Just before he walked on to the set for a live shot with CBS, Joe Castiglione received the news: The bracket he and the rest of the NCAA tournament selection committee had compiled, the one the NCAA takes pains to protect, had leaked out online before it was completely unveiled on television.
“It was surprising and very regrettable,” said Castiglione, the Oklahoma athletics director and the chairman of the selection committee this year. “I can just tell you that the NCAA goes to great lengths to prevent the tournament field from being revealed early. In this case the NCAA took its usual measures to prevent something like this from happening.
“The NCAA and others are looking into the matter. We take it seriously and hope to zero in on how it occurred.”
No matter when the bracket was unveiled, of course, the questions were bound to follow. Here’s a sample of Castiglione’s remarks from a Sunday teleconference to discuss how the committee put together this year’s field of 68, including explanations for the stunning inclusion of Tulsa and notable exclusions like Monmouth and South Carolina.
On leaving Monmouth out: “This was one of the more debated conversations that I can remember. And not just about them, but about the other teams that made it in the field. It came down to the very last vote. It was really tight between Tulsa, Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, South Carolina and Valparaiso. We recognize in the case of teams like Monmouth—they had an outstanding season. They did some things the committee values. Teams like Monmouth only have a few opportunities to get top-100 wins. Their 3–4 record vs. those teams wasn’t as much of a factor. It was really the case with their three losses outside of the top 200. And of course we combined that with the use of all the other analytics. No other team in the field had multiple losses to teams below 200. In the end, in a very very close vote, they just didn’t have enough. We would encourage other teams like them to use the same strategy. Short of those losses to teams under 200, it might have been a different outcome.”
On the message it sends to mid-major teams: “We don’t have any intent to ever send any sort of message to any program. It’s not our place to do that and certainly that’s not part of any aspect of our process. Each year is different. Each case is different. Each conversation is different.”
On what small-conference teams can do to improve their stock: “Simply stated, you have to win games and avoid bad losses. As I mentioned earlier, we value teams that challenge themselves outside of their conference. Making a general statement, some leagues are going to have difficult times getting games against those top-50 or top-100 teams. We know those opportunities are fewer for some than they are for others. But we’ve said all along, we pay attention to that during the evaluation process, so the committee members notice where teams have tried to test themselves against the iron.”
On Oregon, and not Michigan State, as a No. 1 seed: “This again was a very difficult conversation. I’ll tell you, candidly, I was out of the room part of the time. Part of the conversation, as teams were being compared on the seed list, also included Oklahoma. So I found myself out of the room along with my colleague (Michigan State athletic director) Mark Hollis. But when it was all said and done, there were additional elements that drive some of those decisions. In the case of Michigan State, fifth overall seed, strong team, know they have been playing well, they have their full complement of players back, obviously won the Big Ten championship today. But when compared to say, Oregon, the fourth overall seed, Oregon had the No. 1 strength of schedule, they were No. 2 in the RPI. And Michigan State’s eight top-50 wins and 13 top-100 wins, while very, very good in the committee’s minds, wasn’t enough to move ahead of Oregon. Oregon also had some injury issues. We take that into consideration. We don’t discount any of their losses but [injuries] certainly were factors in their loses to Boise State and UNLV."
On including Tulsa: “They were actually the last team placed into the field. It was a very, very difficult decision. We looked for distinguishing factors. In the case of Tulsa it was their four top-50 wins, including a road win over SMU. They had eight top-100 wins, and to add some context to that—six of the eight top 100 wins were over teams in the tournament. Those kinds of things begin to distinguish them.”
On considering Jim Boeheim's in-season suspension: “I’ve said from Day 1 that we treat player availability and coach availability the same. We do not discount any aspect of the schedule. All the games matter. But in case of Syracuse, you look at what they did. Five top-50 wins, three of those came away from home, eight top 100 wins overall. We noticed the neutral site sin over UConn, which won its league championship today. The neutral site win over Texas A&M and obviously the win over Duke. This is a really good example of how we look at a variety of metrics and noting that our discussions aren’t just about the RPI. In Syracuse’s case, it’s important to use them as example of how the imbalanced conference schedule can play into the discussion. We can take that same kind of conversation and apply it to any of the teams under consideration and make sure were recognize the two plays and the one plays.”
On seeding Texas A&M above Kentucky: “Well, we know A&M split with Kentucky, they were co-champions of the SEC. In the case of Kentucky, by winning the SEC championship, they picked up only their third top-50 win. They had five losses to non-tournament teams, four of which were ranked below 90. That was part of the consideration when talking about Kentucky and where they were placed on the seed line.”
On leaving out South Carolina: “It’s only one top-50 win. And moreover, it’s the poor overall strength of schedule. Which we were looking at near 170. Their non-conference strength of schedule was near 300. They also had seven losses to teams that are not in the tournament. While they had a really good season and the program was recognized as such, we consistently indicate that teams should try and test themselves against good teams outside their conference.”
On putting Texas coach Shaka Smart in the same bracket as his former team, Virginia Commonwealth: “Each year there are some that look at the bracket and how it’s presented and think there are matchups that we arbitrarily create. We recognize there are going to be situations where coaches may go against their former team, may go against their former assistant coaches, may face players that were on their team at one point. It’s the way things work out. But we strictly apply our procedures for seeding and today when we get into bracketing. If you know the process, we don’t cook up these matchups.”