On the size, strength, and selection of the field

Where have you gone, Harold Olsen?

Tonight the 2023 NCAA tournament will open with a matchup ranked No. 10 for KenPom Thrill Score on an evening when there are just 10 Division I men’s basketball games being played nationally. March Madness is tipping off with what projects to be the worst game in the country.

Partly this is what transpires (or at least what we expect to transpire) whenever a No. 16 seed’s in action. Actually, the Thrill Scores for Thursday’s 16-vs-1 games are even lower than what we have on tap tonight. But we’re happy to tolerate 16-vs-1 matchups when we have three other simultaneous games from which to choose. Conversely tonight’s opener has the Madness floor to itself.

The number 68 is to blame for this. The number is not especially compatible with a single-elimination format. We can and likely should advance automatic qualifiers straight past Dayton to the round of 64, as is often proposed. Then again the AQ leagues currently recording what are strictly speaking NCAA tournament wins in Dayton aren’t necessarily enamored of that proposal.

Nevertheless, assume for the sake of discussion that Dayton is retrofitted to host nothing but at-larges. Then we would be opening the 2023 NCAA tournament with Mississippi State vs. Pitt, tonight’s No. 1 game in the nation for Thrill Score. This nominal “best” game, however, has earned that distinction by a numerical hair over a virtually identical score posted by Yale vs. Vanderbilt in the NIT.

We can do better. The start of the NCAA tournament can be just as good as Thursday has always been. All we need is a better number than 68. Happily, most even numbers are better than 68.

Start with Utah Valley and Morehead State. By the NCAA’s own articulated standards, the Wolverines and the Eagles should be playing in the 2023 NCAA tournament. After all, when swatting away the latest irruption of bothersome expansion talk, the NCAA’s college basketball correspondent cited “real concerns about devaluing the regular season.”

Amen. We should increase the value of the regular season in a sport where it’s long been functionally irrelevant across three-quarters of D-I. Award bids to outright regular season champions UVU and MSU. Their leagues won round of 64 games last year. Any conference that does so this March should be able to hold the promise of a 2024 bid to any team that can capture the regular season title outright.

Now we’re up to 70, and the field already has a bit more of a mid-major feel. If 70 isn’t any better for a single-elimination format than 68 (and it isn’t), we can address that opportunity by once again steering by the NCAA’s own lights.

In a laudable step toward greater transparency, the NCAA in recent years has identified the first four teams left out of the field. This year those teams were Oklahoma State, Rutgers, North Carolina, and Clemson. Add them, and we have a 74-team field. No mid-majors there, it’s true, but go fight randomness city hall. The bubble itself in 2023 was absolutely dominated on both sides of the 68-team cut line by the ACC.

To take the final step toward a bracket that’s symmetrically tidy, we need just six more teams. Using a purposefully unimaginative NET-SOR blend (one that correlates quite well with seeding for just about all field of 68 teams not named Florida Atlantic), we can identify our last at-large recipients: North Texas, Oregon, Sam Houston State, Michigan, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin.

Do these new at-larges water down the field? Here’s how all 10 would stack up against the last teams in the existing at-large field.

Expanding the 2023 field would have been more of the KenPom same
Last 10 NCAA tournament at-larges vs. 10 expansion candidates

                          KenPom                      KenPom
At-large      Seed list   AdjEM      Expansion        AdjEM  
Boise State      37       +17.13     Oklahoma State   +15.21
Penn State       38       +15.04     Rutgers          +15.77   
USC              39       +15.63     North Carolina   +14.66  
Utah State       40       +18.88     Clemson          +12.67
NC State         41       +13.31     North Texas      +14.68
Providence       42       +14.75     Oregon           +14.84
Miss. State      43       +14.12     Sam Houston      +12.28
Pitt             44       +11.27     Michigan         +14.68
Arizona State    45       +12.38     Vanderbilt       +10.82
Nevada           46       +14.79     Wisconsin        +11.54

AVERAGE                   +14.73                      +13.72

Collectively our 10 expansion teams net out as a hair stronger than NC State. If expansion would be an instance of watering down the field, so too is the inclusion of the Wolfpack. Moreover there are two at-larges in the actual field weaker than NC State.

The mean strength of any feasible at-large expansion contingent is likely to be stronger than the weakest at-large in an existing field due to what this site will henceforth refer to as Olsen’s Law:

The five percent of Division I comprising the entirety of any at-large bubble on either side of the cut line is relatively homogeneous in strength.

Our new Law is named after Harold Olsen, who coached Ohio State from 1923 to 1946 and was instrumental in founding the NCAA tournament. Olsen was a visionary who, if we could teleport him to 2023, would not bother with “Quad 1 wins” and other such evaluative fictions.

Using ersatz chintz like “Quad 1 wins” to muddy readily observed reality is what happens when a 1960s process is preserved into the 2020s. It is odd that we still use a committee to do this. It exacts a tremendous and needless toll on the regular season. It is not, however, entirely the NCAA’s fault. If we are not literally all to blame, then all of us who love the sport are at least unindicted co-conspirators.

One of the underrated spectatorial delights of Champ Week is seeing the most highly knowledgeable men and women in the field fulminate in high moral dudgeon about which teams should and should not play in the NCAA tournament. Or eavesdropping on social media as crafters of mock brackets confer with the hard-earned knowledge of seasoned practitioners on the difference between this year’s No. 4 and 5 lines. We are used to doing this. I do it too. We’ve never known another way. And it’s all at odds with sports as that term is commonly understood.

In sports we set out conditions of winning beforehand and then watch to see what happens. We can do that in our sport tomorrow with a simple win proxy. Then we would have a real bracket every day of the season starting in November. The committee, however, is not the only group that loves sitting in Olympian after-the-fact judgment. We all do it every March. It’s fun. Possibly there will be even more fun awaiting when we watch an entire season knowing the actual real-time stakes in every game.