I don’t know about you, but there really isn’t anything else I can say about the game in Knoxville. Just as John Calipari said he was going to burn the game tape, I am going to delete it from my mind, at least until the radio show tomorrow morning. Instead, tonight I would like to focus on the two days I spent on Thursday and Friday, in Indianapolis at the NCAA, learning how the NCAA Tournament Bracket is created. I must admit that when the NCAA invited me to be a part of the process (something it does every year for 20 media members), I was beyond excited. I have been a bracket dork my entire life. From an early age, I projected brackets, broke them down and even created them in my own life, for everything ranging from backyard basketball tournaments to girls in our Middlesboro High School English class (Allison Cooke was always a #1 seed). I thought I knew a lot about how the NCAA Tournament was created, but was eager to learn a great deal more. So I joined the other 19 media members, ranging from national writers such as Seth Davis, Eric Prisbell and Rob Dauster to local beat writers from Michigan State, Syracuse, UNLV and Louisville, to work the process. It was a great deal of fun, but most importantly, very informative. While we did create an actual bracket, the results of it were relatively meaningless in the long run. But because the actual committee members did guide the process, specifically Committee Chair Mike Bobinski who I found very impressive and knowledgable, learning how the teams are picked became much more important than who we actually picked. With that in mind, below are the 10 Most Important Things I Learned (in bold), along with some behind the scenes anecdotes/points of interest (in italics). Be warned…This post is long and dorky and really for true bracket geeks. The rest of you may want to wait until we find another Harlem Shake video. Here we go:
1. The Selection Process is Unbelievably Thorough:
When I left Indianapolis and got in my car to drive home, I was asked by Mo Egger on a Cincinnati radio station, what was the most important thing I learned. And the answer is that I have significantly more faith in the bracket process than I ever did before. It isn’t perfect (more on that later), but because of how many steps are taken and how unbelievably thorough it is, I have confidence that the Committee in the end makes strong decisions. Here in its simplistic form, is how the bracket takes shape:
1. All ten members select teams that are (a) In the Tournament or (b) Under Consideration. If a team gets 8 of 10 votes on the “In the Tournament” selection, this first go around, it is officially in. If it gets 3 votes for being either In the Tournament or Under Consideration, it moves to round 2. If it doesn’t get 3 votes for Under Consideration, it is out, with no further discussion absent a majority vote. It’s that simple.
2. After those “locks” are in (and in our case, 19 got in via this process), you begin rounds of voting. It goes like this…each member picks 8 teams that they believe should be in. The 8 teams that get the most votes are then moved to a second round, where each member ranks them 1-8. The four teams with the best total score are in the Tournament. This is then repeated over and over until the field is completed.
3. Once all teams are in, they are ranked seeded 1-68 (adding the conference tournament winners). This process is similar…each member selects his or her pick for the 8 best teams in the tournament. The 8 teams that are picked the most are then ranked 1-8 by each member. The top 4 vote getters become the #1 seeds.
Its a simple process and with the exception of the “scrubbing” feature (discussed later), it is how the bracket is created. Teams are debated multiple times and the layers of votes tend to rid the process of outlier votes. After watching it in action, I think it is a great way to create and seed the field.
1. The Media Takes it VERY SERIOUSLY: Get a group of media together and you know you will have strong opinions. But then give them the responsibility of making a bracket that they then have to answer for on Twitter and in their stories, and they become SUPER serious. I have to comment the media folks at this event. They all did research, took their time (sometimes too much time) and took the event seriously. It gave the process a feel or legitimacy, although it did occasionally make me want to stab my own eye out when people debated the many layers of the merits of Colorado vs Colorado State.
2. Each Conference Has One Member Designated to “Present” its Teams
Before any voting takes place, a Committee member is assigned to “present” each conference to the Committee as a whole. This member has been assigned all year to cover three conferences, know its teams inside and out and be the expert, albeit in favor or against, for the Committee. The Committee has no obligation to follow their recommendations, but it is human nature to give much credibility to the individual who has spent the year watching the teams play. For the SEC, the expert is Doug Fullerton, the Commissioner of the Big Sky Conference. Fullerton was not at the event, so I did not get to meet him (that is him pictured above), but he might be the most important person to Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament chances this year. He will be responsible for telling the Committee about the team, answering questions about their performance in specific games (which actually comes up quite a bit) and letting people know the truth about the Wildcats. While he isn’t the lone decider, I can easily see how if he were overly positive or negative about the Cats, it could have an impact as he will be the main speaker on all things Kentucky. The most important person for UK on Selection Sunday? A man who lives in Billings, Montana. Ain’t life strange?
2. The Power of Persuasion Matters in Small Groups: When I was at Transylvania, I took a class with Gary Deaton (who was a great teacher and could occasionally be counted on to get in fights in intramural basketball as well…a great combination), in which he talked about the dynamics of a small group. The gist is this…the smaller a group, the more one personality can make a huge impact. This could be seen in our exercise as well. As I watched most in the room agree on nearly every decision, making me wonder if “group think” was at play, I decided to try to spice things up a bit. We had put Indiana as the #1 overall seed, with Miami #2. This decision had no objections, so I raised my hand and made the case for Miami as the top overall seed. Mind you, I didn’t really believe it, but I wanted to make the case as a lawyer would for a client, and see what happened. Well, like Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men”, as I made the case, I gained a few followers and with each passing moment, Miami’s appeal raised. When the debate was over, Indiana remained the top overall seed, but instead of the vote being 10-0 (each media member was paired with another and got one vote collectively), it was 6-4. This exercise made me realize that if a strong personality, a la Mr. Fullerton above, were to be overly positive or negative for a team, it can have a huge impact. As the gospel song suggests, it only takes a spark to get a fire going.
3. There is NO Set Criteria for Tournament Entry. Anything Goes:
Chalk this up as surprising fact #1 about the process. I assumed that there were some guidelines that Committee members were supposed to use in determining which teams should get in. I was wrong. As the Chair Mike Bobinksi said to me at one point, “anyone can use whatever they think is most important.” I found that somewhat astonishing, but in watching the process in practice, it is clearly the case. Do you think games on the road are most important? Fine, then that can be your criteria. Do you prefer out of conference scheduling strength? That’s all you baby, go for it. In fact, even the so-called “eye” test is fair game if a specific committee member wants to use it (and at least one near me did). As Bobinski said to the group, “as long as the member is consistent in applying whatever standard is most important, that is totally fine.” What was disappointing to me is how little so-called “advance metrics” are used in the process. During the entire two days, efficiency ratings were mentioned one time, KenPom once and BPI not at all. RPI wasn’t brought up a great deal (another misnomer that it drives the Committee process), but more than these more modern statistics. In ten years this may change, but for now the statistics are still a bit behind for my liking.
3. Most Important Stats the Easiest to Get To?: Want to get really dorky for a second? How about a little behavioral theory? I tend to think humans often do what is easiest, not because they are necessarily lazy, but because it is most efficient. So apply that standard to this and you can see how some statistics by their very nature take priority in the Selection process. I will show you what I mean. While one can use any metric desired (and most all can be found on the impressive NCAA Selection software), there is a “nitty gritty” page that gives the basic info for each team. That page for a few teams can be seen in the picture above. So what ends up happening? These statistics, because they are so easily accessible and don’t take multiple clicks to find, become the ones most often used and debated. It’s the same principle that drives KSR. We don’t make you click on multiple links to read stories (even though it costs us ad revenue for each missed click), because we think that it is better for the user to simply scroll down. Same with this. Those stats easiest to get to become the most used. So with that principle in mind, these eight are most often used:
Record vs Tourney Teams
Record vs RPI Top 50
Strength of Schedule
Out of Conference Strength of Schedule
Losses to Teams below RPI 150
Whoever picked these eight stats to put on the nitty-gritty sheet (and we don’t know who it is), by their very placement, made them the most important. He “Nudged” them to the most prominent spot. Teams should schedule accordingly.
4. QUALITY WINS MATTER MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE
I put this point in all caps, because in terms of what actually makes the teams get in the tournament or not, I think it is the most important. Yes, we talked about lots of team qualities, but nothing got brought up more times than “who did you beat.” In every debate about a team, the question of their “best win” was highlighted. And more often than not (I would guess 80% of the time), the team with the best win won out on a close choice. This hurts Kentucky a great deal. It has two wins over teams that are close to the Top 50 in the RPI (Ole Miss and Maryland fluctuate) and none against certain NCAA Tournament teams. This cripples UK in nearly every discussion. Every bubble team has a better resume on this point and it was brought up in every comparison involving the Cats. What seems not to matter nearly as much is bad losses. When Kentucky and Villanova were debated for the final spot, little importance was given to Villanova’s home to loss to a pitiful Columbia team. Instead, its wins over Georgetown and Louisville looked better than Kentucky’s over Ole Miss and Maryland. And what matters not at all? Margin of Victory. While I expressed the belief that this was silly (losing by 30 in Knoxville to Tennessee was a lot worse than if the Cats had been close and lost on a tip in), I was generally in the minority on this point. Across the board, what matters most is who you beat, and Bobinski agreed that most Committee members think this way as well.
4. Leaving the Room for Memphis Stunk: If you are on the Committee, the one rule you must follow is that you have to leave the room when your team is discussed. I was the surrogate in this “Mock” for the Commissioner of Conference USA. Thus every time Memphis was discussed (and it seemed to be every ten minutes), my partner and I had to leave the room. This happened on multiple occasions, and I began to think that the continued Memphis debates were just a big practical joke to make us get up the moment we got comfortable. I don’t know what was talked about concerning Memphis during these moments, but I have to think it was juicy and full of latent sex appeal. But I will never know, thanks to my role as the worst Conference USA Commissioner in history, seeing as how I have no actual clue what teams are currently in Conference USA.
5. The Team is Evaluated as Constituted on Selection Day
More bad news for Kentucky. We have seen in recent years, that the NCAA takes into account late injuries. Kenyon Martin with Cincinnati and Robbie Hummel with Purdue showcased that the Committee would lower the seed for a team with an injury. But what about a team on the brink of the Tournament, who then loses a player? The Committee told us that the same standard applies. Kentucky is evaluated over its last seven games to prove that its resume up until that point (likely enough to get in), can be validated by the group in its current form. David Worlock, the NCAA member, who put on the event, said that if Noel’s injury had occurred on the last day of the regular season, he wasn’t sure what the Committee would have done. They have never had a situation where a late injury determined whether a team was in or out. But he said that UK has a chance to answer the question with its play in its last few games. The start on Saturday wasn’t good, but the big moment will be next Saturday when Kentucky tries to get a quality win at home versus Missouri. If they don’t, the evaluation of the team as constituted probably leaves them out.
5. NCAA Relies on Teams for Information: Another little juicy tidbit. How does the NCAA find out whether players will actually play in the Tournament while seeding? Short answer is that they rely on the teams. They ask the teams privately to tell them if a player will be ready, and that information does not have to be released to the media. Does that give a team incentive to lie? Why yes it does. Case in point, Ryan Kelly and Duke this year. The NCAA is relying on Duke to tell it whether Kelly will play, and the Blue Devils are supposed to give that information. What happens if Duke, or any other school, lies? Chair Mike Bobinski answered with a smile, “we learn not to trust them in the future.” But there is no actual punishment.
6. It is Hard to Complete the Field this Year
We all know college basketball is mediocre this year, but one doesn’t realize just how mediocre until you try and complete a full bracket. After the first 25 teams or so, all the others begins to look the same. They all have huge deficiencies in their resumes, bad losses, lack of wins or some other scarlet letter that clearly sticks out. In fact, your eyes can actually begin to cross when trying to slide a piece of paper between Charlotte and Iowa State and figure out which one deserves to be in the field more. This is the one saving grace that Kentucky has this season. There simply aren’t that many good teams and SOMEBODY has to get in. What you realize is that those final choices are basically value judgments about what the committee members each think is important. Back to Villanova. The Wildcats were the last team to get in our mock bracket (although they didnt make the final field due to “upsets” that occurred in our mock conference tournaments…it is enough to make your head spin). Villanova’s resume looks terrible, but at the end of the day, the media members valued their wins over those of teams like Kentucky and North Carolina who haven’t beaten a quality team. I heard Jay Bilas once say, when you get to the bottom of the bracket, you can’t really complain because you haven’t done enough to be highly thought of and have put yourself in the random lottery of the final selections. This is even more obvious when you see just how close these final teams are and just how “random” (based not on lack of thought, but on individual standards of what is important) it can be.
6. Media Dislike of UK: I won’t belabor this point, because it will only feed the “he’s a homer” view, but after yet another example in the flesh, it is worth noting how much dislike of Calipari/UK resides in the media world. Whether its the snide remarks, the jokes about the team’s lack of success (and this was before the UT game) or even jokes about the lack of education of the people of the state (it was only because I promised Ryan Lemond calm that I handled that one well), the contempt that some in the media have for all things Wildcats is clear. In the end, I think the reason UK didn’t make the final bracket with this group was because of that dislike. Most analytic arguments about Kentucky versus this or that team, came down to “Kentucky just isn’t very good”, when before there were comparisons of numbers, etc. It doesn’t really make much difference one way or the other, but the more times I am around media members in their natural habitat (meaning not in their official, alleged “neutral” mindset), the more I am reminded just how many have utter contempt for Calipari and a feeling of superiority for the average fan, the most vocal of which are in the Big Blue Nation. Luckily, I don’t think the Committee members I met share this view. But it is certainly prevalent, by many of those that write the stories.
7. There is No “S Curve”:
Big revelation #2 of the weekend. The Committee no longer uses the “S Curve” system to try to balance the regions. There is no attempt to make sure that the best #1 seed be put in the same region with the worst #2 seed. This seemed to be a huge surprise to all in the room, but it is the current operating procedure of the NCAA. The Committee tries to “balance” the top 4 seeds in each region (using the overall 1-16 order it creates from the outset), but it is a secondary concern. Thus when we have years like last year, when Kentucky seemed to get the best 2 seed, second best 3 seed and best 4 seed, it wasn’t just a reflection of poor seeding. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that there is no attempt to make sure that the top 1 seed gets much of a break at all. Being the #1 overall seed helps in geography (more on that later), but not when it comes to who you play. In that respect, all the #1 seeds are treated equal…a fact that I did not know.
7. Selection Committee Picks Referees: Another random fact from the week. Who decides which game Doug Shows, Jim Burr and Jamie Luckie are going to ruin? The NCAA Selection Committee. They meet with the head of officials (in this case John Adams), who gives them a list of recommendations, and then they place them in the field. It seems like an odd system and my guess is that they give Adams huge deference in his choices, but these 10 college administrators ultimately get to decide which stripes we see at the biggest of games. So now you know who to blame when Shows is giving Sam Malone a technical next year in the Championship Game.
8. In Bracketing, GEOGRAPHY trumps all other concerns
Revelation #3. When you wonder, “how did we end up with all these great teams in our bracket”, the answer is simple. Geography. To illustrate, look at the bracket above. This year, the Regionals are in Indianapolis, Washington DC, North Texas and Los Angeles. So here is how it works. Indiana was the #1 overall seed…and thus were placed closest to home, in Indianapolis. Miami was next and placed in DC, followed by Duke going to Texas and Michigan (the lowest rated #1 seed at the time) to LA. But here is where it gets interesting….once you get to the two seeds, THE SAME process is used. So Michigan State was the top #2 seed…they can’t go to Indy because Indiana is there (top 3 teams in same conference can’t be in same region), so they get sent to the next closest place, DC. Florida is the second highest #2 seed and they get sent to their closest place, Indianapolis. So that means that the top two #1 seeds (Indiana and Miami) also end up with the top two #2 seeds (Michigan State and Florida). That simply doesn’t seem fair to me. But geography trumps all for the committee, meaning that if they can put teams close to home, they will. This is why Duke (before the Blue Devils got upset) and Indiana were put in Atlanta with Kentucky last year. What else does that mean? It means it becomes VERY likely that Louisville and Indiana will end up in the same bracket. So long as Indiana is the #1 overall seed (which looks more and more likely), they will end up in Indianapolis and Louisville is close enough that unless they are the lowest rated #2 or #3 seed, being put there as well is very likely. When you see the bracket this year and wonder , “why are these regions so unbalanced?”, this is why.
8. Lexington Will be the Place to Be this Year:
While the final bracket we came up with which can be seen here, will not represent what it will look like on Selection Sunday, one thing is clear, Lexington will be the place to be for the first two rounds. Because Indiana is closer to Dayton, it is almost certain that Florida and Louisville will both end up in Lexington. With so many other good teams in driving distance (Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota, Memphis, etc), chances are there will be some great matchups in Lexington against these teams. When we did the brackets initially, Ohio State and Florida were a second round game, along with Louisville and Minnesota. Imagine Tubby versus Rick in Lexington. While the chances of those exact matchups aren’t high, the chances of seeing the Cards and Gators at Rupp, are.
9. The Committee’s Rules Make Seeding Very Tough
There are a number of rules that the Committee has that can make seeding very difficult. Here are a few:
1. Teams from the same conference can’t play each other until the Elite Eight, unless more than 8 teams from a conference are in the field.
2. The top three teams in a conference cannot be in the same region
3. Rematches from the regular season are attempted to be avoided in the first round of the Tournament
4. Teams that play in the First Four are to be given a second game as close to Dayton, Ohio as possible.
5. Rematches from the Tournament last year are to be avoided if possible.
There are others, but these rules make putting the games together difficult in the final bracket. Because of this, the committee has the ability to move a team up or down by one seed line in order to make things work. In our case, we couldn’t find anywhere to put Marquette. They were supposed to be a 5 seed, but putting them as a 5 in any region would have violated one of the rules. So even though they were scheduled to be a 5, the Committee had to make them a 6 to make it work. This process happens a couple of times during every tournament and can lead to the odd scenarios you see, such as when one of the “First Four” teams (meaning the last teams in the field) is seeded as a 11, but an at-large team not in the First Four games is a 12. A team can go up or down one, just to make the bracket work.
9. Seth Davis is a Character
I like Seth Davis. I know that is a controversial view in Kentucky, but I almost can’t help it. Now don’t get me wrong, Seth can be (and is) smug, condescending and at times “punch-worthy.” But he is also very smart, interesting and a breath of fresh air from your average sports media person. He has interests outside of sports (he can’t go ten minutes without talking about “green drinks”), is engaging in conversations (actually seeming to care about what the other person is saying) and loves the game of basketball. He can be infuriating, such as when he tried to convince me that John Calipari cancelled the Indiana series because he was “scared” of the Hoosiers, but at the same time, I always find him interesting. Plus, he has a lot of great stories that he is more than willing to share, off the record of course. In any encounter, he makes me laugh, argue and occasionally weary, a great combination. Two days with him only further confirmed this fact.
10. When it comes to the NCAA Selection Committee, I am now Anti-Conspiracy Theory
There are many things wrong with the NCAA, and college basketball in particular, needs a re-examination of some of its most fundamental principles. But after two days in Indianapolis, one thing that I do think is right with the NCAA is how they pick the Tournament. The people involved take their job very seriously and they know their stuff. David Worlock and the rest of the staff have the process down pat and spend a great deal of times making sure everything is in place. More importantly, I honestly believe that what they say, the fact that the Committee doesn’t consider conference affiliation, tv ratings, etc in selecting its teams, is true. I know many of you are rolling your eyes and saying, “come on Matt, whatever. They wouldn’t tell you they considered that stuff even if they did.” And you are right. But after going through the process, I am not sure how they even could. There are so many rules, layers of voting, etc that conspiracy theories simply wouldn’t have a chance to take shape. During our entire two days, I am not sure it was ever brought up once what conference a team was in. During the bracketing, marquee matchups weren’t sought out, even though a few were created randomly (such as a potential Rick vs Tubby game in Rupp). The process weeds out all the bias for as close to a fair bracket as can be created. It isn’t perfect, I think much more modern analytics should be used and the decision to not consider margin of error seems absurd, but it is pretty damn good. Going through the process made me respect what they do and want to be part of a real one. The latter may not happen, but the former will be a part of how I analyze ever bracket going forward.
10. The Pressure and Time Crunch is enormous: One of the things I enjoyed was hearing the Committee members talk about the most stressful part of their job, figuring in the final conference tournament results on Sunday. They said that usually it is just a seed question, but sometimes the teams in the late finals (Big Ten, SEC, ACC) can include one not in the Tournament. Thus they must have contingency plans. The year Georgia won the SEC (tornado in Atlanta), they had six such scenarios and six contingency brackets based on the results of the Big Ten and Georgia final games. When the final games are completed, they must turn the bracket into CBS by 5:30 for the 6 pm show. Most of the work is done, but the time crunch, especially when bracketing and creating matchups, would be quite the thing to watch.
So there you go…5,000 words on how your brackets are made. We will talk a bit about this tomorrow on radio and then get ready for another week of action. I thank the folks at the NCAA for letting me be part of the event and it truly was a fun learning process. With Kentucky on the bubble this year and in contention for the title next year, it is good to now understand how the bracket is created. Now lets just hope the Cats are in this year’s version.
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