Selection committees are college basketball’s original sin.
The first modern postseason tournament was arguably the eight-team National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship Tournament in Kansas City in 1937. It had a selection committee. The following year, the inaugural National Invitation Tournament was held with six teams at Madison Square Garden. It had a selection committee.
Finally, in 1939, due largely to pushing and cajoling by Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen, the NCAA held its first tournament, an eight-team affair that culminated in a championship game in Evanston, Illinois. It had a selection committee.
At least the creators of the NIT had the decency to foreground the subjective nature of the endeavor in their event’s very title. The NCAA tournament has been an invitational now for decades, albeit one with 32 spots reserved for automatic entrants certified by their conferences.
We should learn from and follow through on the example set by these automatic bids. We should make each tournament spot an outcome to be won through unmediated basketball performance instead of a favor to be granted through jury deliberation.
People in the 1930s needed committees to put on these tournaments. We no longer do.
Not only do we not need the committee, continuing to have one at the dawn of the 2020s carries significant opportunity cost in terms of lost energy and excitement during the regular season. We could be having the equivalent of 36 four-month pennant races for each at-large bid. It would be riveting sports theater, and it could start with the first game of the season. Instead, we spend the regular season in a speculative fog until, at last, we’re granted the privilege of sitting passively outside the committee room to await 36 verdicts. Why?
Whether your preferred metric is wins above bubble (WAB), strength of record (SOR), or something similar, any team’s record can be evaluated according to how difficult it would be for other teams to achieve the same result against the same opponents in the same venues. Wins are the key metric, as they should be, and teams can excel whether their schedules turn out to be grueling or unexpectedly soft.
For illustrative purposes, let’s take WAB out for a retrospective spin, courtesy of Bart Torvik’s handy archive. Here’s what one wins-loaded metric would have done with the 2019 NCAA tournament field:
WAB seed Actual seed 1 Duke Auto 1 1 2 Virginia At-large 1 1 3 Michigan State Auto 1 2 4 North Carolina At-large 1 1 5 Tennessee At-large 2 2 6 Michigan At-large 2 2 7 Kentucky At-large 2 2 8 Kansas At-large 2 4 9 Houston At-large 3 3 10 Florida State At-large 3 4 11 LSU At-large 3 3 12 Texas Tech At-large 3 3 13 Gonzaga At-large 4 1 14 Kansas State At-large 4 4 15 Wisconsin At-large 4 5 16 Purdue At-large 4 3 17 Auburn Auto 5 5 18 Cincinnati Auto 5 7 19 Buffalo Auto 5 6 20 Virginia Tech At-large 5 4 21 Mississippi State At-large 6 5 22 Iowa State Auto 6 6 23 Maryland At-large 6 6 24 Wofford Auto 6 7 25 Nevada At-large 7 7 26 Villanova Auto 7 6 27 Iowa At-large 7 10 28 Washington At-large 7 9 29 Marquette At-large 8 5 30 Minnesota At-large 8 10 31 Oklahoma At-large 8 9 32 Louisville At-large 8 7 33 UCF At-large 9 9 34 Utah State Auto 9 8 35 NC State At-large 9 N/A 36 UNC Greensboro At-large 9 N/A 37 Temple At-large 10 11 38 New Mexico State Auto 10 12 39 Belmont At-large 10 11 40 Murray State Auto 10 12 41 VCU At-large 11 8 42 TCU At-large 11 N/A 43 Ole Miss At-large 11 8 44 Baylor At-large 11 9 45 Ohio State At-large 11 11 46 UC Irvine Auto 11 13 47 Florida At-large 12 10 48 Syracuse At-large 12 8 49 Liberty Auto 12 12 50 Saint Mary's Auto 12 11 51 Yale Auto 13 14 52 Vermont Auto 13 13 53 Oregon Auto 13 12 54 Georgia State Auto 13 14 55 Old Dominion Auto 14 14 56 Northern Kentucky Auto 14 14 57 Abilene Christian Auto 14 15 58 Northeastern Auto 14 13 59 Saint Louis Auto 15 13 60 Montana Auto 15 15 61 Colgate Auto 15 15 62 Gardner Webb Auto 15 16 63 Prairie View A&M Auto 16 16 64 Bradley Auto 16 15 65 North Dakota State Auto 16 16 66 Fairleigh Dickinson Auto 16 16 67 Iona Auto 16 16 68 NC Central Auto 16 16
Before we pick this apart like we do with any bracket from anywhere, pause to consider what could be gained from abandoning the jury model entirely and instead using a straight proxy for wins.
The NFL doesn’t have “selection criteria” for its playoffs. It has tiebreakers. We could do that, too. We could have the field of 68 selected the instant the final buzzer sounds in the title game of the last conference tournament. This could be settled on the court instead of in the committee room.
As for our sample 2019 bracket, actual participants Arizona State, Seton Hall, and St. John’s are nowhere to be found. In a WAB world they would have been bumped to make room for NC State, UNC Greensboro, and TCU.
No championing of one team ranked 40-something in the nation over another will ever be winningly conclusive, of course, whether that case is made by the actual committee, a nifty metric, or by a given team’s fans. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is transparency, consistency, and, at long last, real-time standings showing who’s actually in and out from November right through the last game of the last conference tournament.
Note additionally the rough treatment handed out to Gonzaga, bumped all the way down to the No. 4 line. The 2019 Bulldogs were indeed a tough evaluative nut to crack, historically dominant, truly, against the non-SMC WCC but 5-4 against the best that KenPom throws at you (Duke, Tennessee, North Carolina, Baylor, Florida State, Texas Tech, and three games against the Gaels).
Perhaps the larger point raised by Mark Few’s men, however, is that, in straight-playoff no-jury settings, we make room in our psyches every day of the sports week for the team we know is great but that has underperformed slightly during the regular season. Part of why we watch is to see that particular drama unfold in the postseason.
Nor is this some kind of structural measurement feature born of trying to assess the equivalent of Kentucky in a mid-major conference. In fact, if WAB had its way it would have bumped Gonzaga’s actual 2018 No. 4 seed up to a 3.
Indeed, a proxy for wins is kinder to mid-majors than the committee’s been, at least at the level of the bubble. Over the last five years, the method proposed here and actual reality have disagreed on 18 at-large selections. Seeing this glass as half-full, that’s a high degree of agreement (162 of 180 bids). But, if we must focus on contested terrain, 14 of the committee’s 18 preferred teams hailed from the six major conferences. The rest are VCU, Temple, and Tulsa in 2016, and Cincinnati in 2015. (The Golden Hurricane that season were perhaps a particularly adventurous choice.)
A straight win proxy has nothing against major conferences and, in fact, said method would have given the nod to the likes of the Wolfpack and Horned Frogs last year, Nebraska, Marquette, and Louisville in 2018, South Carolina, Florida State, and Florida in 2016, and Miami in 2015. Nevertheless, the four-fifths of Division I below the Pac-12 does fare better with WAB than it has with reality of late. In the alternate reality outlined here, UNC Greensboro last year, Saint Mary’s in both 2018 and 2016, Middle Tennessee in 2018, Illinois State and Monmouth in 2017, Valparaiso in 2016, and Colorado State and Murray State in 2015 would have all gone dancing.
To be sure, the committee’s done a pretty good job all things considered, particularly (go figure) in recent odd-numbered years. Moreover, the straight wins proxy trotted out here agrees with present custom on no fewer than 95 percent of bids and on fully 90 percent of at-large selections over the last five tournaments.
Zeroing in further, the seeding that would result from this type of approach would be within one line of what has actually happened 74 percent of the time. Purely in terms of selection and seeding, moving to a WAB- or SOR-type method would not constitute a revolutionary change.
It would, however, make its impact felt on every aspect of the season before Dayton. Selection would become real-time, and each game’s true impact on the bubble or on the race for the four No. 1 seeds would be known day by day. Conference tournaments in particular would be turbo-charged as we’d know the exact stakes in play and as bids change hands hour by hour.
Then, with the field already selected, Selection Sunday could transcend the mere reading of a static list and instead be as entertaining and unpredictable as an NBA draft. The bracket could build itself before our eyes according to choices made in real time by 68 programs.
Is it better for No. 3 seed Michigan to play in a bracket of death close to home or to head out West to face a more favorable No. 6 seed? Why is a third party making this calculation? Let Juwan Howard decide, and let him do so live on CBS and on the clock.
The NCAA tournament used to be referred to unselfconsciously as “the playoffs,” a turn of phrase that made sense before the mid-1970s when a bid typically entailed winning your conference. This linguistic habit lingered on into the 1980s before falling into desuetude. Perhaps new practices could awaken old phrases.
This week the NET had a bit of a messy rollout, though the problems were mere reporting bugs downstream from an otherwise sound (if needlessly shrouded) algorithm. The technical hiccups of December will be long and properly forgotten come Selection Sunday. Still, NET rollout day, only in its second year, has already become something of an analytic Festivus, and the quadrant system was again roundly abused in the more numerically-inclined corners of the internet.
The abrupt round-number-divisible-by-five cutoffs merit comment, naturally, but, as it happens, I’m done trafficking in this vein of critique. Approaching this as an analytic issue feels like a category error. The NET is fine analytically, and even the bolted-on quadrant chassis is mere superstructure. Conversely, the committee is base. The salient point about a committee selecting teams based on good analytics is that somehow there’s a committee on the loose selecting teams.
At their best, sports are an escape from committees. The NCAA tournament should bid adieu to its committee era and instead serve as the playoffs of college basketball.