carolina as the No. 7 seed, also playing in Raleigh, but in the East Regional. The Tar Heels would have a friendlier Sweet 16 trip (New York City) than the Blue Devils would (Anaheim).
A Blue Devils’ fan would likely cry fowl, but the reality was it depended on where each team fell on its seed line. In North Carolina’s case, Raleigh made the most sense as a site, and it happened to be in the East Regional.
None of that means the process is robotic Individual philosophies aren’t brought to the table. An example came during the scrubbing process and it involved Wichita State.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi suggested the Shockers be moved to No. 4 on the seed list to switch places with Florida. Though the Shockers would still be a No. 1 seed, the seed order matters because it would determine what regional the Shockers would be placed in.
Lunardi’s argument was that the Gators won at Wisconsin and beat Kansas at home. Wichita State has no comparable victories. While others countered with WSU’s unbeaten record, my point to Lunardi was that WSU has no chance to play high-quality games like that because high-quality teams won’t play the Shockers — rarely in their home gyms and almost never at Koch Arena.
My point isn’t to denigrate Lunardi’s point or raise my own. Neither of us are wrong. It’s just the philosophy we happened to bring to the table. There are 10 people in the room with 10 different ideas on how to interpret each team. The makeup of the committee will shape how the field is compiled.
Other thoughts? It’s hard to imagine expanding the field beyond the 68 that qualify now. When you get to the end of the bubble, you really do see the disparity between the top four seeds and the lesser ones. It shows in stark relief that the teams left out
How did we do? OK. I thought the balance we had in our regionals was really good. The top eight seeds in our East Regional (Syracuse, Villanova, Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio State, Louisville, North Carolina, VCU) have all been to the Final Four in the last decade. That would likely create some unintended buzz.
The one team we had in that doesn’t deserve it is West Virginia. The Mountaineers — whom we had in a Dayton game — have won at home in the Big 12, but their overall resume is lacking at 15-10 at time of selection. But I was overruled in the Pick 8/Rank 8 process, which is a fair way to shake things out.
Overall, the NCAA does a good job creating a system that has distinct principles and guidelines, but isn’t so robotic as to lack the human element. No system is ever going to be perfect, but this one strives to be fair, and that’s all one can ask.
Like all of you, I look forward to seeing how the real thing turns out next month.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or email@example.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.