The trouble with committees

Until last night, you could subscribe to a Whig history of NCAA tournament selection and seeding even if you doubted the wisdom of using a committee for that process. Yes, the history ran, there was a bad three-letter sorting metric in the old days, but now there’s a sound three-letter sorting metric.

The committee appeared to be growing more savvy. See? the committee would say. You don’t need to replace us with the wealth of insightful metrics of the 2020s. We love them! We use them and we know how to step in when one metric disagrees with another. You need us.

Then last night happened. The trend up until this year had been to put together the top of the bracket in a manner that year by year was becoming progressively more aware of measures of team strength. Then, down at the cut line, measures of win value would make the tough decisions.

It didn’t work out that way in 2022. A stronger team was given a No. 3 seed at the expense of a weaker team’s spot on the No. 2 line. At the at-large cutoff, bids and one near-invite (that would have been actual had there not been a bid thief in the Atlantic 10) were awarded like golden tickets at the Wonka factory. The reason cited was good wins.


“Good” wins really should matter, so maybe use measures of good wins
Strength of record, KPI, wins above bubble

                         SOR    KPI    WAB   
Bid                       54     63     61
First team out            58     67     67

No bid                    37     53     44
No bid                    49     47     40


Strength of record and KPI are on the committee’s team sheets. Wins above bubble isn’t, but it’s a valuable independent check of the other two.

Most Division I teams don’t have the opportunity to host seven NET top-40 opponents at their home arena. Most D-I teams don’t chance to run across a soon-to-be No. 1 seed in a November tournament.

Smart people have worked hard for years on how best to accommodate these highly foreseeable and not very daunting facts. Those people have come up with some remarkably useful solutions. But when it matters most at the cut line, the committee elects to look past that work in favor of what 12 people might come up with over a few hours.

People yelled at the committee in real time last night in the belief that Sunday time pressures must have caused these decisions. No, knowledgable analysts said, that is not really the case.

In a larger sense, however, a debilitating imbalance in time invested is exactly the problem and precisely why we are right to be unhappy with this selection. We live our basketball lives with the information produced by years of effort only to see it pushed aside “in the room,” one all-powerful, aberrant, opaque, intrinsically idiosyncratic conference room.

So, no, the Whig history of the committee no longer holds. Instead we appear to have entered what may be called the late committee era. Next year teams with low numbers across the board will have a precedent to work from and will quite rightly indulge in whataboutism when they’re left out. It will be a perfectly just complaint, one that had no grounds before 2022.

Last night was a step back. It may be best to leave the 1960s process behind at last and use a better way.