bracket

NCAA tournament selection, seeding and bracketing: a full evaluation

What follows is a review of NCAA tournament selection, seeding and bracketing:

SELECTION: TULSA IN, MONMOUTH AND SOUTH CAROLINA OUT

This was a year in which the last six to eight teams in the NCAA tournament were all going to possess highly flawed resumes.

It was unavoidable that several selections would be disputed. Pundits knew this. Bracketologists knew this. Coaches and fans knew this.

What was going to decide the last few bids near the cut line? The reasoning of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee.

Some people were bound to be unhappy, but as the NCAA Tournament Selection Show arrived, the bracket community was at least prepared to accept that almost any inclusion in the field – and the accompanying exclusion of another team – would have a clear rationale behind it.

Well, one team’s inclusion did not.

The 2016 Tulsa Golden Hurricane became the 2015 UCLA Bruins – the one team whose selection to the NCAA tournament simply made zero sense. Arguments existed for several teams on both sides of the cut line, but there was no particularly profound argument for the Hurricane.

Tulsa didn’t avoid power-conference opponents in its non-conference schedule. Oklahoma State, Oregon State, and South Carolina populated the slate. However, only Oregon State distinguished itself among those three teams, and Tulsa lost to the Beavers. Haith’s team went 1-2 against that trio, and Oklahoma State (the team Tulsa beat) was clearly the worst of the lot. The one substantial accomplishment for Tulsa in the non-conference portion of its schedule was a win over Wichita State at home. Even then, the Shockers were not as good as in past seasons, hampered by injuries in the early part of their schedule. If that’s the high-end win on a non-conference schedule, the rest of the profile must be substantial or clean for a team such as Tulsa to get in.

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Tulsa lost at home to Arkansas-Little Rock and – much worse – Oral Roberts. UALR made its way into the Dance, so let’s not downgrade Tulsa too much for that one. However, Oral Roberts at home, in addition to UALR at home? That’s not a clean resume at all.

Did Tulsa have a resume which was substantial enough? One can make a case… but it’s not a particularly strong one.

The Golden Hurricane split with each of the other top four teams in the AAC – Temple, SMU, Cincinnati, and Connecticut. SMU, had it been eligible for the NCAAs, might have been a 5 seed this year, so that’s a valuable win. Getting more results against three teams in the back of the NCAA bracket (i.e., teams seeded 9 or lower) also helped. Yet, Tulsa merely split with these teams, losing to them as often as it beat them when getting two bites at the apple. Tulsa didn’t sweep any of the AAC’s good teams, and it also split with Houston, which bombed out of the AAC Tournament against last-place Tulane.

If the resume ended there, it would have been shaky in its own right, but Tulsa might have deserved a bid.

However, the resume also included two losses (and no wins) against Memphis, a team which cratered this season under coach Josh Pastner. Tulsa not only lost once to the Tigers, but got obliterated by 22 points in the AAC quarterfinals.

This is where the mixed messages of the Selection Committee enter the picture.

Losing to an inferior team in a conference tournament quarterfinal was held against South Carolina. However, Georgia is a demonstrably better team than Memphis. South Carolina lost to Georgia by a point. Tulsa lost by 22 to Memphis in a game that was never remotely close. One result was held against a bubble team, the other not.

If these guys were going to be kept out of the Big Dance, the Selection Committee owed it to them to send them a clear, consistent, coherent message. It did not.

If these guys were going to be kept out of the Big Dance, the Selection Committee owed it to them to send them a clear, consistent, coherent message. It did not.

Yet, that’s only part of the story. Tulsa’s inclusion is even worse when measured against not just South Carolina, but Monmouth.

Various other teams left out of the NCAA tournament had similar arguments, but Monmouth was the foremost representation of a team which excelled in its own league and tried to play as many power-conference (or high-profile) opponents as it could, all of them away from home. Monmouth took to heart the one message the committee has been good about emphasizing over the past few years: Play somebody.

When SMU was snubbed in 2014, the Mustangs had a wretched non-conference strength of schedule, near 300 out of 351 Division I teams. South Carolina was in the exact same position this year, so when the Gamecocks were left out of the field, the committee sent a consistent message.

The problem: How, then, does Monmouth not get rewarded for its schedule? Yes, UCLA and Georgetown were huge disappointments this season, making the value of those wins less than what it should have been. However, Monmouth played tons of road or neutral games against bigger conferences, and the Hawks defeated USC (an 8 seed) and Notre Dame (a 6 seed) away from home.

The biggest knock against Monmouth was not an insubstantial one: Losses to Canisius, Army and Manhattan all made this resume shaky and put the Hawks in jeopardy of getting snubbed. The issue is not necessarily that Monmouth got left out, but that Tulsa and not South Carolina benefited.

Had South Carolina gotten in over Monmouth, the Hawks really wouldn’t have had too much to argue about, because South Carolina made up for a thin non-conference schedule by winning all of its non-conference games and then beating Texas A&M (a 3 seed) on the road in the SEC. At least Monmouth would have gotten the message: Don’t pick up bad losses, because Power 5 teams which merely avoid bad non-conference losses will overtake you. The message would have been debatable, but clear and consistent.

South Carolina should have been included, but that's another story. What's worse about the Selection Committee's performance on Sunday is that by excluding both the Gamecocks and Monmouth, it made it impossible to tell whether ambitious non-conference scheduling mattered or not. That's the worst part -- not the bad exclusion, but not offering an intellectually consistent message to the snubbed teams.

South Carolina should have been included, but that’s another story. What’s worse about the Selection Committee’s performance on Sunday is that by excluding both the Gamecocks and Monmouth, it made it impossible to tell whether ambitious non-conference scheduling mattered or not. That’s the worst part — not the bad exclusion, but not offering an intellectually consistent message to the snubbed teams.

With Tulsa getting in and South Carolina getting left out, though, the message is different on two fronts:

1) Tulsa lost to Oral Roberts at home and picked up multiple bad losses in its conference, but didn’t get punished for it. Monmouth made the finals of its league tournament and lost narrowly to the second-best team in the league… and didn’t get rewarded for it.

2) South Carolina was hit for its thin non-conference schedule, while Tulsa’s modest non-conference achievements trumped Monmouth’s much more ambitious schedule and its platter of road and neutral games.

Monmouth and Tulsa both picked up multiple bad losses. They both won a few particularly big games. Monmouth got more work done on the road, though, and scheduled much more aggressively relative to its standing in college basketball. If the Selection Committee valued whom teams played and defeated, Monmouth wins this argument, hands down.

Evidently, the Selection Committee valued something else… and a legitimate answer will prove to be elusive.

SEEDING: TEXAS A&M, INDIANA, THE AAC, AND THE PAC-12

Not having Michigan State as a 1 seed reflects, if anything, the continued tendency by the committee to ignore the result of the Sunday afternoon Big Ten Tournament final. That’s been a longstanding problem, so it’s not worth talking about at great length. Let’s just say that Sunday tournament finals should be eliminated. Look at the SEC final, for instance.

Kentucky getting a 4 – that’s not an unfavorable seed for the Wildcats. They lost to non-NCAA teams such as UCLA and Ohio State out of conference. They picked up a few bad losses in the SEC regular season. A 4 seed is, if anything, generous. How, though, can Kentucky get a lower seed than Texas A&M when Kentucky won the SEC final? Texas A&M beat Florida and LSU to make the final – two non-NCAA tournament teams. That’s nothing to create a bump on the seed line. A&M should have been a 5. This is a seed the committee missed by two – a one-line difference is no biggie, but a two-line difference is glaring.

Not convinced A&M should have been a 5? The Aggies got clocked by Vanderbilt, the only SEC team in the field other than the Aggies and Kentucky. A&M split the season series, but the loss in Nashville was decisive. A&M also got hammered by Arizona State and fell to Arkansas. A home win over Iowa State was valuable, as was a non-conference win over Baylor, but the whole of the SEC was filled with wins of relatively minimal significance from a seeding standpoint. One gets the feeling that the committee felt Kentucky played its way into a 4 seed, which meant A&M’s narrow home win over the Wildcats increased in value. Strategic losing!

The 3 seed which should have been in A&M’s place is Indiana. Yes, the Hoosiers stumbled in the non-conference part of their schedule, losing to Wake and UNLV. A&M did a lot better than Indiana out of conference, even with the loss to Arizona State. However, the Big Ten and SEC create a far bigger gap between the two profiles. Wisconsin (split series), Michigan, Iowa twice, Purdue, Maryland – that’s six wins over NCAA tournament teams in conference. A&M? Two. That’s not a minor difference – that’s a big difference – two seed lines, not one. Moreover, if Michigan was indeed a tournament team (the committee thought so), losing to the Maize and Blue in the Big Ten Tournament shouldn’t have represented that big a hit. The Hoosiers were viewed to be on the 3 line heading into that game, with a chance at a 2 seed by some (though not all) if they won the Big Ten Tournament.

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The other seeding stories from the tournament which stood out were the extents to which The American and the Pac-12 were embraced by the committee. In 2014, SMU got snubbed while each AAC team in the field seemed to be underseeded by multiple lines. Temple was wrongly excluded last year, but surprisingly included this year after a non-conference body of work which was littered with losses and had no standout wins – not one. The committee clearly felt the AAC was a lot better than it was – how else to explain UConn getting a 9 after beating Temple and then Memphis in its last two AAC Tournament games? The AAC deserved some love after the errors which hurt the league the previous two seasons, but that doesn’t make these seeding decisions any more correct.

The Pac-12’s lowest-seeded team: Colorado and USC were both an 8. When your league not only gets seven teams in (all deserved), but has all seven teams as the higher seed in the first round, you know you’re highly thought of. Did the Pac-12 really deserve that kind of treatment? Colorado easily could have been a 10, and California got a lot of respect as a 4 seed when its best non-conference performance was a loss (by one at Virginia). The across-the-board consistency with which the AAC and Pac-12 were loved by the committee was quite conspicuous on Selection Sunday.

Michigan State AGAIN? Virginia and its fans deserve better. The committee presides over a national tournament, but it evidently thinks Virginia has to beat one team to prove how good it is. What about everyone else?

Michigan State AGAIN? Virginia and its fans deserve better. The committee presides over a national tournament, but it evidently thinks Virginia has to beat one team to prove how good it is. What about everyone else?

BRACKETING: VIRGINIA, MICHIGAN STATE, AND BULLSPIT

Come on, Selection Committee. Really: Are you just trying to torture Virginia or make the Cavaliers prove they can beat one team, that team being Michigan State?

As with other bracketing issues such as Dayton going to the First Four last year, there’s no reasonable or adequate defense for something such as this. Seed lists are manipulated all the time to produce bracket integrity – at least, that’s how bracketing works. You can’t put this ACC team against that ACC team in the round of 32, so you move a team one notch on a seed line to fit the bracket. It’s an inherent part of the process.

Don’t tell me that something couldn’t have been done to keep Virginia and Michigan State in separate regions. That won’t fly – period. If the committee felt Virginia deserved a 1 seed, then a 1 seed is supposed to receive more protection (in terms of geographical placement and quality of draw) than a 2 seed unless other options truly don’t exist. For example, Wisconsin was the 1 seed in the West last year with Arizona as the 2. Could Wisconsin have been slotted anywhere else? Not with Kentucky, Duke and Villanova also on the 1 line – someone was going to have to go West, and the Badgers were widely acknowledged as the fourth No. 1 seed.

This situation with Virginia was not that.

Other bracketing errors: Temple plays Iowa in Brooklyn in a 7-10 game. Not cool to give a non-Cinderella seed (higher than 13) a favorable placement.

Gonzaga, as an 11, was kept in Denver to face Seton Hall. That will be a pro-Zags crowd. Are we sure that couldn’t have been avoided?

To give the committee credit, Villanova’s poor showing against Oklahoma and its failure to win the Big East final against Seton Hall, plus the recent loss to Xavier, all merited shipping out of the East Region and Philadelphia. Giving the Wildcats a home game in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 would have been justifiable only if VU had conclusively and definitively make its case… which it did not.

That’s a credit to the committee… but for the most part, this process was immensely flawed… especially the selection process which left Monmouth in the cold and told the Hawks: “Don’t schedule tough teams on the road, and don’t challenge yourself out of conference.”

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.

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