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

Seth Davis addresses some misconceptions and answers some questions about the forthcoming midseason bracket show on CBS on Feb. 11.

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.

Bracketology: NCAA hoops committee to give tournament peek

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.

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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.