With Selection Sunday now just 2 1/2 weeks away, it's a good time to clarify some of the more interesting bracket and bubble questions that could arise between now and March 13. My answers are educated by my attendance at the media mock selection meeting in Indianapolis last week, additional conversations with NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen, who oversees the tournament, and past conversations with members of NCAA selection committees.
1. How will the First Four be handled?
This seems to be the biggest procedural question heading into the newly expanded 68-team NCAAs. While there are no hard-and-fast rules in place, the preference is for there to be one game between at-larges and one between auto bids on each of Tuesday and Wednesday, and the winners should feed into subregionals that play two days later, to make the experience equal for all eight participants.
The coordination of those games into subregionals that fit that time frame may be difficult, though. My current bracket projection has all four No. 1 seeds slotting into Friday/Sunday subregionals, which would mean either an auto-bid opening-round game winner would get three days of rest or both auto-bid opening-round games would be on Wednesday.
Beyond timing, the committee also wants to make the travel for the First Four teams as moderate as possible. At the mock media selection meeting last week in Indianapolis, Shaheen said that the NCAA would handle (in advance) some of the logistics to help the First Four teams make it to Dayton (e.g. chartering planes), although teams in consideration for those spots likely would not be notified ahead of being selected for them.
Travel is also a consideration for the winners of those games, as getting to certain subregionals will be much more difficult than others on a short turnaround. In a subsequent conversation on Saturday, Shaheen reemphasized that the committee wants to make the First Four experience a positive one for all involved, and the logistics of doing that could have an impact on other teams (keep reading).
2. What goes into selecting a subregional site for the top seeds?
An interesting situation, related to the First Four, arose in the media mock selection process concerning Pitt and to which subregional location a 1-seed Panthers team would be assigned. While I have assumed that Pitt would end up in Cleveland (along with Ohio State) if they stay on the 1-seed line, the mock committee ended up putting the Panthers in Washington, D.C., which is about 100 miles further from their campus.
The initial reason for considering that switch was that Washington is a Thursday/Saturday regional, so it would help even out the distribution of auto-bid games in the First Four and keep the winners' rest periods the same regardless of whether you played Tuesday or Wednesday. Additional consideration was that the distance to travel wasn't considerably farther (although I would argue that a two-hour drive is significantly better than an almost four-hour drive or quick flight), that there was a high concentration of Midwest teams coming soon after in the seed curve to fill an extra slot in that region and that Washington is more Big East country than Cleveland.
I don't think a No. 1 seed should be moved from its closest subregional site. The team earned the right to be as close to campus as possible. In our Saturday conversation, Shaheen noted that this was an interesting debate and that there was no certainty that the actual committee would make the same decision.
3. How big a consideration is geography/distance in bracketing?
It seems funny to say this after the Pitt example above, but the committee heavily (maybe too much so) weighs distance traveled in making its location assignments, not just for the top seeds but for the bottom part of the bracket, as well.
The committee's bracketing software actually shows you the distance between a team's campus and all eligible locations for them, and Shaheen emphasized that the committee usually respects those distances, even if both trips are plane trips and there's another candidate coming up that would be a much better locational fit. This is an important consideration, as will be shown in question No. 4.
The way things currently look in the bracket, most of the 1-3 seeds will have fairly desirable locations this year. The most likely "leftover" sites for the 4 seeds are Tampa, Tucson and Denver.
4. How do you decide location choice for two teams on the same seed line?
The committee seeds the entire bracket from one through 68, so just because you are a 1 seed or a 2 seed that doesn't mean you get the same consideration as the others on that seed line.
In the Pitt example mentioned above, things could have been very different had the mock meeting been held this week, as the Panthers very well could have been the overall No. 1 seed after Ohio State lost again. As it was, Ohio State was the mock committee's overall No. 1 seed, so the Buckeyes got absolute locational preference and Pitt, as the No. 2 overall seed, was open to slightly more variance, especially since Ohio State took one of the two spots in the Cleveland subregional that seems to best fit Pitt.
This concept could also be very important to two very highly rated teams out West ...
5. Will BYU's restriction on playing on Sundays have an impact on this year's bracket?
Yes and no.
There was a lot of discussion last season about how unfair it was for 3 seed New Mexico to be shipped out of the West region and for 7 seed BYU to land in it, and that's true. New Mexico had earned the right to feed into the Salt Lake City venue, which was the closest regional site to the Lobos' campus.
The problem is that BYU's religious restriction was not why New Mexico got shipped out. Rather, it was because of a fluky convergence of Big East teams on the first three lines of the bracket. Because the West No. 1 seed (Syracuse) was from the Big East and there were two 2-seeds and two 3s also from the conference, that mandated that the No. 3 seed in the West had to be a Big East team (since the top three teams in a conference must be in different regions and the committee tries to avoid intraleague matchups before the regional final if at all possible).
That won't be an issue this season for BYU and San Diego State because there doesn't seem to be a collection of conflicts possible that would force the highest Mountain West champ elsewhere, especially if that team is as high as a No. 2 seed. The only reason BYU's religious restriction matters is because the West is one of the two regions the Cougars can play in this season.
If BYU was ineligible to be in the West, the Aztecs would have a hammerlock on the Anaheim location. Now the two teams are dueling for that location, which places enormous importance on Saturday's showdown in San Diego and a potential MWC tournament final in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks. Even if they are both 2 seeds, if BYU is higher on the overall seed curve, the Cougars would likely get locational preference, even though the Cougars would have to fly to either Anaheim or New Orleans and the Aztecs easily could bus to Anaheim.
1. Where are all the at-large bids going?
That's a heck of a question. History strongly favors teams from BCS leagues to grab the lion's share of the available at-larges, but this season has been very curious. Several of the BCS leagues (Big East, Pac-10, maybe ACC) look fairly tapped out as far as candidates. Meanwhile, most of the mid-major leagues that typically spawn at-large-worthy teams have had down years. This combination along with the absolute fact that we have three extra spots this season potentially means a very weak bubble that doesn't contract nearly as much as it normally does during conference tournaments.
2. Well, if there are so many bids available, why not us?
That question comes directly from the offices of Conference USA, although the Horizon, Missouri Valley and even Atlantic 10 may be asking similar things down the stretch.
I spent a good part of Friday chatting on and off with Chris Woolard, an associate commissioner at Conference USA, who asked very reasonably why a conference that currently has six teams in the RPI top 70 is being projected as a possible one-bid league. This is where overreliance on literal RPIs can be a problem, along with the truth that teams earn bids, not conferences.
C-USA went 3-13 in nonleague games against RPI top 50 teams and all three of those wins came from teams that are not at-large candidates. That means that no C-USA team has a so-called quality win on its resume other than wins over other C-USA teams who also have no quality wins on their resume.
UAB, for example, has an RPI of 30, but its best win was over VCU (which is steadily improving in quality) and it is 1-3 against the other bubble teams in the league. That's simply not an at-large profile. Memphis' case -- the best at-large profile in the league by far -- is made by two wins over UAB and two more over Southern Miss, plus a win at bubbly Gonzaga and a tight victory over Miami (Fla.) at home in November. The Tigers also have two 150-plus losses.
As bad as the overall picture looks, these are difficult sells. Teams like Cleveland State, Butler, Missouri State and Wichita State may very well find out the same thing.
3. Why do you hate Alabama so much?
Being honest about a situation is not hating. I picked the Tide to finish second in the SEC West in the SI.com SEC preview, so I clearly expected them to be decent. They certainly look like an NCAA tournament team at this point, especially having played so well since the return of Andrew Steele. Unfortunately, the eye test that makes the Tide an inviting candidate also means you can eyeball their profile and realize how truly weak it still is at this point.
Here are some pertinent facts:
• Harvard's games against the next five teams in the Ivy League will be a measurably better schedule than what Alabama will have played in the SEC West this season.
• Alabama has the 264th-ranked nonconference schedule and has lost to St. Peter's, Iowa and Providence.
• Ten of Alabama's 18 wins right now are against RPI 200-plus teams, including three league wins.
They have very nice wins over Kentucky and at Tennessee and ... um ... a win over Ole Miss? Sorry, 2-2 vs. the top 50, 4-8 away from home and having played a truly awful schedule for a major-conference team doesn't add up to an at-large ... right now, anyway.
That said, there's a lot of reason for encouragement. Last season, Cal went 13-5 in a terrible Pac-10, winning the league title but finishing the season without a top-50 win. The Golden Bears got an 8 seed. Also, in 2008 in the SEC, Kentucky went 12-4 in the SEC East after a dreadful nonleague season which contained no wins over teams in the top 200. They got in as an 11 seed.
Now, both of those teams played much more rigorous nonleague schedules than Alabama, but I'd guess if the Tide go 13-3 in the league (or even 12-4 and don't flame out in the conference tourney), they'll make it.
4. Who are the possible auto-bid thieves in major conferences?
Seems like every year we have a Selection Sunday title game in which a team with no at-large hopes is trying to force its way into the bracket, sending the final at-large team packing. There aren't a ton of candidates out there, but if I had to guess, I'd look at the Pac-10 and pick either Washington State or USC. In terms of efficiency margin, per Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway, the top three teams in the league are less dominant than many other major conferences and the spread between third-place UCLA and eighth-place Stanford is 0.07 points per possession. Non-nerd translation: There's not a lot of separation and both Washington and Arizona have shown they can lose to mediocre teams.
5. What teams should I root for if I support a team on the bubble?
Like every year, you're rooting for a) the non-candidates in major conferences to keep biting the middle-table clubs and b) the best at-large candidates in non-BCS leagues to win their auto bids. Right now, that latter list includes Utah State, Thursday's Gonzaga/Saint Mary's winner, Butler, George Mason, Old Dominion, Memphis and, if you want to get a little crazy, Harvard and Belmont.