Even good math’s downstream from the big decisions

Bubas

(Photo: Tony Triolo, Getty)

When the first preliminary reports reached Winston Churchill regarding the as yet unconfirmed death of his longtime political rival, Stanley Baldwin, he is reputed to have said: “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea! Take no chances!”

Which brings me to the Ratings Percentage Index.

Putting the haplessly erratic RPI out to pasture is long overdue, of course, but, since it hasn’t happened yet, the NCAA voicing a likelihood of doing so by 2018-19 is quite plainly an occasion for genuine, if watchful and conditional, celebration.

In 2012, fresh from the outstanding mock selection exercise that the NCAA runs annually, I speculated that the reason the knowledgeable, diligent, and inquisitive men and women in Indianapolis hadn’t already cast off the RPI’s deleterious cognitive shackles could only have been simple organizational inertia. Decry that inertia if you wish, but don’t wax superior about it. This, surely, is an affliction visited upon us all, varying only in its extent. (I will grant you this was one pretty extreme case.)

Triumphing over such inertia is no small feat, and indeed in recent years the NCAA’s shown a highly commendable willingness to experiment and tinker with the nuts and bolts of its cash-cow sport. In matters both large (the 30-second shot clock) and small (moving the basketball committee’s deliberations from Indianapolis to New York; trying a new bracket preview in February), the NCAA’s proven to be curious, nimble, and purposeful. In the world of mass-spectator sport stewardship, those are unusual qualities to say the least.

Where will these qualities be brought to bear next? Concomitant with (provisionally) sunsetting the RPI, the NCAA’s redefining what it means to record a quote-unquote quality win. Henceforth the team sheets that the committee uses will reflect the fact that it’s as tough or tougher to beat a so-so opponent on the road than it is to defeat a very good opponent at home.

Acknowledging the known realities of the sport in the information you give to a selection and seeding committee is a good thing. Yes, the continuing round-numberism inherent in defining a quality win as a road victory against a top-“number divisible by five” opponent is troublesome, even if we get to a point where the number is actually accurate. Bear in mind this whole notion of looking at a team’s record vs. top-X opponents was originally the brainchild of Vic Bubas (pictured above, on the right, after his Duke team had won the 1963 East regional final).

Some people in coverage- and data-rich 2017 seem to like following in the narrowly circumscribed path Bubas was forced to blaze in an information economy of severe scarcity, one where he couldn’t even see the games played by many of the teams he was obliged to evaluate. That’s fine! Others will prefer a somewhat more era-appopriate and less stochastic approach. That’s fine, too. (Confession: I never once looked at a team sheet in my mock selection.)

The NCAA, thank goodness, doesn’t require methodological uniformity from its committee members. The deliverable for each individual member is not adherence to one evaluative procedure, persuasive advocacy, or even one participant’s version of a complete bracket. Just trackpad clicks and, eventually, assent to the bracket that’s thereby been cumulatively built.

So, yes, giving those trackpad-clicking committee members better information on their team sheets is a positive development. Still, the weightiest variables in that sentence are not “better information” or “team sheets.” The one-word base here that sets the agenda for the subsequent superstructure is of course “committee.”

If one were to revisit the unstated structural givens of mandatory-amateurism-era college basketball in order of importance, the hierarchy might look something like this:

  1. Vouchsafing 350-odd teams as eligible
  2. Awarding the championship based on a 68-team single-elimination tournament
  3. Giving the programs themselves the ability to schedule roughly 35 percent of their own opponents as they see fit
  4. Selecting and seeding the 68 tournament teams with a committee
  5. Charging the committee not only with evaluating basketball performance but also with favoring some scheduling decisions at the expense of others

I suspect Nos. 1 and 2 can win reaffirmation by a mere show of hands. As for Nos. 3 and, especially, 5, well….

Instead of framing this matter of schedule-based variability purely as a pitched battle between good math (yay, KenPom) and bad (boo, RPI), maybe we could address the schedule itself…At root, maybe this is just a collective-action problem.

I know, I know. Whenever the idea of making non-conference schedules less boring comes up, it is said that this is mere reckless utopianism.

Well, maybe it is. Maybe the sport that already determines which players are and are not eligible, the rules of the game, and the cups that are allowed to be used on press row during the tournament cannot possibly do…what just about every other mass-spectator sport in the world does — create and announce the schedule that every team will play.

So be it, but in the meantime Nos. 3 and 5 arguably land us in the least desirable cell in this particular two-by-two matrix. We say to coaches in effect, “Schedule however you want, and then we will judge you by your decisions.” It would be cleaner to say either, “Here’s your schedule” (why are we trying to remedy boring non-conference schedules at one remove?), or, “Schedule however you want, and then we will focus exclusively on how well you played basketball against your schedule.” Conversely if we decide to carry on with Nos. 3 and 5, let’s at least affirm our intention to do so. I suspect we’ve landed here incrementally (nudged along by ex post facto justifications for what turned out to be a schedule-obsessed and performance-thin RPI) and without prior intention.

Lastly, there is No. 4. The at-large-era NCAA tournament of course dates from a time when selecting and seeding a field of teams required physically gathering a committee of people together and having them set to work. The fact that in 2017 these people not only still gather but even do so under an elaborate form of sequestration might fairly be termed the last gasp of Walter Byers-brand needlessly furtive cloak-and-daggerism in the modern NCAA.

Why are we still doing it this way? You certainly don’t need a committee in 2018 for bracketing (why not let the teams balance considerations of travel and opponent strength as they see fit in a suspense-laden and made-for-televising bracket draft?), and you may not need one for selection and seeding either. For the purposes of its men’s singles bracket Wimbledon did away with human committee members entirely 15 years ago, and ever since the field’s been seeded by published and transparent math. The world has continued to spin.

Leaving it to the laptops isn’t the only option, of course (even Wimbledon still uses humans to review what the formulae hath wrought for the women’s singles draw), but one big advantage to going that route — one hinted at by the NCAA itself with its February “Selection Saturday” preview — is that the news of who is selected and where they are seeded is, in effect, revealed in real time and not all at once on Selection Sunday. The eternal lament of the bubble team coach who just misses the cut, that the process itself is maddeningly opaque and subjective, would be not so much negated as spread thin(ner) across time.

True, there is drama in that big reveal on Sunday night, and drama is fun. Maybe our need for such shock and awe could henceforth be sated by a bracket draft, one where we roundly abuse coaches instead of committee members for their egregiously unwise decisions.

The alternative is what we have. If you put eight or so people in a room and give them a responsibility as large as selecting and seeding a field of 68 teams for an event whose broadcast rights run into the billions of dollars, there will be an eruption of controversy. (In fact 2017 was pretty controversy-light, relatively speaking, and even it had Wichita State’s Incredibly Incorrect Seed.) Most crucially, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think who those people are — be they “basketball people,” analytically savvy, analytically agnostic, or anything else. The salient facts about those people are their number and the scale of the task before them, period.

We care passionately about what those people decide because, of course, the game itself continues to delight us. The NCAA’s presiding over a sport that’s scoring more points than it has in years, thanks, I dare say, to decisions made in Indianapolis that at the time faced no shortage of criticism and nay-sayers. So file all of the above as an attaboy (albeit somewhat qualified), for I have only encouragement to offer. The same laudable pragmatic spirit that shortened the shot clock and is at last easing the RPI toward the Burmese tiger trap it has richly deserved for so long should now be directed toward progressively more fundamental matters — see Nos. 3 through 5, above. Keep going, NCAA.