Mock Madness: Inside look at the NCAA tournament selection process
For the mock selection exercise, I played the role of Big 12 commish Dan Beebe
One potential flaw with the selection process: a big-time overreliance on RPI
Believe me: Despite annual conspiracy theories, there are no backroom deals
INDIANAPOLIS -- Before our group of 20 media members and conference officials arrived at the NCAA's mock selection exercise last week, we each received a binder stocked with vital information. Among the topics covered:
How to ensure the most Big East teams make the NCAA tournament.
How to give Duke the easiest path to the Final Four.
How to make backroom deals so the school each athletic director represents makes the tourney.
I'm kidding, of course.
NCAA Senior Vice President Greg Shaheen created the mock selection exercise specifically to blow up those myths. "You won't look at it the same way after this 24-hour period," he said, "because it is so different than what you expected."
He's correct. After spending much of Thursday and Friday selecting a tournament field using precisely the same rules, information, computer equipment and software as the real selection committee, it's highly unlikely any of us will ever again accuse the committee of favoring one conference over another or of favoring BCS conferences over non-BCS leagues. The Duke haters also can ditch their conspiracy theories. Not only did we avoid favoring the Blue Devils, we almost used them to create a Region of Death that wouldn't have been fair to Duke or any other team. But we'll get to that later. As for backroom deals, the methods used to select teams render those next-to-impossible unless a committee member has the consensus-building skills of a Benjamin Franklin.
The exercise also exposed one potential flaw in the process. The committee relies entirely too much on the RPI in the room. It should be noted that the NCAA sends committee members other rankings on a regular basis, so they have easy access to them. It also should be noted that we rarely discussed the RPI when debating teams. Still, almost every piece of data committee members see in the selection room has the RPI attached. Teams are judged by their record against opponents in the top 50 of the RPI. Their nonconference schedules are ripped to shreds if they include too many teams with RPI ranks above 100. This appears helpful at first, but using just the RPI can lead the committee to some potentially erroneous assumptions. For example, during our two days in the room, the RPI told us Memphis was the nation's 26th-best team.
This is a major flaw only if committee members don't use the browsers on their NCAA-provided Dell laptops to break free from an RPI-induced stupor. As the stand-ins for Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, SI.com colleague Andy Glockner and I frequently visited Ken Pomeroy's fantastic site. We also checked Jeff Sagarin's rankings to get a different perspective. And, like the actual committee members, we used our own perspectives on teams from the games we've watched this season to inform our voting.
But, as the seconds grow more precious during the selection process, it's easy to fall back on the RPI because it is plastered all over the video screens each member uses to view side-by-side comparisons of similar teams under consideration. Bottom line: If a committee member goes into the room determined to use other sources along with the RPI, he'll probably vote well. If he only uses the information provided, the RPI will have too much influence.
The RPI is gone by the time the committee actually begins placing teams into the bracket. That might be the most amazing part of selection weekend -- and the part that might need tweaking in the future. The bracket that gets torn apart by millions from Sunday night until the tournament tips off on Tuesday is assembled in a matter of hours. One year, Shaheen said, the committee had 45 minutes to bracket the field.
We put together our bracket in about two hours. While the rest of the exercise was time-compressed because the real committee has two extra days to determine the teams in the field, that part happened essentially in real time.
So how does the real committee get from chicken piccata at Iaria's restaurant on Wednesday -- "Sansabelts are involved because of the flexible garment needs," Shaheen said of the meal -- to a finished bracket in Greg Gumbel's hands at 6 p.m. Sunday? In pretty much the same way a ragtag group of writers and conference wonks put together this bracket last week.
The biggest difference? Unlike us, the real committee won't share the results in real-time on Twitter. (To see more of the gory details, check the timelines of myself, Glockner, SI's Seth Davis and the Big Ten Network's Mike Hall.)
As I reached the top of the staircase at the Hotel Conrad on Thursday, I noticed a familiar face. Whizzing past and dragging a suitcase was the real Beebe. The actual committee met at the Conrad this week for a principles and procedures refresher and to help familiarize new members Steve Orsini (SMU's athletic director) and Scott Barnes (Utah State's athletic director) with the process and with the equipment they'll use during the selection process. I figured I should grill Beebe about his selection and seeding likes and dislikes so Glockner and I could properly get into character, but by the time I got downstairs, Beebe had already hailed a cab and disappeared. The man is quick.
A few minutes later, Shaheen and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith -- the actual committee chair -- ushered us into the selection room. Each fake committee member had a laptop. Stationed throughout the room were sets of three flat-screen monitors. Throughout the process, these monitors would show the teams up for consideration, side-by-side comparisons of specific teams and "nitty-gritty" reports on each team that feature 16 different factors including RPI rank, records (home, away, neutral and against RPIs 1-50, 51-100, 101-200 and RPI top 100), average opponent RPI rank and strength of schedule. (Notice how often the RPI pops up there?)
When Shaheen started at the NCAA in 2001, there were no screens. All the information was provided on paper. During the 2001 selection meeting, the committee used 100,000 sheets for copies. When Shaheen plugged his laptop into a dial-up connection to get realtime scores, committee members chided him for bogging down the process. Ten years later, committee members have instant access to almost any piece of information they might want.
Once we got settled, Shaheen and Smith explained the process. After reports from members on the conferences they were assigned to monitor all season (never their own), committee members submit ballots containing the names of the teams they consider surefire at-large teams and the names of teams they believe the committee should consider for at-large bids. As the fake Beebe, Glockner and I submitted 16 locks and 35 under-consideration teams. Fake Beebe was the most skeptical of the bunch; one fake committee member submitted 32 locks.
(Before you start sending nasty e-mails, consider this. We made our bracket using games played through Wednesday night. The NCAA simulated conference tourney results for us, but it did not simulate through the remainder of the regular season. We didn't know at the time that Nebraska would beat Texas or that Purdue would beat Ohio State.)