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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What the Tournament Committee Really Said

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You've probably seen members of the NCAA tournament selection committee do plenty of boring interviews over the past week or so. They'll make vague references to bodies of work, S-curves, and bracketing rules. But all of us have already seen their strongest comments, which were placed on 65 different lines, simultaneously crushing and realizing the dreams of young basketball players across the country.

So what did the committee really tell us and the other sects of the basketball world on Selection Sunday? Luckily, I speak selection committee-ese, and I've interpreted their strong opinions for you here.

To the Big Ten: We're just not that into you.

Yes, the Big Ten got seven teams in, so the committee was at least first-date interested. But look carefully at the seedings. Michigan, despite a seventh-place middling finish within the league, boasted wins over UCLA and Duke. The Wolverines grabbed a 10-seed. Meanwhile, Wisconsin, the league's fourth-place team that lacked a non-conference win against a tournament team, apparently was one of the last two at-large teams. The Badgers slid dangerously low to a 12-seed.

And what was the difference between tournament 10-seed Minnesota (22-10, 9-9 Big Ten) and tournament snub Penn State (22-11, 10-8 Big Ten)? From here, it looks like the Gophers' neutral floor win over Louisville. So the committee made it very clear: they didn't seem very interested in what the Big Ten did in conference, but rather how they proved themselves out of it.

To the Pac-10 and SEC: West siiiide

This year's committee would clearly choose Tupac and Snoop over T.I. and Outkast. Look no further than their local conference tournament champs. Both USC and Mississippi State were on the outside looking in as of Saturday afternoon, but each snuck into the Big Dance with a conference tournament title. However, the committee rewarded underachieving USC (21-12) with a 10-seed, placing them in front of multiple at-large teams. Meanwhile, the SEC champs, with a better record than USC (23-12), were relegated to the 13-line, the land of obligatory qualifiers Akron, Cleveland State, and American.

The love the committee showed for the Pac-10 by including Arizona and seeding four teams from the league at seven or higher is fairly notable, considering the Pac-10 was thrown around as the fifth-best league throughout the season. Apparently, the committee thought the difference between the No. 5 Pac-10 and the No. 6 SEC was Grand Canyon-esque.

To recent tournament darlings: Oh yeah, about that whole "past tournament results don't matter" thing ... We didn't really mean that about you.

Look, I'll preface this by saying that trying to establish a pecking order for the low-major conferences is like what Nicholas Cage's character in "8MM" went through as he trudged through the darkest corners of the porn world. I'm not sure you ever get to the truth and you'll see a lot of performances you wish you could forget. However, check out where the Cinderellas of the last few years ended up this year:

  • Western Kentucky (Sweet 16 in 2008): 12-seed
  • Siena (Upset No. 4 Vanderbilt in 2008): 9-seed
  • VCU (Upset Duke in 2007): 11-seed

Note that all three of these are at or above the seed-line of Wisconsin and Arizona.

Now I'm hardly a BCS conference honk who worships at the big-school alter. Quite the contrary: I love that Gonzaga, Xavier, and Utah were rewarded with top-five seeds. However, compare the three darlings of recent tournaments to some of the other automatic qualifiers. Cleveland State beat Syracuse and lost to West Virginia and Washington by 10 and 15, respectively. Siena, on the other hand, beat Northern Iowa and lost to Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pitt, and Kansas by similar margins to CSU's major non-conference losses. Yes, Siena performed better in their league, but CSU had to go through Butler. So what makes Siena four seeds better than Cleveland State? It's hard to believe it's not that win against Vandy last year.

To injured players: Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ... as long as they're not out for the year.

St. Mary's with a damaged Patty Mills? Sorry, no tournament for you. Marquette minus Dominic James? You're falling to a six-seed. The Big Dance is no country for broken bones.

And I really don't have any problem with this. Remember when Cincinnati was the unquestioned best team in the country in 2000, Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the conference tournament, and the committee bumped them to a two-seed? The team that plays in the tournament is the team that the committee is judging. Unfortunately, that might not be a team's best version.

However, I find two issues that pop up from this clearly articulated policy. First, why do teams get credit for wins in November if the committee is judging teams based on who they are in March? How many coaches have talked about how much different their teams are entering the postseason than they were in the preseason (Bill Self and John Calipari off the top of my head)? So what's the big difference between St. Mary's beating Providence in the early season with Patty Mills and Arizona beating Kansas around the same time with no obvious roster differences? The young Jayhawks have grown up a lot since then, so that win would seem just about as invalid as the Gaels'.

The second issue this raises regards the openness of injury information. Injuries to college players are already a taboo topic for teams and journalists alike. But now the teams have a very clear motivation to hide injuries and their severity. For example, North Carolina bailed from the ACC tournament in fairly unimpressive fashion without Ty Lawson. The tournament committee still gave UNC a top seed under the assumption that Lawson will return. But what if the injury is worse than the Tar Heels are letting on? What if they dressed Lawson in warm-ups for those games just to suggest that he could possibly have played had they needed to win? Had Carolina announced Lawson's injury was worse, would UNC still be a No. 1?

Now the committee has to take into account the credibility of their information about these injuries, and that's a seriously subjective criterion. What if one team (let's say USC in Los Angeles for example) is from a larger media market with more attention and a brighter spotlight than another (say, Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls). No offense to the hardworking journalists in Cedar Falls, but I'm going to bet on the sheer number of reporters and stash of resources in L.A. to ferret out injury information on USC before anything surfaces about UNI.

Nevertheless, the tournament committee spoke very clearly this year, and the lack of outrage over snubs and seeds in the 24 hours following the release of the brackets reflects that. But if anything they said ticks you off, hey, don't blame me: I'm just the messenger.

Comments on "What the Tournament Committee Really Said"

On March 17, 2009, Seth said...

Great column, Corrie. Very nice way of breaking down the overall message sent by the committee.

On March 17, 2009, Wesley said...

I think you're overstating the point about recent tournament darlings getting preferential seedings in this year's tournament. VCU's getting an 11 isn't really anything new--they were an 11 when the beat 6th-seeded Duke two years ago, and they won both the regular season and tournament titles in a conference which also includes George Mason (who made their own run to the Final Four not so long ago). The CAA has talent at the top, even if it's not terribly deep. Your arguments about some other darlings are fair, but to question the committee for seeding VCU exactly where they seeded them BEFORE they upset Duke makes no sense.

On March 19, 2009, Corrie Trouw said...

Thank you, guys. I appreciate the feedback.

Wesley, I see your point about VCU. And I'll admit that you could probably find a basis for any weird seed if you look back far enough.

However, I'd suggest VCU gets more of a Colonial Athletic Association bias. Everyone remembers GMU in 2006, but UNC-Wilmington was a darling before that (in 2002 as No. 13 upset USC, seeded 11 in 2003, seeded 9 in 2006). When GMU returned to the tournament in 2008, they were seeded 12th. But check out the RPIs (and these are from GMU was 61 in 2008. Just below them at 65 was Cornell (seeded 14th), and in front of them at 53 was Oral Roberts (seeded 13th).

But more directly to your VCU point, compare the two 11 seeds the Commodores have gotten. In 2007, VCU was the auto bid out of a multi-bid league (Old Dominion got an at-large 12). VCU's RPI was 42 that year, ODU's 39 (they beat ODU once), and non-invitee Drexel was 43 (VCU beat them twice).

This year, the Colonial is much weaker. VCU's RPI is still 50, but the next Colonial team is GMU at 89. VCU's win over New Mexico (37) is their only RPI-Top 88 win. And it's also worth noting Cleveland State is just two spots down the RPI at 52, and they're a 13.

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