Lessons from a mock tournament selection, Big 12's move, more
An expansion of the NCAA field would leave it with more mediocre teams
This will not be a good year for mid-majors in the NCAA tournament selection
News on the coaching carousel, Duke's shooting woes and more thoughts
I was among the lucky members of the media who participated in the mock selection exercise at the NCAA's Indianapolis headquarters last week. (You can view the bracket we put together here.) The session was instructive, informative, and just plain fun, but while I took a lot away from the experience there is one important, overriding point I would like to make specifically to the NCAA's men's basketball committee.
Do. Not. Expand.
I'm sure you've heard about the crusade led by coaches such as Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt to get more teams into the NCAA tournament. Their central argument is that, aside from the addition of the opening round game in 2001, the tournament has not expanded since it went to 64 teams in 1985. But when you actually sit down, crunch the numbers and try to find 34 teams deserving of an at-large bid, the problem isn't that you have too many good teams to choose from. The problem is you don't have nearly enough. As you look at all the résumés, all you can see are warts.
Andy Glockner hit it right on the head: There are simply too many mediocre teams already in position for at-large bids to open up spaces for even more mediocre teams. Here are the last at-large invitees that the other members of the "committee" and I put into the field: South Carolina, UNLV, Davidson, Siena. We had to hold our noses as we voted them in. Our first teams out: Kentucky, San Diego State, Wisconsin (before the Badgers beat Ohio State) and Michigan. Are you telling me this tournament would be demonstrably better if those teams were in the field?
The real reason people like Boeheim and Hewitt want to expand is to save coaches' jobs. Believe me, I am very sympathetic to the pressure these guys are under to make the tournament, but that is not enough reason to dilute the field. One of the expansion models being circulated would add three more opening round games, but who do you think would compete in those games? Would it be the Kentucky and Wisconsins of the world? Or would it be the Morgan States and Belmonts? We all know the answer to that.
Making it even more difficult for mid-majors to gain access to the tournament would not just be an injustice to teams that are already having a hard time getting a fair shake. It would be bad for the sport. People don't just watch the NCAA tournament to see a champion crowned. They want to see Cinderellas.
Bottom line: If it ain't broke, don't expand it.
Here are a few other observations I took from the mock selection exercise:
When I get my copy of the bracket for CBS' selection show (usually 10-20 minutes before the show begins), one of the first things I look for is a situation where a lower-seeded team will have a geographic "home-court" advantage over a higher-seeded team. The committee gives preferential treatment to the higher seeds, but these situations are unavoidable. The weakest parts of the country this season are the West and the South. Ironically, those are the teams most likely to benefit in these scenarios.
Here's what I mean. Miami is one of the eight first-round sites, but since there were so few highly seeded teams from the south on our board, there were still plenty of openings for that destination by the time we got to Florida State. Thus, even though the Seminoles are seeded sixth, they would have a home-court advantage over third-seeded Memphis if they reached the second round. (And don't think John Calipari wouldn't let everyone know about it.) South Carolina, an 11-seed, would probably have more fans in the arena than No. 6 Ohio State, since it's easier for the Gamecocks' fans to get to Miami than those from the Buckeye state.
Out West, there are two first-round sites, Boise and Portland. We sent Washington and Boise State to Portland, where they would both have a geographic advantage over No. 4 Marquette. We sent Utah to Boise, where the other three teams in its pod are Boston College, Xavier and Fairfield. We also sent fifth-seeded UCLA to Boise, where it could play No. 4 Missouri in the second round.
Most significantly, we placed Arizona in the West region as an 11-seed. If the Wildcats won two games, they would get to go to Glendale for the regional. Why? Well, our top four seeds out West were Oklahoma, Duke, Butler and Marquette. The committee's mission is to create competitive balance throughout the four regions, not geographic balance. So if you're a team from the South or the West, be ready to reap these rewards.
One team that looked better upon close examination than I anticipated was California. The Bears seem kind of suspect when I watch them, but their win at Utah on Dec. 10 looks considerably better now than it did then. They also have a sweep over Washington, the first-place team in the Pac 10, and wins at home over Arizona and Arizona State. We gave the Bears a No. 6 seed, but even that may have been a bit low.
The team that looked worse than I thought was Utah State -- and that was before the Aggies lost over the weekend at Boise State. Utah State has just one win over an opponent ranked in the top 50 of the RPI (Utah at home) and its non-conference strength of schedule is ranked 230th. Even if the Aggies beat St. Mary's this weekend, it won't count for much because the Gaels are still without Patty Mills. Utah State might sneak into the at-large field if it wins all of its remaining games and loses in the final of the WAC tournament, but anything worse than that and I'm afraid the Aggies will be on the outside looking in.
Speaking of St. Mary's, we cast our ballots on the presumption that the tournament was starting today. That meant assessing St. Mary's as if they didn't have Mills. Not surprisingly, they did not get in. The NCAA staff also gave us fabricated conference tournament results to factor into our decisions, one of which included Georgetown making a run to the Big East tournament championship game. We gave the Hoyas a bid on that basis, but I'm sure they wouldn't have warranted inclusion without that boost.
This is not going to be a good year for mid-majors. I tried to make a case for Siena in the room, and the Saints did make our field by a hair, but my sense is Siena, Davidson, Utah State and BYU are all going to have a hard time making the tournament as at-large teams. Siena's argument isn't helped by its loss on a neutral court to another bubble team, Oklahoma State.
I've known for a long time that many of the myths out there about this process are not true, but this experience certainly underscored that. It wasn't until after the field of 65 was selected that anyone thought to count up the number of teams from each conference. (I was actually surprised to learn that the ACC had eight.) There was no effort at all to create fun match-ups. The teams are placed into the tournament in linear fashion by region, not on a bracket, so we couldn't really tell what matchups were possible until the final bracket was actually printed out.
Finally, the NCAA is so sensitive to potential conflicts of interest that its computer software does not allow the committee members to breach protocols even if they wanted to. Kirk Wessler of the Peoria Journal Star and I teamed up to play the part of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. Whenever a ballot came up that included Ohio State, our computer wouldn't let us vote. The rules also dictate that when a person's school (or in the case of SEC commissioner and chairman Mike Slive, his schools) comes up for discussion, that person has to leave the room. So you can set all your conspiracy theories aside. You might think this process is flawed, but you can't say it's dishonest.