NCAA Mock Selection Exercise Shows Potential Pitfalls for This Year's Committee

By Jason Lisk
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Twenty guys got together in a big room, stared at banks of computers and screens with various color coded lines, and argued and debated about sports. Oh, and there was popcorn, cookies, and various drinks at a back table in the room.

This was, appropriately, referred to as “exercise.”

Last week, I attended the Men’s Basketball Mock Selection Exercise at NCAA Headquarters in Indianapolis, along with 19 other media members who cover college basketball (the full list of attendees is here). My partner, Scott Rabalais of the Baton Rouge Advocate, and I were tasked with representing LSU AD Joe Alleva on the committee. For someone who used to sit in Modern European History class in college and spend all of late February and early March writing out bracket projections in the note margins, this was basketball geek heaven.

The participants faced each other across tables and banks of computers. Committee chairman Scott Barnes (played by Stu Mandel and Mark Titus) was at one end next to David Worlock, and the NCAA staff members who make this thing go, JoAn Scott, L.J. Wright, and Colin Chappell, were at the other.

Barnes was also there in person as observer/occasional commenter, along with several others such as Joe Castiglione, athletic director of Oklahoma and committee member, and Dan Gavitt, NCAA Vice President of Men’s Basketball Championships



It’s a month out from Selection Sunday, and much of what we worked on Thursday and Friday will be moot in a month as other results roll in. One projection I feel comfortable making, though, is that Barnes–when he rolls out in front of the CBS cameras to explain and discuss the Committee’s decisions–will perform well. He came across as competent and confident in the interactions in the mock selection room.

Barnes gave some opening remarks and we walked through the process. It all began with a report on the various conferences (my partner and I had the Big Ten, OVC, Patriot, and WAC), and who we should consider. Then, we immediately jumped into a vote. Oh, we had to log in first to get wireless access.

Password: StudentAthlete.

“We have a sense of humor here,” said David Worlock, NCAA Director of Media Coordination/Statistics.

So our first task was selecting and categorizing the initial teams. We had a personal laptop in front of each pair, where we could submit our various votes throughout the two-day process. We had a list of all eligible teams and had to select teams as at-large (up to 36), reserved for teams that are believed to be a lock, and “under consideration.”

Each committee member could select as few or as many teams to be under consideration as they believed appropriate.

All teams that got all but 2 At-Larges votes from the eligible committee members are in the field (remember, they can’t vote for their own school). End of story.

All teams that got at least 3 in either the at-large or under consideration category, combined, are thrown into the “Under Consideration” bin. All remaining teams are discarded. (they can be brought back up later based on motion, second, and majority vote, but unlikely.)

In the real committee room, this process would be taking place on Wednesday of conference tournament week, leading into Selection Sunday. Here’s a snapshot of the teams that initially got voted into the at-large and under consideration groups (and we were also told that Wichita State and Gonzaga had already won their auto bids, which is why they don’t appear)



From that first big step, it was a constant cycle of seeding, selecting at-large teams into the field, and “scrubbing.” Scrubbing is the term of art used to describe the process of doing a second (and third, and fourth) look at the specific order of the teams in the field and voting one v. one to move a team up a spot or down a spot.

Seed, select, scrub, broken up only by the wonderful dinner on the first night. That dinner, by the way, of salmon and grilled vegetables and tomato and cucumber salad made me feel slightly better about the sedentary actions of the previous five hours.

The process continued through the next day, for us–for five days for the actual committee. They get to also break it up with breaks not only to eat but to watch games during championship week in a lounge, though there are no TVs with games on when the committee is meeting to discuss and seed teams



We voted, we debated plenty of times before a vote, with some impassioned discussion. Voting involved first, selecting groups of 8 from say, the “under consideration” pool, with the top four vote-getters moving over to the “in” category, then rank-ordering teams once in the seeding process (rank 1-8, with the four highest scorers moving into the seed lines).

The full results are here, but rather than talking about those teams (so much can change that it’s fun hypotheticals but little more), I’d like to close with what I see as the issues coming out of the process. The things that could be the points of contention when Committee Chairman Scott Barnes sits down on CBS this year, or perhaps in future years.

AVOIDING THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY COULD LEAD TO A MESS AT THE BUBBLE

When an AD of a team “under consideration” is being discussed, that AD has to leave the room. That AD cannot vote for his own team during the “under consideration” voting process (but will vote for eight  others). When that team is part of the group of eight being rank-ordered for seeding, the AD doesn’t vote at all.

Not only that–and this is a bigger point that came up during our mock exercise–once the “Under Consideration” pool of teams is under 24, the AD’s and conference commissioners cannot vote at all on the top eight teams under consideration.

So while the NCAA is taking those steps to avoid appearance of conflicts–something that Joe Rexrode wrote about–and to keep the process fair, it is setting up for a headache. This year, Stanford AD Bernard Muir, LSU AD Joe Alleva, BYU AD Tom Holmoe, Michigan State AD Mark Hollis, and Judy MacLeod, Associate Commissioner of Conference USA, make up half of the committee.



It is very likely that Stanford, Michigan State, LSU, BYU, and at least one of Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech will be under consideration for a bid as we approach the edge of the bubble. In our mock exercise, we were told that half of us could not vote, at what turned out to be a crucial time in the process. Prohibiting the votes earlier in the process also probably, in a real but imperceptible way, pushed teams closer to the bubble.

It doesn’t matter in clear cases (Oklahoma had no problem getting selected and seeded). In the closer calls, though, that one vote matters. Plenty of the votes of the “Under Consideration” group ended in ties for the fourth slot to advance to the field. Coincidentally, or not, Stanford and Michigan State both ended up in the Last Four In.

THE FIRST FOUR RULES EXACERBATE THAT ISSUE

Here’s something I didn’t know until going through this process. The last four teams selected in the field by the voting process of moving teams from “Under Consideration” to “At-Large” are locked in to Dayton. End of story, no further debate.

They can be “scrubbed” up or down the seed rankings, but they are forever locked in to playing before Thursday. This, by the way, is why you may have seen a bracket where the teams playing in Dayton were on the 11 line, but perhaps one more at-large team appeared on the 12 line but didn’t have to play an extra game.

This year, there is a real chance that five voices, rather than ten, will make those decisions. The benefit of the wisdom of the crowd approach  is actually having a crowd. The entire group of 10 may decide that Stanford is the 6th at-large from the cutline, but if the group of five said they were 4th away from it, they are going to Dayton. Again, the attempt to avoid impropriety (in a world where coaches will complain about everything) and not have someone move into Dayton after the initial vote is probably leading to a worse process.

Dan Gavitt addressed this by saying that they have many times revisited their procedures and changed the processes. My prediction: this process will need to be changed.

THE DAYTON FLYERS IN DAYTON ISSUE

This isn’t necessarily a new issue–the Dayton Flyers seem to be near the cutline almost every year recently–but they have never actually ended up in the First Four games in Dayton. In a system where they do everything possible to keep teams from playing on their home court, and to make sure the better seeded team is not at a geographical disadvantage, this one is an easy talking point.

 

As Dan Gavitt elaborated, they did consider having a second site for the early games, but had few bidders, and Dayton has been a great host. In the end, that won out over the potential of one game where the Flyers got to play in their home arena.

Still, Barnes better be prepared to talk about that if it happens. It’s a good thing that Syracuse self-imposed sanctions this year and is not going to be in Dayton, because that would have led to some epic whining from Jim Boeheim.

GEOGRAPHY CONTROLS OVER COMPETITIVE BALANCE OF THE REGIONS

I think the NCAA Selection Committee was generally shocked by the (legitimate) reaction that the brackets weren’t very balanced last year. Set aside that Kentucky had no business being an 8 seed. They were still the top 8 seed on the committee’s seed list. The Midwest, in fact, ended up with four teams that were the top on their seed line, among the top 8 seed groupings in the tournament, and none who were 4th.

Let’s put it this way. Arizona (#2) was just ahead of Wichita State (#3) in the NCAA’s seed list. Every team in the Midwest seeded 2nd through 8th was higher than the counterpart in the West, according to the NCAA committee’s own rankings



We’ll probably end up with a similar circumstance this year. That’s because the NCAA, for a variety of reasons logistical and, again, to avoid the appearance of impropriety when it comes to travel, has very strict bracketing rules. Add in bloated mega-conferences that affect flexibility in bracketing, and you end up with the bracketing being almost a fait accompli once the seedings are determined.

For example, it is highly likely that Louisville or North Carolina will end up in the same region as Kentucky this year. If Virginia and Duke are #1 seeds, then Louisville and North Carolina (or Notre Dame, if they pass either of them) will be going to the other two regions. While Louisville fans might scream conspiracy, it’s more the result of rules that favor geography, and bloated conferences such as the mega-ACC that Louisville chose to join, that will drive that process.

This is something I don’t see changing, but going through the selection process, it was illuminating how much that will be a factor. Gone are the old days–of spiral binder notes, and S-curve principles.

 [top image by Mike Tirico, others by myself or USA Today Sports]



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