Each year, the dynamics of selecting and bracketing the NCAA tournament change. While the tournament selection committee has a set principles and procedures that apply, there is considerable art within the science when 10 men and women gather to produce the actual bracket.
This year, like any other, there are a number of big questions that will significantly shape the Field of 68 when it's announced on March 11. This column is educated by conversations with 2012 selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway and NCAA interim executive vice president Greg Shaheen (who oversees the tournament), discussions with other current and past committee members, and my attendance at last year's media mock selection meeting.
Please note: No committee member or administrator associated with this year's selection process could discuss specific teams or conferences as they apply to the 2012 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.
On the media conference call last week, and again in our subsequent conversation, Hathaway said that there were some lessons learned from last year's first attempt at the First Four. The biggest talking point is avoiding a situation like Clemson endured, where the Tigers played in an opening-round game on Tuesday night and then were placed in the first game of Thursday's subregional in Tampa, Fla.
Hathaway said that sequence of events -- with a First Four team playing the first game on Thursday -- would not be repeated, although there were no specifics beyond that as far as game slots, meaning a First Four team could theoretically be given the second game of a Thursday day session.
There also has been discussions in trying to keep the First Four teams as close to Dayton as possible, to minimize travel. In theory, there are multiple sites -- Columbus, Louisville, Nashville and Pittsburgh -- close enough to Dayton to work, but seed assignments for the First Four matchups could be impacted by how locations shake out for the protected seeds.
Two of Thursday's subregional sites -- Albuquerque and Portland -- are strongly in the mix to end up as locations for the 4-seeds. If that happens, that would make having First Four teams as 12- or 13-seeds problematic. The committee's options could be to push one or more of the First Four teams to a Friday subregional, make one or more First Four games feed into an 11-seed (and have at-large teams above them in the S-curve lower in the bracket), or send a team out West if that's best for bracket integrity.
Dayton is the host of the First Four games, but the restrictions that apply to host teams in the main bracket do not apply here. Dayton would be allowed to play on its home floor, creating a situation where one at-large team would be given a road NCAA tournament game.
While somewhat unfair, the Flyers' presence doesn't create the same bracket quandaries having BYU in the First Four would create. The Cougars, for religious reasons, do not play on Sundays, so they would have to be slotted into the East (Boston) or West (Phoenix) regionals and one of the four Thursday/Saturday subregionals (Albuquerque, Portland, Pittsburgh or Louisville).
There is no guarantee how many of those subregionals will overlap with the East and West regionals or that any of them will have seeds available that would fit with a First Four team's status in the S-curve. It could end up being a significant headache. The committee likely would choose to ship the Cougars (and their opponent) somewhere inconvenient rather than compromise seed integrity to accommodate a shorter trip.
As mentioned above, four of the eight subregional sites are fairly closely bunched, which will give the committee both a lot of flexibility in where it sends teams and a lot of headaches in weighing the questions of distance, travel accessibility and overall bracket fit as they work their way through the seed lines.
Generally speaking, the committee tries to send teams -- especially protected seeds -- to the closest physical location, even if there are teams coming up after them that would be a better fit for that location and the distance to a second site is marginally greater. That decision-making this year may be more complicated than most, though, because of the bunching (and no site in the Northeast).
As it stands, there are several teams in contention for protected seeds that are extremely close, distance-wise, from multiple subregional or regional sites. Examples include Georgetown for the Greensboro and Columbus subregionals and Kentucky for the Saint Louis and Atlanta regionals.
I have assumed that Kentucky would end up in Atlanta as it's maybe 20 miles farther from Lexington than Saint Louis, is well-established SEC territory, has hosted the SEC tournament numerous times, and is home to a large alumni base for Kentucky. The committee, though, could decide that Saint Louis (a new SEC market after realignment) is more convenient for more of UK's fans in the Western part of the state. It also could depend on who else lands on the 1-seed line with the Wildcats. Kansas or Missouri would be a natural fit in Saint Louis. Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Ohio State, etc. would not.
How those choices resolve themselves will be dictated in part by the answer to this next question...
No. The committee seeds the entire bracket from No. 1 through No. 68, so while the top overall seed and the No. 4 overall seed would both be 1-seeds in the bracket, they would not get the same locational preference. This becomes more important as you work down through the protected seeds, and conference conflicts start to eliminate regional options. It also comes into play for subregional sites.
An example of this could be the Greensboro subregional, where many believe that Duke and North Carolina will assume their traditional perch. But if a team like Georgetown ends up ahead of North Carolina in the committee's S-curve, even if they both end up as 2- or 3-seeds, they would have locational preference and conceivably could be slotted into Greensboro rather than Columbus, pushing the Heels elsewhere.
There's a general perception that the major-conference tournament finals that land on Selection Sunday are discounted (or ignored completely). A recent example comes from last year, when Kentucky beat Florida in the SEC title game but stayed a 4-seed in my bracket (and the committee's, as well) while Florida remained a 2 in both.
A plausible explanation is that Kentucky was moved up in the S-curve and Florida was moved down based on that result, but neither moved enough to change their nominal seed. Whether you agree with that seed determination based on an analysis of the teams' entire 30-plus game track records is different from the result being ignored.
Advancements in the technology the committee uses makes planning for contingencies much easier than it used to be. If the ACC (possibly Duke and/or North Carolina pushing for a 1-seed) or (especially) the later Big Ten final (where Michigan State and/or Ohio State could also be seeking a 1-seed) have a matchup in place by Saturday night that could impact the overall seeds, the committee would have multiple contingency brackets in place, and then use the one that's applicable based on Sunday's results.
This could end up being one of the more talked-about topics after the bracket is released, as both conferences were awful in nonconference play, leaving emerging teams at the top of both leagues with a dearth of quality wins in their at-large profiles. Between the two conferences, only Cal is in the RPI top 50, so the league slates haven't provided any marquee win chances, either.
It's fairly rare for teams to land at-large spots without a top-50 win (UAB got in last year barely having one, thanks to VCU's run to the CAA final that pushed the Rams to No. 49. UAB also was, in my opinion, the worst inclusion in the bracket and looked terrible in the opening-round game). And if there's one thing the selection committee has been consistent about over the years when it comes to at-large inclusion, it's rewarding teams who went out and played people in nonconference and punishing teams that did not. Last year's Alabama team is the most recent example of a casualty of a terrible nonconference slate(and some bad losses within that). Cincinnati faces similar scrutiny this year.
Teams that have no (or almost no) top-50 wins, though, come in different shapes and sizes. One way to offset that issue historically has been to play a good schedule and then win your league. Cal in 2010 did not have a top-50 win, but won the then Pac-10 regular-season title and had a very strong RPI rank of 20, thanks in part to playing Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas. Those Bears landed an 8-seed.
That bodes well for this year's Cal team, which currently sits at No. 32 in the RPI and again is without a top-50 win. It's also why George Mason's loss Wednesday night was so huge for Drexel, which now can claim the CAA crown in solo fashion with a win at Old Dominion. That would be a huge chit for the Dragons (even though they benefited from an unbalanced schedule that had them face George Mason and VCU once each, both at home).
Neither the Pac-12 nor the CAA will get a pass from the committee, though. The bottom line is, all of these teams had chances in nonleague play, and didn't take them. The CAA threesome went 1-4 against top-50 teams (yay, for VCU's win over South Florida, for now). Cal was crushed by UNLV and Missouri (and lost by a point at San Diego State). Washington lost to Duke and Marquette (and South Dakota State. At home. By 19). You can't now come to the committee asking for the eye test to replace your lack of production. Plenty of teams from smaller conferences only get two or three chances a year to impress and don't, and they don't get a-large bids. Case in point: This year's Weber State.
So, for the Pac-12 and CAA fans out there, my advice to you is that your team should go win the auto-bid, especially if it didn't win the league's regular-season crown. If you have neither, the NIT beckons.