Hot Reads: Selection Sense
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Selection Sense

March 12, 2018

Say this for Selection Sunday: The coaches whose teams don't make it to the NCAA Tournament rarely pull any punches when talking about being left out. Those comments are rarely vitriolic, but almost always carry notes of helplessness.

"The committee sent a message to me that it's going to get tougher for everybody at our level to get an at-large with this new system," Middle Tennessee Coach Kermit Davis told ESPN. "You've got to be perfect. We only have a few chances, and they are usually either on the road or on a neutral court, where the Power 5 schools have six to eight opportunities at home in front of their crowd . . . I think people would rather watch both [St. Mary's and] us in Dayton than two Power 5 teams that finished seventh or eighth in their leagues."

How about a Power 5 team that finished fourth? That's Nebraska's particular plight this time around. The Huskers had the win total (22) and conference finish of a typical tournament team in the past, but the committee doesn't consider conference finish and the total number of wins matters far less than who you beat, where you won, how you scheduled and, the ultimate moving target, wins against other teams in the tournament. (Nebraska went 1-6 in that last category.)

Those seem to be the key ingredients to baking tournament-worthy bread in 2018, but even if we know the preferred recipe the differences between the bubble teams that got in versus those that didn't remain hard to parse.

Just out of curiosity, I threw the NCAA team sheet data from the last four teams in, first four out and Nebraska into a spreadsheet. I wanted to see if anything jumped out from a numbers-only perspective. The only thing that did was how many moving pieces there are. (Last four in = bold, first four out = italics)

St. Bonaventure 24 83 18 59 .692 .500
USC 34 37 61 62 .545 .400
UCLA 36 54 45 78 .300 .300
St. Mary's 40 194 43 196 .909 .667
Syracuse 45 18 14 14 .400 .333
Nebraska 55 113 159 291 .364 .143
Arizona State 66 85 9 139 .400 .429
Baylor 68 19 63 113 .182 .250
Notre Dame 70 51 80 178 .417 .182

Those numbers do offer a sense of just where (and how far) the Huskers fell short. Arizona State was the only team to earn an at-large big with an RPI lower than Nebraska's and UCLA was the only bubble team with a worse road winning percentage to get in. Among this group of eight teams closest to the bubble (plus Nebraska), the Huskers had the lowest nonconference RPI, nonconference strength of schedule, Quad 1 winning percentage and second-lowest overall strength of schedule.

In the "metrics that matter," Nebraska fell fairly short. So short that it should've been a five seed in the NIT? I certainly never would've guessed that. I guess the overall takeaway from yesterday is that there is no one path to a bid for a bubble team. Syracuse got in with a sub-.500 record in a tough conference. Arizona State was sub-.500 in a lightly regarded conference, but its nonconference RPI ranked ninth.

This is ultimately the source of conflict here. The committee can be as transparent as it wants with the criteria it is paying attention to (note: that's different than using), but ultimately it's still a committee, a group of people who have to make judgments. Every year the selection committee chair goes on TV and gets grilled by media asking, "Why Team A and not Team B?"

The chair always has some answers for these questions, and everyone can decide individually how satisfying they are. They're never going to be totally satisfying, however, because if you keep drilling down, if you tear apart the résumés and parse the criteria, you will eventually end up at the only answer that's actually there: We thought Team A should be in and Team B shouldn't.

The system is designed to make as much sense as it can, but it can never make perfect sense. We always forget this one day a year.

The Grab Bag

Today's Song of Today

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.