Basketball: March Madness & NCAA Tournament Selection

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

As maligned as the NCAA tournament selection committee has been recently, they did a pretty good job this year picking the 34 schools to earn at-large bids to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Sure, you can quibble with the omission of Arizona State or Virginia Tech in favor of a team like South Alabama, but these are largely matters of taste. The truth is, every team that found itself on the wrong side of the bubble had plenty of opportunities to secure an at-large bid, and didn’t get it done on the court. There’s no team left out that, like Syracuse last year, has an unimpeachable case against the committee.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the selection process, and you only needed to watch a few minutes of the post-bracket punditry to notice it. Just minutes after the pairings had been unveiled, CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer asked the committee chairman, Tom O’Connor, how the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the top-ranked league according to the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), could only get four teams in the field of 65, while the fifth-ranked Big East got eight. O’Connor’s answer was, quite simply, that the committee doesn’t take conference RPI into account when they’re choosing at-large teams.

Packer’s question is one of many asked of O’Connor that seemed to lack an understanding of what the selection process is all about, and it’s indicative of a wider problem that plagues not only the media, but players and coaches as well. The criteria for earning an at-large bid aren’t clear. Does team RPI matter the most? If so, how can Dayton (32) be left out while Oregon (58) gets in? Is total wins an important metric? How about conference wins? If so, what’s the justification for leaving the 2006-07 Syracuse team – which won 22 games and went 10-6 in the Big East – home? If non-conference strength of schedule is important enough to give Arizona (5) a bid over Arizona State (296), despite two head-to-head losses in conference, what justification is there to leave Ohio State and their 13th-ranked non-conference schedule out?
ESPN’s Dick Vitale put it simply on the network’s two-hour extravaganza breaking down the brackets: “I wish that one time, [the selection committee] would tell us what the criteria is [sic].”

Admittedly, there are several reasons why setting benchmarks for at-large bids is impratical. Given the differences between conferences like the ACC or Big East and the so-called mid- and low-major leagues, 20-win seasons are not created equal. The transitional nature of the game, with rosters turning over yearly as players graduate or jump to the NBA (National Basketball Association), further makes it difficult to evaluate teams with similar records from year to year. Out-of-conference schedules vary widely, and with many conferences having too many teams to have a balanced schedule, it’s understandable when a team like Miami (FL), which went 8-8 in the ACC regular season, gets in over a Virginia Tech team that went 9-7 in the same conference.

At the same time, the committee has to be using some metric to make its decisions.

College basketball, like all sports, has hard and fast rules. A player can’t run with the ball – he must dribble it. Committing five personal fouls in one game results in disqualification. The team with the most points at the end of 40 minutes wins.

Is it too much to ask that the criteria for qualifying for the game’s crowning event not be shrouded in secrecy?

(Editor's Note: The American University Eagles debut in the NCAA Tournament on March 21 in Birmingham, AL against the University of Tennessee Volunteers.)

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about basketball.

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