It is a rite of passage for any NCAA tournament selection committee chair: Preside over the exhausting process to place teams into the brackets, then sit before a speakerphone and absorb the barbs from those who cannot believe how badly your committee mucked it up.
This year it was Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes's turn to answer for the field of 68 on Sunday. The identity of the No. 1 seeds, the snubs, the bid stealers and whom they stole from, and the puzzling inclusion of UCLA—all of it was fodder on the standard Sunday teleconference debriefing.
Here were some of the flash points Barnes addressed:
Wisconsin and Duke earning on No. 1 seeds and Virginia dropping to a No. 2. Barnes said the Badgers had a top seed locked up even before a Big Ten tournament title game win over Michigan State on Sunday afternoon. But then Wisconsin was a regular season champion as well as a tournament champ—neither of which Duke could claim.
“It was discussed,” Barnes said. “Actually it’s the first time since 2009 a [No. 1 seed] didn’t win either, so we were tracking it. The committee deliberated on it quite a bit.”
Barnes then mentioned the “other pieces” that factor into the discussion; in Duke’s case, it was 11 wins against the RPI top 50 and eye-catching road wins at Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville. That overall body of work, plus the head-to-head win in their lone meeting, vaulted the Blue Devils ahead of the Cavaliers for a No. 1 seed, according to Barnes.
“Those strong, very elite wins, wins on the road—and let’s not forget the eye test with Duke—all were considerations,” Barnes said.
UCLA, somehow, in the field. The outcry from Colorado State and, well, just about anywhere else came when the Bruins appeared as a No. 11 seed in the South region. UCLA is 2-8 against the RPI top 50 and just 4-11 away from Pauley Pavilion. Yet this was not a team even among the last four in. Evidently, the raw talent on coach Steve Alford’s roster, a 9-4 record since Jan. 29 and a couple relatively tight losses to Arizona—by 10 points on Feb. 21 and by six at the Pac-12 tournament—swayed the committee.
“In UCLA’s case, it was a tough call,” Barnes said. “We talked even a month ago about UCLA. The committee was watching them and felt like they obviously passed the eye test. Those are things that we looked at in terms of UCLA. It was one of the tougher decisions that we made.”
Storyline matchups. There is the potential second-game matchup between Kansas and Wichita State. There is the first-game matchup between Harvard and a team beset by academic scandal, North Carolina. Conspiracy theories once again proliferated as to the motivations of the committee, when it came to the matchups that appear in the bracket. But anyone who has sat through the mock selection process the NCAA provides to media members—as I did in February—can attest that these appear to be mere accidents of the process. Guidelines about geography and same-conference representation push the bracketing process one way or another.
To believe otherwise is not irrational, with so many millions of dollars involved in this enterprise, but it is a bit cynical. “We had 12 brackets in play today, in terms of contingency brackets,” Barnes said. “This is based on outcomes of the Sun Belt game, the Big Ten title game, the American Athletic Conference title game and the Atlantic-10 title game. There are policies and procedures that we follow. It’s really a prescriptive process. There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”
Poor Temple. Poor Colorado State. These were the teams that came most agonizingly close. Barnes confirmed that Temple had its bid flat-out stolen when Wyoming won the Mountain West Conference tournament and thus that league’s automatic bid. “You think about some of the metrics we use—the RPI (34) was fairly solid, but some of the other metrics didn’t quote hold up for Temple overall,” Barnes said.
As for Colorado State, it simply did not make the cut despite 27 wins and an RPI of 30. It was, Barnes said, another “tough decision.”
“The other metrics that we use weren’t nearly as high,” Barnes said of the Rams. “Then the lack of any true road wins against teams in the top 100 was also a factor.”
The Kentucky foils. Perhaps the most pressing question of the weekend was who would avoid the undefeated Wildcats and who would be dropped directly into their path. Kansas, Notre Dame and Maryland wound up seeded Nos. 2 through 4 in the Midwest Region. Barnes wasn’t terribly specific about how that group rounded out the “protected” seeds in that region, and therefore became teams that weren’t protected much at all.
“A lot of deliberation on that,” Barnes said. “And following the principles and procedures for bracketing, conference affiliations and geography play a role obviously in where folks end up.”
Dayton gets thrust into the First Four … in Dayton. It was an odd twist that left the Flyers playing an NCAA tournament game as a home team. Barnes said the committee was handcuffed by the rules on that, though he hinted those rules might be tweaked down the line.
“It is the last four teams selected [in the First Four], rather than last four teams on the seed list,” Barnes said. “That is something we may review in the summertime.”
St. John’s and the Chris Obekpa suspension. The Red Storm sent a shudder through Selection Sunday by announcing it had suspended the 6’ 10” junior center for two weeks. Obekpa was fifth in the nation with 3.13 blocks per game and now is not likely to play in the tournament at all. But what was surprising to the nation was not to the selection committee; they knew of the impending discipline Saturday night.
Steve Lavin’s crew ended up as a No. 9 seed in the South region, and apparently not much would have changed with Obekpa. “It did not impact their selection, but it impacted their seeding slightly, is what I would say,” Barnes said.”It was definitely discussed.”