The NCAA tournament bracket is out! Soon we’ll be happy about the fact that there’s a 68-team basketball tournament about to tip off. For now, we’re going to be a bit confused as to why the 68 teams in the field are the 68 teams in the field.
The NCAA selection committee did some really weird stuff, and we’re not the only people upset about it. If the committee’s job was just to pick its favorite teams, I’d understand, but the committee publicly explains the process it uses to make selections, and committee chair Joe Castiglione gives interviews about why the committee picks the teams it does.
Those publicly stated criteria and interviews actually raise more questions than answers. Sometimes, the committee merely appears to have done a bad job of following its own criteria. In other cases, it appears to have completely ignored logic. Let’s take a look at what exactly they did wrong!
What the hell is Tulsa doing in the NCAA Tournament?
I’ve been paying attention to brackets for a long time, and I think Tulsa has to be the most out-of-left field pick I’ve ever seen. The team’s own players assumed they were going to the NIT. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi called the decision to put them in the field “indefensible by every known standard.” The Bracket Matrix compiles 59 brackets from people considered to be bracket experts, zero of them picked Tulsa to be in the field. Zero! Out of 59!
Bracketologists aren’t trying to pick the best teams. They’re trying to predict what the NCAA Tournament selection committee will do. If zero of 59 people were able to figure this out, the problem isn’t that bracketologists are bad at predicting. The problem is the selection committee is doing a bad job of sticking to the publicly stated criteria it claims to use.
Tulsa was not an NCAA-worthy team by any conceivable measure. The Golden Hurricane didn’t have a great record, going 20-12 with a 12-6 record in the middling American conference. Their RPI was 61, well below what the committee generally accepts from an at-large bid, and 58th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They didn’t even pass the famous “eye test,” losing twice by sizable margins to a trashy Memphis team in the last few weeks of the season. Here’s what Castiglione said:
In the case of Tulsa it was their four top-50 wins, including a road win over SMU. They had eight top-100 wins, and to add some context to that six of the eight top 100 wins were over teams in the tournament. Those kinds of things begin to distinguish them.
Quite frankly, this doesn’t really distinguish them at all. Four top-50 wins and eight top-100 wins are not very impressive. St. Bonaventure had seven, St. Mary’s had six.
Slightly less, sure. But the difference is those schools actually won the majority of their games against top-100 schools. The Bonnies went 7-5 against the top 100, the Gaels 6-3. Tulsa went 8-8 against the top 100 and 10-11 against the top 200.
Having a lot of wins against good teams is not impressive if you also have a lot of losses against good teams.
Now let’s look at what Castiglione had to say about the exclusion of St. Bonaventure:
In the case of St. Bonaventure, their non-conference strength of schedule was outside the top 150. They also had five losses to teams that aren’t in the tournament. In that last group of teams, in which St. Bonaventure was considered, they were being compared to teams like Syracuse and VCU, and in those particular cases they had head-to-head losses to each of those teams.
Wow, so they lost five games to teams that aren’t in the tournament. Weird! Tulsa lost six games to teams that aren’t in the tournament!
I don’t know what metric or stat the selection committee used to include Tulsa over St. Bonaventure. I do know that the stat Castiglone cited as evidence for Tulsa’s inclusion actually made the Bonnies look better, and that the stat Castiglione cited as evidence for St. Bonaventure’s exclusion actually made the Golden Hurricane look worse.
Whatever happened, I have no clue how the committee included Tulsa. Which brings us to our next problem.
March Madness Matchups
The mid-major problem
Let’s look at what Castiglione had to say to mid-major teams attempting to make the NCAA Tournament.
As I mentioned earlier, we value teams that challenge themselves outside of their conference. Making a general statement, some leagues are going to have difficult times getting games against those top-50 or top-100 teams. We know those opportunities are fewer for some than they are for others. But we’ve said all along, we pay attention to that during the evaluation process, so the committee members notice where teams have tried to test themselves against the iron
Monmouth took that advice to heart. The Hawks played five teams from major conferences, including road games at Georgetown, UCLA, and USC. They beat all five.
They’re not the only ones who tried their best: Many mid-majors left out of the tournament went out of their way to play tough games. Valpo scheduled games at Oregon and Oregon State, both tournament teams, and the Crusaders beat Oregon State. San Diego State played Kansas, West Virginia, Utah and Cal, earning a win against Cal. Saint Mary’s played Stanford and Cal.
Teams like Monmouth only have a few opportunities to get top-100 wins. Their 3–4 record vs. those teams wasn’t as much of a factor. It was really the case with their three losses outside of the top 200. And of course we combined that with the use of all the other analytics. No other team in the field had multiple losses to teams below 200.
So, before we get into analyzing Monmouth, this didn’t explain why his committee snubbed Valpo, SDSU and St. Mary’s, who went a combined 33-1 against sub-200 teams. (That one loss was an outdoor game in Petco Park where San Diego State couldn’t find the basket.)
It’s embarrassing that Monmouth lost some games to sub-200 teams, but of course, the Hawks actually had to play sub-200 teams. As Andy Glockner pointed out, Monmouth went undefeated against these teams at home and lost three of 11 games on the road. The last five at-large teams in the field only played 12 games against these teams combined on the road, and they lost two of them.
Major conference teams don’t have to play a lot of games on the road against bad teams. Small league teams do. When major conference teams play games on the road against bad teams, they lose them sometimes. When small league teams play games on the road against bad teams, they lose them too. The only difference is that the small league teams play significantly more of these games, and the committee penalizes them for it.
For a small conference team to get an at-large bid, the NCAA selection committee apparently needs them to not only schedule these games, but also win them and go nearly undefeated in conference play. And if one of the perennial powerhouses the school scheduled turns out to have a down year, that’s too bad, but you don’t really get credit for that scheduling decision anymore.
Meanwhile, all a major conference team has to do is be mediocre in their regular season and not lose the three or four home games it has against bad teams.
Here’s a telling stat!
Every eligible Power 5 school with a top-54 RPI made the NCAA Tournament. But eight non-Power 5 schools with top-54 RPIs did not.
— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) March 14, 2016
At best, this process is unfairly stacked against mid- and low-major teams, so much so that it hardly seems like the best way to pick the best teams in the country. I’d recommend using metrics that factor in margin of victory so they can see which teams are really dominating their leagues, or higher insistence on overall record against the various RPI tiers rather than bulk wins and losses.
At worst, the selection committee is being hypocritical. It’s telling teams to strive for one thing and then ignoring them when they actually do it. I don’t want to believe that the committee is moving the goalposts around to include power league teams however possible, because I generally don’t believe in conspiracy theories. But it’s a reasonable explanation for what’s happening.
Either way, what the committee is doing is stupid. Fans love teams from tiny leagues pulling big upsets. It’s one of our favorite things about March Madness. The committee is literally attempting to prevent Cinderella from getting into the dance.
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Getting flustered over the inclusion of a few teams and exclusion of a few others might seem pointless — after all, it’s just a basketball tournament — but this is the selection committee’s only job. What the committee decides not only has major emotional implications for the fans and players of the teams involved, but also has a big effect on people’s job statuses. Schools make scheduling decisions for their teams based on the criteria the committee claims to use. If the committee arbitrarily decides it’s not interested in following that criteria well, it does a major disservice to coaches and athletic directors around the country trying their best to fit those criteria.
Now that we’ve yelled about it, watch Tulsa make it to the Sweet 16. After all, it’s only slightly worse than the teams that should be in the tournament instead.
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Greatest Cinderella: Was it the NC State Wolfpack or Butler Bulldogs?
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