It’s that time of year, March to be exact, when college basketball fans, league administrators, coaches and even players start to think about the NCAA Tournament and where their team fits in, if at all.
For the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, and bracketologists like me, the thought process begins much earlier.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking part in the NCAA Mock Selection Exercise, where David Worlock, Director of Media Coordination and Statistics for the NCAA, invites college basketball media members to participate in a condensed (two full days, rather than five) mock selection of the 68 teams that will make up the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
We were entrusted with selecting the field in the same manner the actual Selection Committee does.
We were provided the same team, schedule, and ranking information; holed up in an Indianapolis conference room, all sitting together at one giant conference table with laptops and scattered notes abounding; and were expertly guided by Mr. Worlock and JoAn Scott, veterans of the process who will be acting in the same capacity in two weeks.
Though I felt I had a solid understanding of the process going in, I learned a great deal more.
Of course, there is much speculation about how teams are selected for the tournament and the factors that are rightly or wrongly considered, including the dreaded conspiracy theories. But, to set the record straight, let’s talk about what really goes down…
As mock committee members, we were asked to come prepared with a list of the teams we believed to be at-large locks, as well as a list of those we believed deserved consideration or debate.
Teams that receive all but two of the eligible votes (an Athletic Director/committee member may not vote for his/her own team) automatically make the tournament field with no further debate.
As for the rest of the non automatic bid field, any team that receives at least three votes in the lock and/or consideration categories is placed on the “Under Consideration Board” for debate.
From the Board to the Dance
Now comes the fun part.
The committee must vote on the top eight teams left on the board.
There is discussion and debate. Schedules are discussed, numbers are thrown about, and the committee members’ opinions on various teams are expressed and challenged.
After eight teams emerge as the top vote-getters, we are asked to vote for our top four out of that group. The four winners of that vote are now in the field. The other four are thrown back onto the Under Consideration Board to survive yet another vote.
This process is repeated until the at-large field is set.
After the field is set based on the above voting, committee members take a closer look at their proper seeding by “scrubbing” the board.
The teams are on the board numbered from 1-68, based on when they were voted into the field. In order to fine-tune the seeding, each team is meticulously compared to the team above or below it in order to determine whether they should be moved up or down.
Keep in mind that games are being played during the selection process, so teams are constantly moving on the board, based on conference tournament results.
What matters most to the committee members when deciding what teams should make the field, you ask? Well, everything.
Of course, this is a human process, so whatever is important to an individual committee member can play a role in that committee member’s thinking.
It has been stated that the RPI is the only metric that the committee uses. This is technically true since teams are grouped and team sheets are largely based on RPI rankings – top 50 wins, for example, refer to RPI top 50.
However, the committee requests and has immediate access to all of the other popular metrics, including, but not limited to Sagarin, Ken Pomeroy and BPI. So, these “other” rankings can and often are discussed when debating teams.
So, yes, the RPI is inherent in the selection process, but it is far from the sole determinant.
Moreover, the dreaded eye-test plays a role, as members will discuss the times they witnessed a particular team in person and how such team performed. Although, I would argue that the eye-test is inherent in any debate on college basketball that includes people who watch college basketball, at least subconsciously.
The final order of the day (or days) for the committee is to decide who plays who and where and when.
Only top 4 seeds are “protected.”
That means the committee will only go out of their way to protect, either geographically or competitively, the top 16 teams in the tournament.
Geography is, without question, regarded as the biggest form of protection.
So, those who wonder if a 2 seed in this year’s tournament is more likely to be placed in a region close to campus or shipped far away from the Kentucky Wildcats, the answer is they will likely be playing somewhere their friends, family and fans have an easier time getting to.
In fact, in the bracketing process, when a team pops up on the board to be placed, the distance in miles from campus to each playing site is displayed prominently.
And there you have it
Despite all the conspiracy theories that float like the bubbles the tournament has made famous, the selection committees consistently do a reputable job.
How else could a good bracketologist consistently come within one or two teams of predicting the field (although, this year threatens to be a bit more unpredictable)?
Almost always, the right teams get in. And always, the NCAA Tournament turns out to be the best sporting event of the year.
Follow Jamal Murphy on Twitter: @Blacketologist