In 2007, the NCAA started inviting select members of the media, in various forms, to participate in a mock selection of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. In 2007, I added another item to my bucket list. Eight years later, it was checked off this week, as I had the pleasure of joining some of the country’s preeminent college basketball writers, broadcasters and bloggers. We made a bracket. It was our baby. If the NCAA Tournament started on February 13th, I think we nailed it.
But, that’s not the point. Despite some heated conversations at the table about who belonged and what makes a tournament team, the real value was seeing how the committee goes through the process of creating the world’s most interesting bracket. The procedures, the technology and the scope were all impressive.
I would consider myself an NCAA apologist. Unlike some in the room, I had no agenda to ‘out’ the organization on perceived bias or systematic inefficiencies. As somebody who has hosted dozen of selection shows (for the NCAA), I respect the challenge of those tasked with giving schools a shot at a championship. Call it blind faith, but I think they do the best any of us could do. But, how do they do it? A few things stood out:
1) The process is so extensive and so organized, it becomes impossible for any committee member to view a team by name. While we talk about Duke, Indiana, Notre Dame, etc., after hours of staring at screens, the name of the school is rendered simply to a cue to look at a resume.
Within that, choosing teams to make the field is exhaustive. At the start, the committee ranks every team. Each team is either identified as an at-large selection (a team that you think is a lock to be in), under consideration (worthy of discussion to make the tournament) or nothing (better luck next year). With 10 members on the committee, it takes 80% of the at-large vote to immediately make the tournament (we slotted 17) and 30% of the consideration vote to make the discussion list (we identified 45).
Those 45 teams took forever to whittle down. Each committee member then lists his/her top 8 from the consideration list. The consensus top 8 is then given to each committee member to rank, 1 thru 8, and the consensus top 4 are then slotted into the at-large list we established from the beginning. Oh, and we discuss teams at every juncture. Rinse, repeat, until you fill the field.
The ‘list 8, rank 8’ process is also used to seed teams once they are in the at-large list. While it’s the same process, it also offers a break from picking teams. Shifting back and forth is really helpful, especially as the resumes get worse. It helped to talk about really good teams for a few minutes before sorting through the muck.
2) The technology and information available is tremendous – I’m jealous of the committee. What they get to stare at for five days in March is like Christmas mated with the 4th of July for a college hoops fan. Ask to see two teams compared, boom, the magic NCAA Fairy Statmother pops them up together on the screen for all to see. What, you have four teams you want to see? There’s a Nitty Gritty report for that. My favorite: Hover your cursor over a particular stat (say, road record) for a team you’re comparing, and it highlights all those instances for every team you have pulled up.
3) It’s an objectively subjective process – I brought this up to a committee member, but I thought the numbers in front of us were skewed, in that most of the stats were all related to wins. Top 50 wins, no less. I don’t have a problem with that. Who you beat is more important than who you may have lost to. That doesn’t mean that losses didn’t hurt a team, but wins were valued more. That was a question I had going in.
Strength of schedule was also big, and teams (I’m looking at you, Notre Dame, Ohio State and West Virginia) who didn’t bother to schedule in the non-conference schedule were skewered in moments.
Then there was the dreaded ‘eye test.’ It was mentioned so much during football season that I figured it was used, but to what extent? It turns out, a lot. It’s important. Once our mock committee heard that, we never went back.
So, which one means more? There is no correct answer. You want one? There isn’t one. And, you know what, it’s okay. There were good discussions between two teams, but with a room full of knowledgeable people, criteria was never a sticking point. There is no wrong answer. And, believe it or not, almost all cases have a clear cut “winner” in resume.
It should be noted that there are also several ah-ha moments that just slap you in the face. Oklahoma’s resume was crazy good. And then you have to ask yourself, “Is Oklahoma a 2 seed?” I still don’t know how to answer it.
4) Bracketing is about geography. No really, it’s about geography – Remember that cool technology part? Once you have teams seeded, it’s time to send them somewhere. Highlight the top seeded team and each geographic location is shown on screen with the total miles from that school’s campus to the venue. The NCAA want fans and schools able to make it. There were complications (conference conflicts, rematches, etc.), and I don’t want to simplify a process that took over an hour, but it really felt simple. Pick team, find closest venue, slot and continue.
This is where the age-old bias argument comes in. And, of all aspects of the selection process, it couldn’t be further from the truth here. I actually thought to myself, it is infinitely harder to create a biased situation on purpose than do what is actually done.
I wanted to write about certain teams, or scenarios (we had 3 Pac-12 teams in the First Four; don’t ask), but it really meant nothing for our exercise. It’s about the process. The committee will be questioned on Selection Sunday. Somebody will feel offended. What will be my response? Go beat somebody.