While the NCAA tournament selection committee has a set list of principles and procedures that apply to the making of the NCAA tournament bracket, there is considerable art within the science when 10 men and women gather to determine teams' fates.
As always, there are a number of questions that will significantly shape the Field of 68 when it's announced on March 17. This column is educated by conversations with 2013 selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski and NCAA associate director for men's basketball David Worlock, as well as discussions with other current and past committee members, and my attendance at the media mock selection meeting in 2011.
Please note: No committee member or administrators associated with this year's selection process could discuss specific teams or conferences as they apply to the 2013 tournament. Any mention of teams or leagues by name are my thoughts on how the committee may look at and apply specific issues to them.
How will the committee account for player absences?
This year, in particular, provides the largest and most complex series of player absences the committee will need to sort through. A ton of possible top seeds (Duke, Florida, Miami, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, etc.) have had key players miss time this season. The trend also impacts at-large hopefuls (Virginia being a prominent example) and even where to seed smaller conference champions (like a Montana or a High Point should those teams advance without key players).
The committee will have access to a composite list of the injuries, suspensions and eligibility issues that kept players out of certain games this season. The conference monitoring system allows schools to submit that data to the NCAA, and it is then reviewed for accuracy and sorted into a spreadsheet for the major contributing players for basically any team that's in the discussion for selection or seeding.
There are no set rules as to how the committee is supposed to handle player absences during the season. They don't assume a team would have won or lost a game if a certain player was available, and it's possible committee members will view different types of absence differently. If a player was responsible for his missing games (through suspension or actions that caused ineligibility), it could be factored in differently than an injury.
Bobinski did confirm in a big-picture sense that what I wrote pertaining to Ryan Kelly and Duke last Thursday is an accurate interpretation. A player needs to give the committee an appropriate amount of evidence prior to Selection Sunday that he is healthy and able to perform at a level consummate to what he was prior to the injury for the team to be more fully evaluated on the basis of that player's presence.
Will the third iteration of the First Four be any smoother?
In 2011, Clemson famously had to play in the first game of the main draw of the tournament just after noon on Thursday after having played in Dayton Tuesday night. That was widely panned as unfair to Clemson and the committee adjusted that practice last season. Last year, one of the play-in, er, sorry, "opening round" games fed into a 14-seed in the main bracket for geographic (and religious conflict) reasons, a situation that was panned as unfair to the 3-seed, Marquette, as the Golden Eagles were drawing a better-caliber team than should have been in that spot.
This season's play-in games may again cause a headache for the committee, as two of the Thursday subregionals are in the West (Salt Lake City and San Jose). That leaves just the Auburn Hills and Lexington subregionals as geographically friendly options if the committee wants to feed the Tuesday night winners into Thursday play. The problem is those two subregionals may have No. 1 or No. 2 seeds (with Michigan and Michigan State looking very possible for Auburn Hills and teams like Florida, Miami and Louisville all possibilities for Lexington). If that's the case, the only spots open in those subregionals would be 10- or 15-seeds, neither of which is appropriate for one of the final at-larges.
When the First Four was created, the committee spoke of not disadvantaging teams by shipping them across the country on short rest or by allowing some of the play-in game winners to play on an extra day's rest (Friday instead of Thursday) while the Wednesday winners had to play by Friday. This year, one of those two choices may become unavoidable, as it's very possible there won't be a close enough Thursday site that can properly accommodate an opening-round winner.
Given previous committee bent, the guess is that one or both Tuesday winners will end up in Friday/Sunday subregionals. Dayton itself is one of the Friday sites, so that's a very logical place to feed at least one of the advancing teams, assuming there's an appropriate seed spot for it. On SI.com's most recent bracket, you could have a 16-seed advance to play 1-seed Indiana and also could feed an at-large team into the 11-seed spot in what is currently Louisville's pod.
It's also possible that a play-in team from a traditional power conference will end up in the same half of a regional, even if there are fewer than nine teams from the league in the bracket. At some point, you run into a situation where you can't accommodate everything, and the guess is that location and seed would take precedence over a potential Sweet 16 matchup if the play-in team wins three games.
How will the committee deal with the clustered subregional locations?
Once again this season, we have a large number of subregional sites grouped relatively close in one part of the country, and it's complicated by the Northeast (only Philadelphia) and the Southeast (no subregional this year) having teams that likely will get geographic preference based on seed.
Historically, the committee has placed enormous emphasis on raw distance figures, with teams being sent to the closest site to their campus, regardless of whether there's another site that's comparably close and that the site they were sent to would fit a team behind them in the seed list better. Bobinski said this year there may be some more discussion about how to fit teams better globally if options for one team are more or less comparable.
There are two types of these issues this year. For example, Indiana's home city of Bloomington is about 10 miles closer to Dayton than it is to Lexington, so either site would be fine from a distance standpoint (although Dayton doesn't force Indiana to play in Rupp Arena, which probably wouldn't be the most friendly crowd for the Hoosiers). For a team like Miami, there's no site anywhere near them, so does it matter if you get on a plane to Philadelphia, Lexington or Austin if the committee deems all of those trips to be relatively comparable for the Hurricanes? And would sending Miami to one of those sites in particular help keep another protected seed much closer to home?
The cluster of Midwest sites this season gives the committee numerous options in how to handle the bevy of teams that will be in the tournament from the Big Ten, Big 12 and western part of the Big East. How they then mix in other teams and sort through this all will be interesting to see.
How is the Mountain West going to be treated?
Reiterating again that no one is able to discuss individual teams or conferences in terms of this year's selection and seeding processes, we have to do some interpolation.
First off, the committee is not allowed to consider past years when determining selection or seeding, so all of the popular theories about the Mountain West's general lack of NCAA tournament wins or New Mexico bombing as a 3-seed in 2010 being factors have no validity. The evaluation of the league will come based on the merits of what it has accomplished this season. Also, there is no comparison in blind terms across years that would map a MWC team's accomplishment in terms of other leagues from past seasons. The evaluation will come on the current teams' performances evaluated within the spectrum of this season's candidate pool and seed list.
Secondly, there is a lot of talk about the gap between the traditional RPI and some advanced metrics in terms of individual Mountain West teams. There is no set process for evaluating teams through advanced metrics systems. They can be accessed in the room on the computers each committee member uses. Bobinski and West Coast commissioner Jamie Zaninovich have said they like using advanced metrics to help them evaluate teams. Other committee members do not use them much.
The following table shows the current RPI, Pomeroy and Sagarin ELO_Score rankings for each of the league's tournament hopefuls, and details the discussion point here:
As you can see, advanced metrics treat every Mountain West team worse with the exception of San Diego State (which is positive news for the Aztecs' at-large hopes). New Mexico's and UNLV's gaps between the traditional RPI and advanced metrics represent four or more seed lines.
The Mountain West has been a looming "issue" for the committee since the end of nonconference play. The league established itself through performance as one of the two or three highest-ranked leagues in terms of RPI, and without any true bottomfeeders to drag RPIs down once league play began, RPI success in a way becomes self-fulfilling. Simply put, if you enter with strong RPIs and all the contenders more or less beat each other at their own gyms, everyone will continue to benefit.
The question the committee will have to answer is how much they believe in the substance of the teams behind those RPIs. I don't think there will be an issue of selection for the first four teams on that list, but it definitely could show up in their seeding, and whether a team like Boise State, the fifth team in the mix, would make it as an at-large. While teams are not supposed to be evaluated in the context of the league they play in, there's no way to evaluate the individual teams in the Mountain West this season without making a global statement about what you think about the league as a whole, because much of the case for each team centers around home wins over top-50 teams in the league.
This is basically a supercharged version of the 2006 Missouri Valley, which got a league-record four bids but still had a Missouri State team with an RPI of 20 left out of the NCAAs. At the time, I thought that was the correct decision based on the pool that year and what Missouri State had actually accomplished. It will be interesting to see what judgments are passed on this year's Mountain West.
How are small-conference champions going to be treated?
Most of the buzz every year in this area concerns "Would a team get in as an at-large if they don't win their auto-bid?" but the conversation also concerns seeding these teams that present gaudy records and a lack of perceived quality wins. This season, there is a very sizable pool of teams -- including Louisiana Tech, Akron, Belmont and Middle Tennessee State -- that could find their way into this debate.
In a way, this is the exact opposite of the Mountain West (and, on some level, the Atlantic 10) discussion. These teams will present the committee with some combination of components including strong RPIs, a huge number of wins, league titles in dominant (and perhaps unbeaten) fashion and, in all of the cases, no quality wins to speak of.
Las Vegas-based sports Todd Fuhrman tweeted last Thursday that Middle Tennessee State would be the 14th-highest rated team in the tournament based on what Vegas oddsmakers think about the currently projected field of 68. That means, in raw terms, the Blue Raiders would be a 4-seed. I have seen MTSU play. They're a quality team. They also have played a total of four top-100 games this season, and lost three of them. What's worse, two of those losses are at Akron and at Belmont. I'm not big on one-game samples where the road team gets punished, but we don't have a lot more to work off with MTSU because the Sun Belt is terrible this season. Only one other league foe (Florida International) is even in the RPI top 150!
So what do you do with a team like that if they lose in the Sun Belt final somehow and finish at 29-5 with one decent win over Mississippi (at home) and two "bad losses" to Sun Belt teams? What do you do if it comes down to Akron or MTSU? Or Belmont or MTSU? How do you seed a team like this if they make it? Are they an 11? Are they a 14? The proper seeding of the bottom of the bracket is what helps make the first two days of the tournament magical. When you botch it, you get a year like 2007 when there were almost no upsets in the Round of 64. Both the committee and the fans of these teams are going to be rooting hard for them to win their conference tournaments, because they're going to be a headache to deal with in terms of at-large selection, otherwise. And while history isn't used to evaluate this year's possible entrants, history also shows that many of these teams end up disappointed on Selection Sunday if they come sans golden ticket.