The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Is Continuing Its Pursuit Of A Perfect Bracketing System
Changes are coming to the NCAA Tournament selection process, and it will have a significant impact on mid-major conferences, like the Mountain West.
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Why recent NCAA Tournament selection changes will impact the Mountain West
The men’s basketball selection committee announced Friday that major adjustments to the selection process will arrive as early as the 2017-18 season. In an effort to differentiate road, neutral and home results, team sheets will now weigh these matchups uniquely. Team sheets are used by the selection committee to help compare teams based on their head-to-head results, which include quality wins, bad losses, schedule strength, and other metrics.
In previous seasons, and as long as team sheets have existed, results were recorded in four columns: wins/losses against teams ranked 1-50, 51-100, 101-200, and 201-351. Though simplicity was likely the main incentive behind this method, it improperly weighed home, road and neutral results equally. In any sport, especially college basketball, the advantage of playing at home is vastly different than in a road or neutral environment.
Fortunately, the selection committee has turned its attention to this issue. The new column designations on team sheets, which now better indicate the weight of game results, are below.
First Column: Home games against teams ranked 1-30, neutral games against teams ranked 1-50, and road games against teams ranked 1-75
Second Column: Home games against teams ranked 31-75, neutral games against teams ranked 51-100, and road games against teams ranked 76-135
Third Column: Home games against teams ranked 76-160, neutral games against teams ranked 101-200, and road games against teams ranked 136-240
Fourth Column: Home games against teams ranked 161-351, neutral games against teams ranked 201-351, and road games against teams ranked 241-351
The move is especially important for the Mountain West, which is one of just two conferences that has ranked in the top 10 in home win percentage in league play each season since 2015. The home team has amassed a win-loss record of 191-106 (64.3%) over the three-year span. With constant conference play attrition, an added boost from non-conference neutral and road victories could do wonders for the MWC’s tournament aspirations.
Mid-major conferences, such as the Mountain West, thrive off quality non-conference road victories. The selection committee has had a history of snubbing teams from lesser conferences if their team sheets did not include games on the road against strong teams. In 2015, Colorado State finished the regular season with a 27-6 record and RPI of 34, but a soft non-conference slate that had the Rams leave their home state just once did not convince the committee that CSU deserved to receive a tournament bid.
San Diego State’s 2016 season ended with a similar fate, where the Aztecs came up short on Selection Sunday with a 25-9 record and the 30th best RPI in the country. SDSU had just two true non-conference road games – a loss at Utah and a win over mediocre Long Beach State. The Aztecs’ neutral matchups against California and West Virginia would both qualify as “category one” results under the new team sheet system.
In recent years, the Mountain West has had as much trouble scheduling these “category one” and “category two” matchups as it has had winning these games. Non-power conferences have struggled to schedule the nation’s top teams because power conference squads don’t want to run the risk of losing to lesser teams. UNLV, because of its national brand, has had the most success piecing together quality schedules, though a rebuild from the past season hasn’t allowed the Rebels to be all that competitive on the floor. The Nevada Wolf Pack are an up-and-comer thanks to Eric Musselman’s quick turnaround, but power conference teams are now hesitant to play Nevada because of the possibility of damaging their own team sheets. It’s a continuous cycle that presents a major challenge for teams that are looking to avoid schedules like Colorado State’s in 2017. The Rams’ non-conference schedule included two non-Division I teams and five teams that finished 200th or worse in KenPom’s rankings.
According to KenPom, the Mountain West ranks 15th among 32 conferences in non-conference strength of schedule over the past three seasons. In that same three-year span, the MWC has punched just five tournament bids – the worst three-year total in Mountain West history. The conference, as a whole, has mightily struggled in non-conference road games in recent years as well.
Even with these much-needed changes, the process remains imperfect. Categorizing matchups values the result of playing, for example, the 100th ranked team and 101st ranked team, radically different. Defeating the 100th ranked team, on paper, equates to a “solid win” in the second team sheet column. However, if another squad beat a team ranked 101st, that result would show up in the third column, a victory that would not move the needle on Selection Sunday. Even if a committee member is completely aware of the 100th and 101st rankings, the column separation is enough for just about any human to process the results differently.
Another issue with the team sheets is game location. Though a game may show up on the team sheet as a neutral victory, if a team is playing in arena down the highway with a 95% home crowd, it’s unfair to the opponent to record the game as a neutral matchup. This was the case in both of Kansas’ “neutral wins” over UAB and Georgia last November. The Sprint Center hosted the two matchups in Kansas City, which is located just 45 minutes from KU’s Allen Fieldhouse. The Sprint Center is 746 miles from UAB’s Bartow Arena (Birmingham, Alabama) and 858 miles from Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum (Athens, Georgia). The games were presented as neutral matchups on paper, however.
Again, the process isn’t perfect and it never will be. The committee is intelligent enough to point out the aforementioned flaws during discussion, but the team sheet visuals can be unintentionally persuasive. Luckily, for the Mountain West and mid-majors alike, placing a greater importance on winning away from home is a step towards ensuring that the nation’s best 68 teams are in the tournament field every March.