Finally, discussing the shape of the tournament field has brought to the surface foundational assumptions on how we should go about doing men’s Division I college basketball as a whole. Not merely the postseason, mind you, but the whole ball of wax, from November through the first Monday in April.
In particular, the belief that putting more teams into the bracket would by definition cheapen the regular season appears to have attained the status of conventional wisdom. In this line of thinking “there are real concerns about devaluing the regular season, and frankly, there aren’t many more deserving teams.”
Whenever the powers that be talk gravely about devaluing the regular season, that sound you hear is 78 percent of D-I bursting into laughter. For teams in 26 of our 32 leagues, the regular season tends to be an afterthought while the conference tournament is most often everything. Ask last year’s outright champions of Conference USA and the Missouri Valley about “devaluing the regular season.”
[NOTE: This was posted three hours before the NCAA Division I transformation committee published its recommendation to create larger championship fields.]
When expanding the NCAA tournament to 64 teams was first discussed seriously in 1981, NCAA men’s basketball committee chair Dave Gavitt made plain that he was opposed to the proposal. “I am personally very much against expansion,” he said that year. “I’m prepared to speak against it. I’m prepared to vote against it. Whether I have the prevailing opinion, I don’t know.”
Gavitt did not have the prevailing opinion. Two years later when it appeared increasingly likely that expansion would be approved, he sought to make the best of the situation. “I’m not anti-64,” Gavitt said. “But I am greatly concerned about what it will do to the quality of in-season play. It scares the hell out of me.” Nevertheless, the NCAA men’s basketball committee approved the 64-team field by an 8-to-1 vote on December 3, 1983. Gavitt’s was the lone vote in opposition.
The field expanded to 65 in 2001, but basically the tournament retained its essential structure for a quiet quarter of a century. Then expansion reared its head once again in the 2009-10 season, at least topically. Retired head coach Bob Knight made headlines that December not only by questioning the “integrity” of a certain unnamed head coach recently hired at Kentucky but also by coming out against all this talk he and everyone else was suddenly hearing about a 96-team bracket.
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.
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.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and the Badgers are currently being projected as an NCAA tournament No. 3 seed by the bracket hive mind. Greg Gard’s team has achieved this lofty status in spite of the fact that this very same group barely cracks the top 30 at KenPom and, indeed, has outscored its Big Ten opponents by an average of just 0.6 points per game over the course of 11 outings.
What can account for this disparity? Start with the usual February suspects, such as Wisconsin’s almost Providence-like wizardry in close games. The Badgers are 12-1 in contests decided by single digits, with the only close loss coming at the hands of the aforementioned clutch Friars.
It is also the case, however, that Johnny Davis and his mates are actively and wantonly deceiving our eyes. When you watch a Wisconsin game or when a studio analyst breaks down some UW half-court sequences at the intermission, it’s possible that neither of you will remark upon the fact that Gard’s charges recorded hardly any turnovers. Yet that very fact is a significant ingredient in how the sausage gets made in Madison. The Badgers own the lowest turnover rate of any major-conference team in league play, and that allows them to attempt an exceptionally high number of shots.
On this day 25 years ago, the word “bracketologist” was used in print for quite possibly the first time. Mike Jensen dropped the neologism into a Philadelphia Inquirer article that ran on February 25, 1996.
The NCAA had just suspended Villanova star Kerry Kittles for three games for unauthorized use of a university credit card number. “You wouldn’t know anything is different if you came to watch practice for the first time,” Wildcats coach Steve Lappas was quoted as saying in that day’s Inquirer. The only difference, the coach said, was that now Kittles was “wearing a white shirt instead of a blue.”
Lappas was striking a nonchalant note, but the concern around the program was that, without Kittles on the floor, Villanova could lose what had been shaping up to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jensen speculated that the spot on the top line might now be given to Connecticut instead.
But how could anyone in 1996 game out what losing Kittles for three games might do to the Wildcats’ seeding? And what did the tournament chances look like for Philadelphia’s other programs in late February?
Everyone says ritually that “Chris Beard’s doing a heck of a job,” and that he’s in line, should he wish, for a gig with any of the bluest of the blue-chips when those opportunities avail themselves. Everyone’s exactly right, just not necessarily, in 2021, for the reasons everyone’s saying.
A traditional video search of half-court sets for the heck of a job that Beard’s doing, for example, will by itself prove insufficient. This particular Texas Tech team can’t throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat and in fact can be found down in the 200s nationally for effective field goal percentage.
Likewise, the vaunted no-middle defense in Lubbock has this season become the no-misses D. The Big 12’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc against these guys. Yes, that’s mostly outside of the Red Raiders’ control, and, no, that level of accuracy’s not likely to continue. It’s just tough to name streets after a defense that’s clocking in right at its league’s average in conference play while down the road in Waco another D entirely is, when it gets to play, appointment viewing for the hoops gods.
Writing about basketball feels frivolous at the moment. Writing about basketball has always felt a bit frivolous upon reflection. It is frivolous.
The far more typical case has always been that people have to do true, exhausting, unceasing, and often hazardous work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Certainly my ancestors did. If I didn’t know that before, I understand it much better now.
With the fortuitous alignment of my dad’s retirement years, advancing technology, and my mother-in-law’s mastery of ancestry.com, there’s been an explosion in the field of Gasaway genealogy of late. I’ve learned enough as a student there to know that my tough and persistent yet sporadically educated forebears are looking down on me right now and saying, “He seems nice, but what is it he does again?” I know, ancestors, I know.
In the past, I’ve wondered aloud if we in this profession, perhaps unconsciously, finesse this sea change by seizing a vocabulary of terms from things that do matter — “existential crisis,” for example, is a hardy sports perennial — and smuggling those signifiers into our particular toy department. Maybe we do this because we do, in fact, recognize the frivolity. Continue reading →
Recently I dropped in on a Division II practice and spoke with an analytically woke head coach who had two urgent messages for me. First, shot volume is great. Second, what happened to Tuesday Truths?
Let’s focus on that first highly perceptive part. Shot volume is just one half (how often you shoot) of one half (offense) of basketball, but it is, by far, the 25 percent of the sport that garners the least attention. It is this imbalance in explanatory bandwidth and not any silver-bullet features of the metric itself that is unfortunate. (It is no silver bullet. Ask Notre Dame.)
If you want to know how it’s possible, nay conceivable, that Illinois (still!) might wear home uniforms in its first-round NCAA tournament game despite being the least accurate team from the field in Big Ten play, our good friend X’s and O’s can’t solve that riddle alone. An awareness of shot volume can help.
As always, one of the most intriguing takeaways from these numbers is how the hoops gods seriously do not give a flying fig how you get the job done. Shot volume’s a stylistic buffet, and everyone’s invited. Whether you love offensive rebounds or choose to fear them the way early civilizations dreaded mirrors and solar eclipses, the bottom line on volume can turn out exactly the same…. Continue reading →
This is a piece about postseason bids, and this is not a picture of athletic directors in a conference room. It is instead a picture of people happy about their team. (startribune.com)
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. Continue reading →