Bracket basics: Don’t complain about Wichita, Arizona or Seton Hall

We all love to dissect our bracket when we get it on Selection Sunday, and then as results pour in on Thursday in the round of 64.

We saw Wichita State pulverize Arizona Thursday night in Providence with a typically ruthless and focused defensive effort, the kind of masterpiece we’re accustomed to seeing from a Gregg Marshall team in March. (Call him Gregg March-all, amirite?)

The savage ferocity with which the Shockers dumped Sean Miller out of the Dance — go dry off in the offseason, Sean — led a lot of people on Twitter (surely many more from the comfort of their own couches) to question Wichita State’s No. 11 seed and First Four status. National basketball writers felt compelled to address the topic:

The Shockers aren’t playing like an 11 seed right now, no. However, the level at which a team plays and the seed it deserved on Selection Sunday are two different things.

Yes, the Selection Committee made all sorts of mistakes on Sunday. The selection process appears irretrievably broken and inconsistent… at least in the absence of a more fundamental embrace of the value of road wins and road scheduling. Indiana getting a 5 seed while Texas A&M got a 3 was also ludicrous. Notice that the Hoosiers fell outside the top four despite winning the Big Ten outright, and that Texas A&M fell inside the top 4 despite failing to win the SEC outright (and despite getting pounded by Arizona State).

To the extent that Indiana lacked a protected seed — and A&M got one — the Hoosiers might have the biggest seeding-based complaint of anyone after Selection Sunday. Why mention this on the heels of the Wichita State/11-seed issue?

I’ll tell you: Protected seeds are protected seeds for a reason.

There are, as you probably know, eight sites used for this first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Eight sites with two subregional sections.

What’s a section of the bracket?

Let’s keep it simple: The whole region is 16 teams. A subregional is one half of that — eight teams. A section is a portion of the subregional — four teams.

Each section contains a pair of higher seeds — for example: A 1 and an 8 includes the 16 and the 9; a 4 and a 5 includes the 13 and the 12; a 3 and a 6 includes the 14 and the 11; or a 2 and a 7, which includes the 15 and the 10. If these higher seeds beat their lower-seeded opponents on Thursday or Friday, they will meet each other on Saturday or Sunday. This is the manifestation of the NCAA tournament’s identity: three two-game tournaments.

On this first weekend, eight sites must host a total of 16 four-team sections.

If there are 16 sections, well, you can begin to see the architecture of the bracket more clearly: Each of the top four seeds in the four regions represent the highest seed in their section.

This means that if you’re a 5, you cannot be the highest seed in your section. You will wear your road uniform in the round of 32 unless you get an upset in the other half of your section.

Being a top-4 seed means you’ve risen to the higher tier of the bracket and deserve favorable treatment on the first weekend of the tournament. Naturally, if you’re a 1 seed, you deserve maximum protection. If you’re a 4, you stand at the back of the line… but you still deserve some fundamental accommodation in exchange for earning that higher seed.

That’s it. Period.

If you are outside a top-four seeding slot, you are — or at least should be — at the mercy of the bracketing process and its randomness.

Wichita State — after a horrible Selection Sunday in which Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s, and San Diego State all got left out so that Tulsa, Syracuse and Vanderbilt could be put in — was able to make the field. That’s all the committee needed to do for the Shockers: given them their rightful chance. Why we’re talking about seeding is beyond me, ESPECIALLY since being an 11 offers a better bracket path for advancement than an 8 or 9.

The Shockers were jobbed by the bracket… but not this year. That happened in 2014, when — as a No. 1 seed and an unbeaten team — Wichita State was given Kentucky as the 8 seed in its section. Being a No. 1 seed should offer a favorable bracket, but the committee, in a very intentional choice, said, “F— you, Shockers! We’re giving you the toughest and most talent-laden 8 seed in the field!”

THAT was an instance of bad bracketing — failing to give a 1 seed the softer bracket it had earned by dint of its regular-season excellence.

Being an 11 seed? No protection should be afforded.

It’s the same for being a 6 seed.

This was indeed no accident for Arizona, the 6 seed dispatched by Wichita on Thursday:

The Selection Committee wanted to test an Arizona team which just “kinda sorta got into” the field by not losing very often. High-end wins were lacking; the Cats could not beat Oregon or Utah. They were a very ordinary 6 seed, not the really dangerous kind Kansas was with Danny Manning in 1988, or which the Fab Five turned out to be with Michigan in 1992. Testing a 6 seed and shipping it way out of its region to play a credentialed 11 seed? Sure. That’s good bracketing.

For all the flaws with the selection, seeding and bracketing processes, this was not one of them.

Neither was the very similar act by the Committee of sending Seton Hall closer to Arizona’s neck of the woods, in Denver. Arizona had to go East, Seton Hall had to go West.

That’s life as a 6 or a 7 or an 8 — if you’re not in the protected zone, you go where you’re told. (Again, only Indiana — wrongly seeded at 5 when it should have been a 3 — has a specific and legitimate gripe here.)

I will say this for Seton Hall, though: Scheduling — more precisely, time-slotting — was absolutely unfair. This has nothing to do with bracketing itself. This is simply about scheduling for television and for the convenience of on-site fans.

Here’s the background: The Pirates’ game against Gonzaga on Thursday did not tip until 10:53 Eastern. This was the product of a couple different factors. First, the day and night sessions in a Mountain or Pacific time zone site are not separated by a big time gap. They are in the East, Midwest or South, because you can start a game at 9 or 10 a.m. Pacific time for TV in those places. However, you can’t start a game at 9:30 a.m. in an actual Mountain or Pacific time zone location. The day session has to start later in a Mountain or Pacific spot such as Denver. The NCAA was unwilling to stagger the tip times for the night session so as to create a larger time gap between the day and night sessions.

Here’s the second factor behind the Hall’s late start: When the second game in the Denver day session — Arkansas-Little Rock versus Purdue — went into double overtime, the night session was pushed back. This is where Seton Hall got jobbed.

Seton Hall, being an Eastern time zone team, should have deserved to play at a time when its fans could reasonably watch the Pirates. How many people in the East stayed up until 1:30 a.m. to the conclusion of that game? You might say, “Hey, isn’t this what a 6 seed means?”

Time-slotting and geographical location are not equivalent considerations.

Players should not be force-marched into difficult logistical situations. To give another example, Hawaii is being made to play an 11 a.m. Pacific time game on Friday against California. That’s 8 a.m. according to Hawaii players’ body clocks. At the very least, Hawaii shouldn’t have to play the first game in the day session on Friday. A 1:30 Pacific (10:30 a.m. in Honolulu) tip would at least be tolerable. Ideally, Hawaii should have received a night session start. Time-slotting is its own consideration, more about television than anything else. Not giving teams reasonable body-clock starts (with more access to their fan bases as well) is just stupid and unfair.

It’s sad that Seton Hall did get the short end of the stick as well on Thursday. Here’s why:

The other game in Seton Hall’s section — the 3-14 game paired with the Hall’s 6-11 game against the Zags — was Utah versus Fresno State. Two teams in the Western United States met in the other game. Why in the world wouldn’t Utah-Fresno be the late game in the night session? Audience members would all be up at that hour? Yes, CBS/Turner/TruTV wanted Gonzaga to pull in ratings in the late-night slot, but given the geographical representation of that section in Denver — three teams from the West, one from the East — the team from the East deserved to play near 8 or 8:30 Eastern time.

Being a 6 seed shouldn’t mean bracket protection… but ALL teams deserve common-sense time-slotting. That’s the one valid complaint possessed by the losing 6 seeds from Thursday.

Other than that? Nope — get a protected seed next time. Protection shouldn’t apply to every team in an NCAA tournament bracket.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.