A selection at war with itself


Every year a bracket comes out, and every year there’s plenty of yelling and screaming to the effect that this is the worst bracket in history and lovable mid-major X that just missed the cut has been traduced in a way no other team ever has been before. That’s what Sunday night and Monday morning are for. Then we promptly forget about the yelling and screaming and we savor the actual games.

The same sequence will play out in 2016, and that’s fine. In this brief, fleeting moment when there are no games, however, I want to hold on to this feeling of dissatisfaction for just a second and suggest that it’s the product of a selection process that’s undergoing an arduous and unavoidably public transition. If I’m right, many of the same bracket objections will be filed by we the people next year even if the committee doesn’t pull a Tulsa.

In effect the selection process is navigating three transitions at once. All three changes are difficult to navigate (or at least the NCAA’s making it look that way), and last night we saw the stormy petulance of an adolescent raging at its fate.

From the RPI to KenPom
In recent years the field has slowly become more congruent with the wisdom offered by basketball-specific metrics. That process continued, after a fashion, last night in as much as Wichita State and Vanderbilt received bids. But no process can be vouchsafed as analytically au courant when it gives a bid to Tulsa or seeds a team like Oregon State on the No. 7 line. The problem with the RPI is quite simply that it can be gamed.

The Pac-12 did the committee a favor this season by demonstrating how an entire major conference can easily manipulate the numbers through mere scheduling. Tim Miles did the same thing at Colorado State in 2012, but now that a whole league’s shown how simple it is to bend the RPI to your will, the metric’s reign is being threatened by the very fealty that it has come to inspire.

Surely the other five major conferences will follow the Pac-12’s lead (it would be professional malpractice not to), and teams in the bottom fourth of Division I will find that, lo and behold, no one is scheduling them anymore. When an entire swath of D-I comprised of institutions in good standing can no longer play basketball games against major-conference teams, it will finally be time to take stock of what your metric of choice is doing to your sport.

From land line to social media
In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t too many years ago that the NCAA would simply print out its own bracket and send it to newspapers, hoping that some of them might run it the next morning. Now there is a bit more fanfare attached to the bracket’s unveiling, and for that the NCAA is to be congratulated.

But here we are in 2016, and the NCAA thinks it can still print out its bracket and everyone will wait patiently to learn its contents. That antiquated structure of assumptions collapsed rather spectacularly last night. When the bracket leaked I was sitting in a cubicle in Bristol, Connecticut, next to Eamonn Brennan and within earshot of several colleagues. I can attest that the pandemonium triggered by the leak was sudden and total.

The leaked bracket went from a curiosity to a godsend within the span of about four minutes. Professionally speaking, having the entire bracket 45 minutes earlier than I expected was amazing. I almost wept. And after the gratitude there came a question. In the immortal words of our senior class president in his graduation speech, why can’t it be this way forever?

We want to see the bracket as soon as humanly possible. The NCAA and its broadcast partners want good television over a two-hour block of time. Happily these are not irreconcilable desires. Not in the slightest….

From Walter Byers to all of us
The NCAA as we know it was created by and in many ways is still grappling with the legacy of Walter Byers, who served as executive director from 1951 to 1987. Byers was meticulous, controlling, surprisingly irreverent, morbidly secretive, and Midwestern through and through. For years after his retirement the NCAA continued to treat the RPI as a state secret, an unmistakably Byers-esque reflex.

Conversely more recent innovations like the NCAA’s annual mock selection exercise and, especially, moving the men’s basketball committee’s deliberations to New York have reflected a healthy and long overdue sprit of independence from the organization. It is as if the NCAA is at last moving out of the house that Byers built.

This transition will be complete when the NCAA realizes that in 2016 there is no reason at all for it to continue to seed the field and decide where teams will play. The teams can do that for themselves, thank you, and it would make for fantastic hours-long television as the bracket slowly constructed itself.

If you don’t want the bracket to leak again, make it so it can’t possibly leak. Let teams pick their own bid positions with a bracket draft. When the NCAA at long last relinquishes this final Byers-derived measure of centralized command and control, the organization will rightly be said to be all grown up.