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Behind closed doors

Tournament selection process has a few surprises

Posted: Tuesday March 8, 2005 12:33PM; Updated: Wednesday March 9, 2005 12:00PM
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Wayne Simien
Wayne Simien and the Jayhawks are the No. 1 team in the RPI, but that's not the RPI number the committee will look at when considering Kansas.
AP

Embracing the revolutionary logic that the best way to counter misinformation is to provide better information, the NCAA's Greg Shaheen visited the Sports Illustrated offices last week to give a presentation on the tournament selection process. Even for those of us who have already read the fine print on how the committee does its work, there were a few surprises, as well as some intriguing nuances that will face this year's group when it convenes in Indianapolis this weekend. Herewith, then, are a few things Shaheen revealed that you might not have realized about the selection:

1. The RPI matters a lot. Just not in the way you think it does.

I keep hearing all these fulminating bloviators in the media skewering the new RPI, which gives extra weight to road games. The RPI is fun to bash, but unlike that other computerized formula that really does deserve bashing -- the BCS -- the RPI makes sense and is used properly.

The bottom line is, a team's ranking in the RPI means next to nothing. Just because Miami of Ohio is 28 and Notre Dame is 75 doesn't necessarily mean Miami's chances of getting in are better. When the committee evaluates a team, it is shown a "team sheet" listing a school's schedule according to opponents' RPI rankings. The results are divided into five groups: 1-25 in the RPI, 26-50, 51-75, 76-100 and 101-plus. Shaheen showed UConn's team sheet from last season. The Huskies' non-conference games were highlighted in turquoise, so we could see what kind of effort Jim Calhoun made to play a respectable schedule. I'm not sure if UConn's RPI was on that sheet -- if it was I didn't notice.

I'm sorry to break this bad news to my fellow medianiks out there, but the reality is, the RPI is a smart organizational tool used in exactly the right fashion. But hey, don't despair. College football season is only six months away. There's plenty of BCS bashing on the horizon.

2. Margin of victory does count. Sort of.

The selection committee discerns the difference between a good loss and a bad loss, and Shaheen conceded that margin of victory plays a part. Thus, Vermont's seven-point loss at Kansas on Nov. 19 is a good loss.

This is a tricky game to play, but at least the committee has not incorporated victory margins into RPI. The Sagarin ratings, however, do factor in margin of victory. That's why the Sagarin rankings are different, and in my opinion, far less reliable.

3. You can expect at least one No. 1 seed to face a homecourt disadvantage in a regional.

This is always a bone of contention among coaches, but the fact is, you can't make everyone happy. This year's regionals are Chicago, Austin, Syracuse and Albuquerque. Right now, you have two ACC teams, North Carolina and Wake Forest, in good position to be No. 1 seeds. You also have two Big East teams, UConn and Boston College, looking like No. 2 seeds. There's a good chance one of those Big East teams will end up in Syracuse, where they'll have a perceived homecourt advantage. Likewise, there's a good chance that Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Texas Tech could end up in Austin.

When I raised this point to Shaheen, he said the committee's responsibility is to place teams as close to their home base as possible -- but only for the first round. If one of the above scenarios comes to pass, you can bet it will be a topic of conversation.

4. The so-called S curve is not set in stone.

You may not realize this, but the committee ranks the entire field 1 through 65. (The NCAA does not reveal these rankings, which I think is silly.) After the first four seeds are placed in a line, the team ranked No. 5 overall is placed as the No. 2 seed alongside the fourth No. 1. No. 6 gets paired with No. 3, and right on down the line. This S curve continues until the bracket is filled.

However, there are so many other variables involved, the committee needs some flexibility. The most important thing is to keep the four regions as balanced as possible, so each team can be moved up or down one seed-line if need be. So because a team is a No. 5 seed in its region and another team is a No. 6, doesn't mean that the five was ranked ahead of the six in the overall seeding. All the more reason why the committee should release its full rankings so an accurate evaluation can be made.

5. Head-to-head matchups mean something.

If the committee is trying to decide between, say, West Virginia and Notre Dame, it can ask for a "head-to-head report." This shows not only how the teams did when they played each other (Notre Dame beat the Mountaineers 70-57 in Morgantown in their only regular-season meeting), but also how they did against common opponents. I would have thought this type of information would only be necessary when filling out the final spot in the bracket, but there are plenty of times during the selection and seeding process where that kind of information would come in handy. Score this a victory for plain logic!

6. The committee members and NCAA staff are free to do their own investigating.

A common refrain among non-major schools is that it's hard to upgrade schedules because power conferences won't play them. Shaheen said the NCAA urges teams to "tell their story," but that doesn't mean those stories are taken at face value. The NCAA can ask a team who it tried to schedule, but will call up the teams named by that school to verify that claim.

7. It's possible -- but not automatic -- that two of the top three ACC teams will be sent to Charlotte for the first two rounds.

Since the "pod" system was implemented in 2002 the NCAA has never sent two No. 1 seeds to a first round site. The committee strives to put at least one marquee team at every site, so if two ACC teams are No. 1 seeds, it's possible only one would get sent to Charlotte. However, if Duke is a No. 2 seed, there's no way the Blue Devils could land in Charlotte if either North Carolina or Wake Forest were sent somewhere else.

8. The committee spends "zero time" setting up intriguing matchups.

If you see, say, Texas Tech and Indiana set up to play each other in the second round, it's not because the committee wanted to see Bob Knight take on his erstwhile employer. Not only is setting up matchups not in the selection guidelines, but according to Shaheen, the group is so pressed for time to get its work done it can't afford to waste precious minutes looking for subplots.

9. Technically speaking, the number of teams per conference means nothing.

If, say, the committee is trying to decide between Georgetown and UCLA, it is not supposed to take into account whether selecting the Hoyas would give eight teams to the Big East and leave the Pac-10 with three. I use hedge words like "technically" and "supposedly," because I asked a former committee member last week whether he ever factored into his mind how many teams were getting bids from the power conferences. "You bet your ass," he replied.

10. The committee is constantly tweaking its process to find improvements and smooth out rough edges.

I never knew this, but the morning of the national championship game, the committee holds an "alumni breakfast," where people who have served in the past join the current group to discuss the process and ways to improve it. Shaheen said during this breakfast the idea was first broached to use a "pod" system that gives the committee the flexibility to keep more teams close to home. That idea came after Maryland was sent to Boise for its first-round games, and then after flying home had to fly back west for a Sweet 16 game.

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