Hoop Thoughts: Inside the decision to create a midseason bracket show

Monday January 30th, 2017

I’ll be honest. When my peeps at CBS told me a few weeks ago that we were going to do a midseason bracket show on Feb. 11 in conjunction with the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee, I was skeptical. I’ve never been a huge fan of the way the College Football Playoff committee reveals its weekly rankings, and I was concerned our exercise would be dismissed as a copycat. And since so much is going to change between that day and Selection Sunday, I was likewise worried the show would not be seen as valuable.

I was encouraged, however, by the reaction to last Tuesday’s announcement. Some people said they loved the idea, some said they hated it and some were in between. Most everyone, however, acknowledged they would either watch the show or at least want to know what the committee revealed. And even the skeptics had to admit there really is no downside to generating a little chatter about college hoops six days after the Super Bowl.

Inasmuch as there seems to be curiosity about how all this will work, I figured I would serve up a primer on how the show came about, what purpose the committee hopes to serve, and where all this goes from here.

Whose idea was this?

It actually came from coaches. The committee members and NCAA staff had been bandying about this possibility ever since the CFP committee began its weekly reveals in 2014. But there was never quite enough support to pull the trigger until last summer. That’s when the National Association of Basketball Coaches decided to form an ad hoc panel comprised of 14 Division I coaches (including John Calipari, Mark Few, Bob Huggins, Mark Turgeon and John Thompson III, among others) to come up with ways to improve the process. One of its first ideas was to have the committee produce an in-season bracket. “The coaches wanted more clarity so we would know what we need to do,” Few says. “We’re always looking to learn more about how we should schedule, what the committee’s reasoning is behind their decisions. Some people were upset about seeding. Some people were upset about location. So when this idea came up, a lot of us were for it.”

At the end of the day, the coaches and their schools have the most at stake. They’re also the ones who do the most complaining. Once the committee learned of their desire, it decided to give an early reveal the old college try.

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What exactly is going to be revealed?

The committee is going to select and seed the bracket only as far as the No. 4 line. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who is the current committee chair, will join my CBS colleagues and me in our studio to reveal the exact order of the teams 1 through 16. Then he is going to show us how each team was placed into the bracket according to the NCAA’s principles and procedures.

Is the committee really going to get together just for a TV show?

Nope. The committee actually meets in Indianapolis each February so it can practice going through the voting process. The purpose is to get prepared for selection weekend, which is why they use the computers and software that guide them in March. (When the committee finishes its tune-up, the NCAA invites a couple dozen media members in to put them through a mock selection as well.) The committee has never put together a full 68-team bracket during its February meeting. The only difference this year is that the committee knows their top 16 teams will be revealed to the public, so they are going to be extra careful to get it right.

Why aren’t they releasing an entire bracket?

Again, I’ll be honest: I wish they would. But I understand why they don’t want to.

In the first place, it is a lot of work. When the real exercise takes place in March, the 10 members of the committee will spend five very long days and nights poring over data, crunching numbers and scrubbing the seed list to come up with the 68-team tournament. If they’re not going to put the same kind of time and effort here, then it is probably not worth doing. Besides, the committee needs conference tournament results. If they composed an entire bracket for this show, they would have to concoct “pretend” results, and that could create a lot more problems than it solves. “I don’t want us to do anything that could be seen as an assumption or a projection,” Hollis told me. “If you do that, you become a bracketologist, not a committee member.”

Does that mean we won’t be able to see what the 68-team bracket looks like during this show?

Not exactly. RPI expert Jerry Palm, who updates his bracket daily for CBSSports.com, will be with us in studio as well. He will take what the committee has done and extrapolate it to give us a complete bracket.

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Wait a minute. Isn’t the RPI dead?

Not exactly. Another idea that came from the NABC’s ad hoc committee was a reevaluation of the metrics the committee uses to organize its information. If you’ve ever seen an NCAA “team sheet,” you know that the first grouping lists results against opponents ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. The next category is against teams ranked 51 to 100, and so on. The RPI was created in 1981, and since then we have seen several other metrics become developed such as the Sagarin ratings, ESPN’s BPI, Kevin Pauga’s KPI ratings, and most prominently, Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. Committee members have used these different metrics for years to reach their individual conclusions, but the coaches wanted the NCAA to look into creating a composite that would be more useful.

Last week, the NCAA brought all those beautiful minds together—a nerdapalooza, if you will (and I say that affectionately)—to explore how this would work. The NCAA didn’t want to rush things into place for this year’s tournament, but it’s a good bet that this new metric will be the official organizing tool by next season.

That’s a pretty good idea. Did the coaches come up with any others?

Yes, a couple. First, they wanted the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed to get its choice of region and first-round site. This is usually a pretty straightforward decision for the committee because it is dictated by the number of miles between the school and those locations. However, once in a while, there might be a location that is technically a little further away but that might make more sense for that school and its fans.

For example, last year the committee sent Kansas to play in the South regional in Louisville. That may have been technically closer to Lawrence than Chicago, home of the Midwest regional, but Bill Self later said he would have preferred to go to Chicago because it is a more natural home base for the team’s fans and alumni. The committee has always wanted to reward the higher-seeded teams with a geographic advantage. This tweak should enhance that.

The other thing the coaches have requested is even more clarity—there’s that word again—as to the exact criteria the committee uses when it makes decisions. This, as you might imagine, is not so simple because 10 different members might use 10 different sets of reasons. Instead of numbering the categories in order of importance, the committee is more likely to come up with a list of primary considerations (road record, record vs. the top 50, nonconference strength of schedule) and secondary considerations (head-to-head results, record vs. common opponents, avoidance of losses to bad teams). The risk here is that the committee ends up creating more confusion. “Coaches want the magic formula, but that’s not something that can be delivered,” Hollis says. “As we go through the teams and get to the last few spots, the criteria never changes, but the reasons for our decisions might change. That’s something we’re going to have to be careful about explaining.”

Would the committee considering doing this every week like the football committee does?

Not a chance. Like I said, it’s enough work just to put out a single bracket, much less one every seven days. The football committee has a much easier job. Even though that committee does a complete top 25, the only spots that really matter are the top four, plus the two or three spots just below. It is also easier to do this when the games are mostly confined to Saturdays and teams play just one game per week.

“We can’t reset every Sunday like the football committee can,” Hollis says. “We’re volunteers and we work our tails off. I’m on the road for about a hundred nights a year. To do it every week with the number of games that are played and the way the sand is always shifting, it wouldn’t have the same importance as it does for football.”

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Transparency and clarity are all well and good, but isn’t this just a blatant marketing ploy to gin up conversation about the tournament?

That is not the primary objective, but it is a nice ancillary benefit. Today’s media ecosystem is quite cluttered. This show is going to dominate the conversation for a couple of cycles, and it will set the table for discussion for the several weeks. However you feel about all of this, I think we can all agree that anything that gets more people talking about college basketball in February is good for humanity. “I would say this was a significant portion of our reason for doing the show,” says Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president for basketball. “I think giving attention to the tournament a month before the conference tournaments and Selection Sunday is a good thing. It's a chance for us to give everyone a glimpse into the process.”

Can we expect this to be an annual event, or is this just a one-time deal?

That decision has not been made yet, but once these things get rolling, they usually don’t stop. The NCAA will see how the show goes and how the information is received, and then it will figure out what to do moving forward. There are worse things than imagining that this turns into an annual event. March Madness will still be a full month away. Nothing wrong with a little February tease to get everybody pumped up.

Icon Sportswire/Getty

Other Hoop Thoughts

• In an overtime Wisconsin win over Rutgers on Saturday, Badgers sophomore center Ethan Happ recorded another amazing state line: 32 points (a career high), six rebounds, four steals, three assists, two blocks. Here’s the most amazing stat of all: In his year-and-a-half playing for Wisconsin, Happ has made 292 field goals. Only one has come outside the paint. I kid you not.

• Betcha never thought you’d see Syracuse fans rush the court after win over Florida State in hoops, huh? Does that mean Seminoles fans will tear down the goal posts if they knock off the Orange in football next season?

• Needless to say, I was quite impressed by Kansas’s win in Rupp Arena on Saturday, especially given the distractions around the program. The team is dealing with an investigation into an alleged sexual assault in a campus dormitory (apparently none of the players were involved in the alleged assault, but they are being questioned as possible witnesses), and then on Friday KU announced that sophomore forward Carlton Bragg is indefinitely suspended for violating team rules. I saw an article arguing that losing Bragg was addition by subtraction, but I ain’t buying it. The Jayhawks are painfully thin in the frontcourt. Bragg is not having a great season by any stretch, but this team needs all the bodies it can get.

• Good to see Austin Peay coach Dave Loos back on the bench after he missed four games while undergoing chemotherapy. Loos is an institution who has been coach of the Governors since 1990. In his honor, allow me to once again call upon my favorite alltime college basketball cheer, which was directed at legendary Governors forward Fly Williams in the early 1970s: “The Fly is open! Let’s go Peay!”

• Can’t say enough about the job Josh Pastner is doing in his first year at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets got their third big home win of the season on Saturday over Notre Dame. They already have wins over North Carolina and Florida State, which means there is now a very good chance they will make the NCAA tournament. And yes, this is the same Josh Pastner who was basically run out of Memphis. Did he all of a sudden become a good coach? No. He has always been a good coach. But this is a better fit for him. It wasn’t easy to follow John Calipari at Memphis, and it was clear Pastner needed a fresh start.

• I always chuckle when I see people complaining about refs by name on Twitter. You know why fans recognize their names? Because they work a lot of big games. You know why they work a lot of big games? Because the coaches want them to. You know why the coaches want them to? Because they’re the best refs. That’s the way this works.

• This week’s unsolicited advice for TV directors: Please do not show us a live box of a coach on the sidelines while the game is going on. Like, ever.

• In case you haven’t noticed, we have entered the part of the season when shocking upsets shouldn’t seem so shocking. That’s because you have elite teams who know they are going to make the tournament hitting the road with little incentive to face teams that are desperate to get résumé -building wins. That’s not an excuse; that’s just the reality. So don’t let individual results sway your opinions of the top teams.

• For example, Florida State. The Seminoles went 5­–1 against six consecutive top 25 teams and then lost at Georgia Tech and Syracuse. Remembers, folks, these aren’t robots, they’re college kids.

• Oh, and I’m not one to be all that impressed that Leonard Hamilton is playing a 13-man rotation. I think depth is highly overrated. As long as everyone is healthy, the perfect rotation is seven or eight players. That way everyone gets their minutes and their shots, which makes for good chemistry.

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• Not to overreact or anything, but let’s all remember that for all of Kentucky’s talent, this is the sixth-youngest team in the country. Eventually that’s going to cost ’em.

• Speaking of which, I notice the security personnel at Tennessee kept the fans from rushing the court after their big upset of Kentucky on Tuesday night. You think those fans went home thinking they were robbed of a good time?

• I called Iowa’s loss at Illinois on Wednesday night for Big Ten Network, and I can tell you that senior guard Peter Jok is really hurting. He is trying to play through intense back pain, but it isn’t working. He did not play in Iowa’s win over Ohio State on Saturday night, and it appears to be the type of injury that can only get better with extensive rest. It’s a shame, too, because he had been enjoying an amazing season as the Big Ten’s leading scorer.

• Looks like Virginia may have found itself a shiny new toy in Ty Jerome. The 6' 5" freshman guard scored a combined 23 points on 9 for 13 shooting (5 for 9 from three) in the Cavs’ games against Notre Dame and Villanova last week. That’s the same number of points he had scored in Virginia’s previous 12 games. I especially loved how badly he wanted to take the last shot against Villanova—which he made. This team is so good defensively that if it gets just a little bit of offensive pop, it becomes capable of beating the best teams in the country.

• I love that Marquette used a 1-3-1 zone to get that huge win over Villanova. I am a fan of the 1-3-1 for three reasons: First, the main line of defense goes right through the center of the floor. This takes away the high post, which is where the 2-3 zone is so vulnerable. Second, the 1-3-1 puts two defenders on the ball, no matter where it is. In today’s dribble-drive happy game, that is a huge asset. And finally, very few teams play the 1-3-1, which means very few teams know how to run offense against it. Sure, there are gaps (especially in the corners), but every defense has gaps. The corner is a difficult spot to make shots, and there are not a lot of power forwards in college basketball who are able to make midrange baseline jumpers. Coaches have a tendency to copycat whatever is working, but I’ve always thought the smarter play is to do something that's different.

• It’s hard to overstate the importance of Duke’s comeback win at Wake Forest on Saturday. Here’s what we know for sure about this team: Sophomore guard Luke Kennard is the Blue Devils’ best player. Period. And Grayson Allen needs to be their second-best player. Everyone else, including the heralded freshmen, need to fall in line behind those two.

• One of the sneaky good wins on Saturday was Tennessee’s 70–58 triumph over Kansas State in Knoxville. This was important for two reasons. First, it was a victory over another potential bubble team. Those head-to-head results loom especially large on selection weekend. Second, the Vols could have suffered an emotional letdown following the big upset of Kentucky, but they didn’t. That shows they have some emotional maturity. It was Tennessee’s second win over a top-50 RPI team, and they headed into this week with a 4–4 SEC record. If the SEC gets four teams into the tournament, they would be the fourth—as of now, anyway.

Icon Sportswire via AP

• Something special is happening at Central Michigan, where Marcus Keene posted his fourth 40-plus-point game of the season on Saturday in a win over Kent State. What’s more the 5' 9" junior point guard pulled down 10 rebounds. Ten! Keene leads the nation in scoring at 30.3 points per game, which puts him well within reach of becoming the first college player to average 30 points since LIU’s Charles Jones averaged 30.1 ppg for Long Island in 1996–97.

• That, by the way, brings up one of my favorite college hoops trivia questions: Who is the only player in history to lead the nation in scoring and win an NCAA championship in the same season? The answer is below. No peeking, no Googling!

• How about the job Mark Turgeon is doing at Maryland. The Terps have been starting three freshmen for most of the season, yet they won at Minnesota on Saturday—which is not easy to do—to maintain their share of first place in the Big Ten with a 7–1 record. They’re 19–2 overall, and while they haven’t played the toughest schedule around (62nd in the country), there’s a lot to be said for a team that just wins. And keep in mind that 7' 1" junior center Michal Cekovsky has only been back for two games after missing three weeks with an ankle injury. Once he returns to form, the Terps will be even more formidable.

• Don’t you just love that Cincinnati is now playing some serious offense?

• Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Indiana, the school announced on Saturday that its leading scorer, junior guard James Blackmon, would be out indefinitely with that mysterious and ubiquitous “lower leg injury.” Man, those wins over Kansas and North Carolina seem like a lifetime ago, don’t they? With Blackmon and OG Anunoby out, it appears very possible that Indiana won’t even make the NCAA tournament. Remember, the committee has to evaluate who the Hoosiers are on Selection Sunday, which is a very different team than the one that won those games in November.

• Best thing about Northwestern right now is not just that it is headed for the tournament, but that it is not going to be a close call, barring a total collapse. That would alleviate what could have been a very high-pressure situation for those kids.

• I dig the kenpom.com rankings as much as anyone, but I am just not buying Florida at No. 10. I keep waiting for the Gators to sink, but instead they keep rising, even after they lost to South Carolina (road) and Vanderbilt (home) earlier this month. Is that an outlier, or does Ken know something we don’t?

• Trivia answer: Clyde Lovellete, Kansas, 28.6 ppg, 1951–52 season.

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Five Games I’m Psyched To See This Week

Duke at Notre Dame, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN

It speaks to the dire straits of Duke’s program that a last-second win at Wake Forest was considered so seismic. But it was, and it makes me think the Blue Devils may have rediscovered their identity. Duke’s defense has been suspect the last month and the Fighting Irish will be hard to guard in South Bend, but I have a hunch the Devils are up to the challenge.

Duke 80, Notre Dame 79

Creighton at Butler, Tuesday, 7 p.m., FS1

I’m not convinced that the Bluejays are back in business just because they were able to beat DePaul handily at home. Butler’s loss to Georgetown notwithstanding, it is not easy to beat the Bulldogs in Hinkle, and it is especially difficult to speed them up. Butler ranks fourth nationally in turnover percentage.

Butler 72, Creighton 67

West Virginia at Iowa State, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

West Virginia’s 16-point win at home over Kansas masks the fact that the Mountaineers have looked quite mortal the last three weeks. I’ve been waiting for the Cyclones to prove their mettle, and this is a golden opportunity to do just that. They were pretty bad in their road loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday, but the one thing they do is take good care of the ball. (Thank you, Monte Morris.) If they can do that against West Virginia, and if they can draw on some Hilton Magic, then they should get the win.

Iowa State 81, West Virginia 79

Baylor at Kansas, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

I give Baylor a lot of credit for hanging on to win at Ole Miss on Saturday when so many top-ranked teams were losing on the road to inferior teams. Still, although Kansas should be due for a comedown following the big win at Kentucky, I know the Jayhawks have been looking forward to this game since the start of the season. They’ll be primed and ready to compete.

Kansas 78, Baylor 70

Gonzaga at BYU, Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPN2

The Zags have been steamrolling their way through the West Coast Conference in impressive fashion, winning their games by an average margin of 28 points. The Cougars are a pretty good team but they are far from being world-beaters. Their desire to push the pace (No. 4 nationally in tempo) should play right into Gonzaga’s hands. Nor are the Zags likely to suffer a letdown. They know they have a chance to go undefeated, and I believe they are motivated by the chance to make history.

Gonzaga 80, BYU 68

James Crisp/AP

This Week’s AP Ballot

* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Kansas (1)
2. Arizona (4)
3. Villanova (2)
4. Gonzaga (6)
5. Baylor (8)
6. Louisville (11)
7. Kentucky (3)
8. Wisconsin (12)
9. Virginia (20)
10. West Virginia (14)
11. UCLA (5)
12. North Carolina (7)
13. Cincinnati (19)
14. Florida State (10)
15. Notre Dame (9)
16. Oregon (15)
17. Maryland (23)
18. Purdue (18)
19. Saint Mary’s (21)
20. Butler (17)
21. Creighton (16)
22. Xavier (22)
23. SMU (24)
24. South Carolina (NR)
25. Middle Tennessee (NR)

Dropped out: Duke (13), UNC Wilmington (25)

So the obvious first question on the board is, why am I not ranking Gonzaga No. 1? The answer should be obvious as well: They are not playing the same caliber of competition as the teams I ranked above them. That doesn’t mean the Zags are not as good, but it does mean that I am not interested in rewarding a team for staying undefeated when it is playing in a significantly weaker league.

Gonzaga’s best nonconference wins were in close games against Florida, Iowa State and Arizona on neutral courts—and Arizona did not have Allonzo Trier when the teams faced off on Dec. 3. That said, I’ve watched a lot of Gonzaga’s games this season, and I do think they are a legit Final Four team. They are also ranked No. 1 on kenpom.com, which counts for a lot. I have no problem with their being ranked No. 1, and I suspect that will be the case when the polls are released on Monday. But I would not put them at the top of my ballot unless I truly believed they were the best team in the country. And I’m not ready to say that just yet.

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I also don’t believe that teams should be moved down automatically just because they lost on the road to a good team. Kansas’s defeat at West Virginia was offset by their win at Rupp Arena. I had them No. 1 last week, and I think they deserved to remain there. Frankly, I probably have Kentucky rated a little too high considering they also lost at Tennessee. I’ll be interested to see how the Wildcats respond in the coming weeks to their first real bout with adversity.

Virginia is my big riser of the week—not just because the Cavaliers spanked Notre Dame in South Bend, but also because they played Villanova to the wire in Philadelphia. They were even more impressive in defeat than in victory. It’s a good example of the difference between what the basketball committee does and what a poll voter does. The eye test is what counts the most on my ballot, and Virginia looks pretty darn good to me right now.

Duke is another example of a team with a pretty good overall résumé but is not playing anything like a rank-worthy team right now. Plus, the Blue Devils have the added element of instability because of Mike Krzyzewski's absence while he recovers from back surgery. I’m hearing that his return is still a week or two away.

It’s also good to see the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee back to having a number next to their name. I have a feeling they are going to run the table in Conference USA. They head a list of really good mid-majors like UNC Wilmington, Valparaiso, Illinois State, Wichita State, Chattanooga, Nevada, New Mexico State and Bucknell. If I’m hunting for Cinderellas, it must mean that March Madness is fast approaching. How glorious!

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