Critiquing the NCAA Tournament Bracket
By Will Greer
Every middle of March, the ten members of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee are tasked with one of the most subjective, thankless jobs in sports.
The committee, which is responsible for selecting, seeding and bracketing the field for the NCAA tournament, meets in Indianapolis for five days leading up to Selection Sunday, casting hundreds of ballots and deciding the fate of dozens of teams.
Although its job is a tough one, the committee members’ expected “broad-based knowledge of Division I basketball” didn’t meet expectations this year. Bubble decisions were flawed and seeding was off.
And while its success, much like referees, is often defined not by praise but by a lack of criticism, the selection committee should not mistake this year’s apparent lack of judgment for a feeling of a job well done.
Popping the wrong bubbles
Let’s start at the obvious place to start: the bubble. Arguably its toughest job, the committee again had some serious questions to resolve when it came to the tournament’s final two or three at-large bids. The two most questionable inclusions came in the form of UCLA and Indiana.
UCLA, the more controversial of the two, finished the season with an RPI ranking of 49, according to ESPN’s rankings. The Bruins (20-13), who only had two true road wins all year, were 2-8 against RPI top-50 teams and had three losses to teams with RPI rankings above 100. Their best out-of-conference win came on November 28 against UAB, whose RPI ranking is 132.
Indiana had a similarly underwhelming résumé. The Hoosiers’ (20-13) RPI ranking is 58, and the team was 4-9 against RPI top-50 teams. And while it only had one loss to a team with an RPI ranking above 100 (Northwestern), Indiana finished the season by losing 9 of its last 14 games.
UCLA and Indiana’s résumés were less than impressive, but their inclusions in the tournament only become frustrating if there are clear candidates to replace them. Guess what? There are.
Colorado State finished the season with an RPI ranking of 28, according to ESPN’s ranking. The Rams (26-6) were 2-3 against RPI top-50 teams and 5-5 against RPI top-100 teams. The Mountain West’s third-place team had just one loss to a team with an RPI ranking above 100, won eight true road games and finished the season by winning 13 out of 17 games.
Temple, whose final ESPN RPI ranking was 34, had by far the best win of the four teams being discussed, a 25-point drubbing of second-seeded Kansas. The Owls (23-10) also had a 16-point win against Cincinnati, whose RPI is 41. Temple was 8-8 against top-100 RPI teams and had just two losses to teams with RPI’s above 100. The American’s third-place team (UConn won it all as the conference’s third-place team a year ago) won 11 of its last 14 games and had seven true road wins.
You can call it whatever you want, power conference favoritism or historically strong programs getting the benefit of the doubt, but there’s no question that Colorado State and Temple got the short end of the stick from this year’s selection committee.
Getting the seeds wrong
Beyond deciding who’s in and who’s out, the committee has the important task of correctly seeding teams, and it failed miserably this year.
It’s easy to critique each seed, as it’s possible to find some sort of fault in almost every decision, but the committee made four glaring seeding errors this season.
The first error comes in the Midwest region’s seven seed, Wichita State. The Shockers (27-4) were 7-4 against the RPI top 100, with a 1-point overtime loss at Utah. Wichita State returned key players from last year’s team that went undefeated in the regular season, including Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, yet they were only given a seven seed.
Wichita State’s Missouri Valley rival, Northern Iowa, was also under-seeded. The Panthers (30-3) have an RPI ranking of 15, were 8-2 against the RPI top 100 and captured the Missouri Valley tournament championship. Yet Northern Iowa received just a five seed.
UCLA, whose inclusion regardless of seed is questionable, received the privilege of not having to play in the First Four. The Bruins had no business being in the tournament at all, much less the reward of not having to play on Tuesday or Wednesday in Dayton.
And just as Temple and Colorado State were clear candidates to get into the tournament, Dayton is a clear candidate to take UCLA’s spot in the field of 64. The Flyers (25-8), who play Boise State Wednesday night, were surprisingly the last team into the tournament, despite an RPI ranking of 32 and a 7-7 record against the RPI top 100.
And to add to the unfairness, Dayton will play at home Wednesday night, a game that is making the NCAA rethink the structure of the First Four. Putting UCLA, a team who should be thrilled to be in the tournament regardless of its seeding or matchup, in the First Four and rewarding Dayton for its strong season instantly fixes the situation.
So despite the lack of criticism it is receiving, this year’s selection committee deserves widespread critique. From messing up the field’s last couple at-large bids to underseeding some teams and overseeding others, the committee that we place so much confidence in had one of its most disappointing selection seasons in recent memory.