Last year, on Selection Sunday, I wrote my longest blog to date. I decided to take on the task of BEING the selection committee, and in making out my own version of the brackets, I explained just how difficult the task is that they face each year. This year, I’ll forgo that task, but I will take a moment to try to make sense of all the confusion surrounding the task the selection committee faces.
The task of tournament selection would be an easy one if there was a single, unified ranking system in place. But there isn’t. Instead, there are a number of complicated, completely unrelated systems in place to determine rankings.
RPI – This is the most confusing of the major systems… and yet they are trying to replace it with an even more complex analytic. RPI stands for Ratings Percentage Index, and was created initially as a means to end all confusion surrounding college hoops rankings. The way RPI works is this: every game has a trickle down effect. Team A plays team B, and if team A wins then their RPI goes up, and team B’s goes down. Then, team B plays team C, and if team C wins, then team B’s RPI goes down again… but so does the RPI of team A (slightly), because the team they beat now has a lower RPI. The RPI of every team in the NCAA fluctuates constantly, and is impossible to follow without computer calculation (which can be seen on sites like this one). The system was a good one, but unfortunately could be easily subverted by a school taking on an easy schedule.
SOS – Strength Of Schedule is an index which uses the relative ranking of all the opponents a team faces throughout their schedule. “Relative rankings” means the ranking of a team at the time you played them.. so facing a team while they’re ranked #1 is much better than facing that exact same team at a time when they’re ranked #5. SOS is taken into consideration when a team’s RPI is viewed as being inflated by the selection committee.
BPI – the Basketball Power Index is a relatively new system. BPI was created on the heels of another ranking system, KenPom, which was intended as an improvement on RPI. RPI fails to take into account the score outcome of each game, or the location of each game (home/away/neutral). KenPom, then, took those factors into account (so when team A blew out team B on team B’s home floor, it would be worth more KenPom points than when team C narrowly escaped team B at home). BPI, then, not only takes these factors into account, but also the pace at which a team plays and how the team performs when players are missing due to injury. Needless to say, this is another confusing analytic which requires a computer to track.
AP and USA Today Polls – All these computerized systems were intended to take the human error out of the polls. But both the Associated Press Poll, which is a poll of sports writers around the country, and the USA Today Poll, which is a poll of coaches around the country, still stand as the purest measuring device of ranking teams. Mainly, because, they are just so simple. Ask everyone involved in college sports and compile their opinions. Nothing could be simpler, but then again, nothing could be more easily skewed either.
So now that we know what the selection committee has been wrestling with, let’s take a look at this year’s brackets. From the First Four to the Final Four, there’s a lot to take in here.
Top Seeds – Why is so much emphasis placed on who gets the top seed? Frankly, because the odds are in their favor. Top seeds reach the Final Four a staggeringly high percentage of the time. In fact, there have only been three years in which no #1 seed made the final four: 1980, 2006, and, yes, last year. Top seeds have a perfect record not only against #16 seeds, but also against #7, #10, #12, and #13 seeds (and have never played a 14 or 15 seed). This year, top seeds were awarded to Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Michigan State. Look for these teams to take their advantageous paths deep into the tournament.
Notable Exclusions – Every year emphasis is placed on the so-called “bubble teams.” These are teams that have put their necks on the chopping block through a combination of weak schedules, ill-timed losses, and bad play on the national stage. This year, the notable exclusions were Washington, Seton Hall, Drexel, Mississippi State, Miami, and Arizona. Of this group, Drexel shocks me the most, as the inclusion of Iona, BYU, and South Florida all seem questionable in comparison.
Bracket Busters – It can be very difficult to predict the real stunning upsets. For example, anyone who had Virginia Commonwealth in the final four in last year’s tournament probably won their pool, simply because it was such an improbable run. But, then again, a close look at VCU (as I gave them in my Selection Sunday series of blogs last year) showed that this was a team poised with real upset potential. This year, I’ve got my eye on North Carolina State, Cincinnati, Long Beach State, Uconn, Xavier, Kansas State, and Creighton, all of whom seem to be seeded rather low relative to their actual level of play.
Best of the First Round – Or, second round? Whatever you call the round of 64… these games have the potential to be extremely close affairs: Wichita State vs. VCU, Notre Dame vs. Xavier, New Mexico vs. LBSU, K-State vs. SMU, Gonzaga vs. WVU, SDSU vs. NC State, Georgetown vs. Belmont, and Kansas vs. Detroit (no, I’m not calling for the upset here… but I like Detroit to keep it close).
Conspiracy Theorist Moment – Kentucky and Duke get the #1 and #2 seeds in the same division… on the 20th anniversary of The Shot? You’re not fooling anyone, selection committee!
My Final Four – What the heck, right? I can’t do a tourney preview without making a final four prediction, now can I? Before the start of the season, I had Ohio State and North Carolina in the finals, and this could very well still happen. But, based on what I’ve seen out of these teams lately, I feel the most likely Final Four would be: Kentucky (if they can get their egos under control), Missouri (if they can escape the winner of Murray State and Marquette), Florida State (they have the size and defensive pressure to outlast both Ohio State and Syracuse), and North Carolina (assuming John Henson can return to the lineup). Now, come on, you didn’t expect me to NOT pick my Tarheels, did you?
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