The selection process for the NCAA tournament predates the shot clock and the three-point line. While the members of the NCAA men’s basketball committee are conscientious and, happily, they now have a wealth of insightful data at their fingertips, selection still comes down to 12 people going into a room and making a bracket.
It’s remarkable that we still do it this way. Someday we’ll look back on the committee era and marvel that a 1960s-vintage process survived as long as it did.
Instead of creating a bracket in March, the men’s basketball committee should convene in May or June or July and make a completely team-blind determination of how the tournament field will be selected and seeded. The committee will then sit back and let the season select its own postseason field.
Whether the committee chooses to select and seed the field according to this set of metrics or that one will be a weighty matter for the men and women charged with making the decision. That importance, however, is likely to be overstated and ultimately misconstrued by two otherwise dissimilar populations of onlookers.
On the one hand, there will be wariness voiced about entrusting the NCAA tournament field to “computers.” Yet the computers will simply carry out whatever orders the committee chooses to issue. The committee will continue to select and seed the field. The only change will be that they’ll do so in advance and in a team-blind fashion.
Rather than a choice between humans and laptops, tournament selection’s a question of how we humans are going to go about creating a bracket. Doing so in a transparent manner that’s agreed upon in advance and that can be followed in real time from November to March will have enormous benefits for the regular season and particularly for conference tournaments.
On the other hand, analytically minded lovers of the game who cut their teeth in the RPI era may be inclined to seek the perfectly constructed bracket and find fault with the new a priori selection method adopted by the committee. Naturally, the process by which the field is determined is fair game for criticism, and that process should be reviewed and, if need be, refined with each successive selection.
But at the end of the day the task facing the men’s basketball committee is less analytical than it is political. There is no perfectly constructed bracket, just as there are no perfectly just postseason fields in sports with traditional playoff schemes. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and seeking justice in procedures rather than in outcomes is perhaps the best we can do. Any selection method that wins the preseason assent of a sufficient number of stakeholders will, procedurally speaking, be a good method.
Any such method will for the most part merely confirm what we think we already know with regard to the eight or 12 or 16 strongest teams in the country. Any such method will have to make tough at-large decisions at the cut line that will always be open to question. And any such method will be vastly superior to the archaic, idiosyncratic, and needlessly opaque jury-and-verdict model of selection.
Win proxies such as wins above bubble and strength of record, for example, already do what the committee is asked to do in the room. Such metrics weigh the value of each win and loss. In truth, win proxies are far better at that than we humans are because, unlike us, they pay equal attention to every game played by every team over the course of the entire season.
NCAA partner Google can create an entirely new win proxy based on Google’s own NET rankings. The new metric can be tweaked and flavored to whatever specifications the committee desires, and it can be named more imaginatively than “NET.” Name it after John Thompson or Dean Smith or some other deserving giant of the game. (Name it after Jim Van Valkenburg.) Then turn it loose.
With the committee doing its work before the season, we will have a complete NCAA tournament bracket every day starting with the first games in November. That bracket will look crazy at first, as mid-majors pull upsets on the road in their first games and appear as No. 1 seeds for a day or two before Thanksgiving. These fleeting moments atop the bracket will mint Cinderellas in November.
Having a real bracket will add news hooks right from the start of the season. The streaks, pinnacles, and droughts that have long been lovingly tracked with regard to the AP poll will now play out within actual NCAA brackets as well. How many different No. 1 seeds will there be in a normal season between November and March? What will that answer be in a crazy year of rampant parity? What wlll be the fastest and most dramatic rise into or fall out of the field of 68 in post-committee history?
Most of all, having a real bracket will electrify the days in early March devoted to conference tournaments. We’ve grown accustomed to these tournaments being played in a speculative fog. A team loses and the announcer says, “And now, the wait begins. It’s going to be a nervous few days until Selection Sunday.”
Why wait? With a real-time bracket, that team will know its fate the entire time. Even inactive teams will see their fates change, as other shocks and upsets happen at the cut line. The field will change daily right up to the end, and it will be incredible theater because we’ll have precisely the knowledge we’ve always been denied up to now. We will know who is in and who is out.
The selection show could be expanded to a true bracket draft furnishing better drama than announcers sitting in a studio and reading a list. Teams will be on the clock to select their region and potential opponents. Dan Gavitt will step up to the podium in front of a raucous crowd at Hinkle Fieldhouse and announce each pick. “With the third pick in the 2022 Bracket Draft, Team X selects the West Region.” The bracket will build itself on live TV.
If we were starting the NCAA tournament from scratch today, we would not put 12 people in a room to create the field. Custom and inertia have bequeathed this method. In matters both great and small, the last 40 years of NCAA history have effectively come down to that organization’s apparently slow yet ultimately successful efforts to transcend custom and inertia. The NCAA will do so here, too. When they do, it will be a good day for not only the tournament but for the entire sport of college basketball.