Debunking Selection Sunday's biggest myths, more Hoop Thoughts
Hoop Thoughts (Cont.)
INDIANAPOLIS -- "How many of you guys are a little bit tired?"
That was the question asked by my friend and colleague Steve Scheer, a producer at CBS, during the annual "mock selection" exercise conducted by the NCAA last week. It was last Thursday at about 7:30 p.m. I was one of about two dozen members of the media who had been working on our bracket since 2 p.m. We worked for another two hours on Thursday night, met back in the conference room at 9:00 Friday morning and were done with our bracket by 2 p.m. The whole thing took 24 hours, and we had plenty of breaks.
Scheer has a unique perspective on this process because every year, it is his job to be embedded with the men's basketball committee as they put together the official bracket. Scheer is not allowed inside the conference room when the committee is deliberating and balloting, but he hangs around the floor of their hotel to collect footage for our CBS shows and coordinate the live remotes. For many years, Scheer has seen these men and women arrive in the conference room as early as 6:30 in the morning to get a head start on the day's work. He has shot video of them as they sat up well past midnight watching games and studying the numbers. More than anyone who has not served on this committee or worked at the NCAA, Scheer knows how tedious and exhausting this process is. He knows how hard these folks work.
In answer to Scheer's question, almost everyone's hand went up. I know mine did. After five-and-a-half hours of looking at team sheets, breaking down resumes, debating the merits and casting votes, I was fried. My running joke with my partners was, "It's just a mock." That was an easy way to stop debating and vote. The real committee can't say that. "Think about what it's really like," Scheer said. "These guys are sequestered here Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You guys have only been going at it for about six hours, and you're saying you're tired."
Message delivered. The folks who were sitting around that table -- myself included -- spill a lot of ink (metaphorically speaking) criticizing the work of the selection committee every March. Yet the truth is, there is not a single piece of information that we could possibly raise that the committee hasn't parsed in depth. That's not to say that the committee gets everything right, but I promise you that the lengths they go to far exceed anything that even the so-called professional bracketologists will go to in the days leading up to Selection Sunday.
This was my fourth time going through the NCAA's mock selection exercise, and each time I learn something new. Since the purpose is to explain to members of the media how this process works so that we can explain it to you, I wanted to address some of the more popular misconceptions. Herewith:
• I won't get into the tiresome debate about the RPI, but I do want to point out that much of the complaining is based on a myth -- namely, that the committee ignores the other valid metrics that are readily available. In fact, every member of the committee is not only free to look at other rankings, they are encouraged to do so. On the NCAA's own internal website, there is a link that reads "Links to Other Sites." Those sites are: NCAA RPI, Polls, Sagarin Ratings, CollegeRPI.com, RPI Ratings, LRMC Rankings, Pomeroy Rankings, Composite Ranking, Conference Monitoring, ESPN BPI. Jeanie Boyd, a veteran NCAA staffer who works closely with the committee from inside the room, told us that she has seen members arrive at selection week with their own rankings that aren't among those listed. Those other metrics are definitely a part of the discussion. If there is a big discrepancy between the rankings, the committee will go into a discussion to probe further into the numbers.
Regardless of what you think about the RPI, the fact is that most fans really have no clue how it is actually used. It is simply an organizing tool that allows the committee to set the table for a discussion. It's a starting point, not a finish line. From there, the members can take their evaluations anywhere they want -- and they do. You'd be hard-pressed to find any ranking system or piece of information that they are not going to consider during their week in this bunker.
Incidentally, Mike Bobinski, the committee chair, caused a bit of a stir last week by stating during a media teleconference that the NCAA had done a study that showed that the RPI was the best predictive measure of success in the tournament. When I asked Bobinski about this Wednesday on my CBS Sports Network show Courtside, he admitted that he misspoke. "We wanted to make sure the data was sound. That was really the gist of the study," Bobinski told me. "The back end was, oh by the way, does it have any value as a predictive measure? When I said it was the best, in fact it is not the best. It was in the same range as some of the other evaluative tools that are out there."
But here's the point: It is not the committee's job to select and seed the bracket based on how it thinks the teams will do in the tournament. It sole purpose is to assess teams based on what they did during the season -- on history, not the future. So this debate is totally irrelevant, but Bobinski conceded his remarks were not helpful. "I recognize that I caused a bit of a firestorm, and I felt badly for that," he said. "I will stay clear of that topic in the future."
• Here is the second biggest mistake the public makes about this process: There is no such thing as an S-curve. Let me repeat that: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN S-CURVE!!!!
This was always a misnomer. Here's what actually happens. The committee will seed the entire field 1 through 68. Once that is completed, they will start placing teams into the bracket. Contrary to conventional assumption, the committee does not and never has assigned the top No. 2 seed (or the overall No. 5) to the same region as the lowest No. 1 seed (overall No. 4) and proceeded along that pattern. Rather, the top priority is geography. Competitive balance is taken into account, but only as a secondary concern.
All of this has to fit into the bracket's principles and procedures. One of those principles states that teams from the same conference may not meet until the Elite Eight. So let's say Gonzaga ends up as the overall No. 4 and Michigan is the overall No. 5. Gonzaga would be the No. 1 seed in the West. If there were an S-curve, Michigan would automatically be slotted as the No. 2 seed in the West. But since geography is the top priority, the committee would want to send them to the Midwest regional, which this year will be held in Indianapolis. However, if Indiana is the overall No. 1, the Wolverines could not be sent there. So the Wolverines would probably be the No. 2 seed in the South or the East, as long as another Big Ten team isn't the No. 1 seed. Got it?
Once the committee places the top 16 teams in the bracket, it will stop to assess the overall competitive balance. The software program they use for bracketing makes it easy by keeping a running tab of the seed totals. (So if the East has the overall 1, 6, 9 and 15 seeds, the number 31 will appear at the bottom of the column.) The committee can move teams around if those numbers get too out of whack. Otherwise, they will do their best to keep teams as close to home as possible.
In other words, there is no such thing as an S-curve.
• We spent some time talking about how the committee gets its information about injuries. This has become an issue in recent years because schools have not been, shall we say, entirely trustworthy in passing this info along. Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard raised the most blatant example, when Syracuse told the committee that center Arinze Onuaku would likely be available for the second weekend of the 2010 tournament despite suffering a serious leg injury. That turned out to be far from true.
The committee uses an internal, secure website that allows each conference to help them track injuries. (That information is not available to the public, which I think is a mistake. Then again, I think all of this should be public. If it were up to me, the committee's entire deliberations would be televised.) In the end, there is only so much the committee can do to nail down the veracity of this information. As Bobinski put it, "Ultimately, we have to rely on what we're being told."
• We spent some time addressing the question of scoring margins. Bobinski said it does come up during discussion but "only when we're really sliding a piece of paper between the teams." This is a slippery slope because scores can be deceiving. Maybe a team was up by a huge margin at halftime, but in the second half the other team threw in a bunch of meaningless shots to make it look closer than it actually was. Blowouts can be misleading for the same reason. The bottom line should be whether a team won or lost the game.
• The final misconception about this process is the importance of conference affiliation. A lot of fans and writers assume that the committee pays close attention to the number of teams each conference has in the field. That certainly frames most of the discussion leading up to Selection Sunday.
I can only tell you that in the four years that I have been through this exercise, conference affiliation has never come up. We evaluated the teams based on who they played, where they played, and whom they beat. And if a bunch of sportswriters aren't talking about it, you know the real committee isn't talking about it, either. This makes particularly good sense in an era of unbalanced schedules.
Given that the committee doesn't start placing teams into the bracket until Sunday afternoon, they don't have time to keep track of things that don't matter. After we were through putting together our bracket was printed out, David Worlock, the NCAA's media coordinator for Division I men's basketball, asked if if we could say off the top of our heads how many teams were from each of the big six leagues. None of us could, and none of us cared.
Given how much is misunderstood about this process, I think it's terrific that the NCAA puts on this exercise each year to help educate the public. I would actually like to see them become even more transparent by allowing a pool reporter into the room so he or she could explain further what happened during the actual selection process. This is unlikely because of the fear that committee members will be less than candid with each other during deliberations. My response to that is, if they are going to say something that they really do not want the public to hear, maybe they shouldn't be saying it behind closed doors anyway.
At any rate, I was glad I didn't have to spend an entire week doing this. And I was certainly glad I didn't have to be held accountable for our decisions. It's a lot easier being on the outside looking in.
• I admit it: I've gone full man-crush on Marcus Smart. Hope Jimmer doesn't get jealous.
• But let's give credit to Kansas for that inspiring win in Stillwater. What was most encouraging was that the Jayhawks pulled it off even though Ben McLemore (7 points, 3-for-12 shooting) was a nonfactor.
• I can't tell you how much I disliked that foul call on Indiana forward Will Sheehey for making contact with Michigan State guard Gary Harris on that late three-point "attempt." I put that word in quotations because Harris wasn't actually attempting a legitimate shot. His only goal was to draw the foul -- which is why he should not have been rewarded. I see this situation coming up way too often in college hoops. There should be a very high threshold on this call if the offensive player is not making a real attempt to score.
• By the way, lost in the excitement of that game was the fact that Michigan State's backup point guard, Travis Trice, returned to play six minutes after missing the previous five games with a head injury. This is really going to help the Spartans moving forward. You all know how I feel about Keith Appling. He's a wonderful player, but he is not a full-time point guard.
• Buzz Williams made a great point when I spoke with him on the phone last week: His team is tied for first place in the Big East, yet it probably does not have anyone who will be named first team all-conference. Nor was he arguing they should be. His point was that this team wins because of its culture, not just its talent. Not a bad way to go, apparently.
• Remind me why Saint Louis shouldn't give Jim Crews the job?
• Syracuse has sold more than 35,000 tickets for Saturday's game against Georgetown, the final regular-season meeting between these two schools as conference schools in the Carrier Dome. Orange fans complete me.
• By the way, you think Syracuse is glad James Southerland is back? He scored 20 points on 7-for-8 shooting in Wednesday night's blowout win over Providence. Southerland's presence is the difference between this being a good team or a potentially great one.
• Speaking of Georgetown, how about that 33-point explosion by freshman guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera on Wednesday night. I realize it was only against DePaul, but Smith-Rivera has quietly been one of the top freshmen in the country. I was concerned heading into the season that he might push junior point guard Markel Starks out of the starting lineup, which could lead to chemistry issues, but both guys seem comfortable with Smith-Rivera providing offense off the bench. Keep your eye on this kid, he's gonna be a good one.
• Is Minnesota trying to play its way out of this thing? Cause if that's the plan, it's working.
• Traevon Jackson has done a terrific job running Wisconsin's offense this season in the wake of Josh Gasser's torn ACL. No program does the Next Man Up thing better than Bo Ryan's.
• Don't look now, but Memphis forward Adonis Thomas is starting to play some serious ball. He is averaging 17.4 points on 46.3 percent shooting in his last five games. That would be a game changer for this team if he keeps it up.
• Mike Moser played 12 minutes in UNLV's win over Colorado State Wednesday night. I can only imagine what's going through his head these days.
• I still don't think Kentucky will make the tournament, but Cats fans have to at least see a glimmer of hope in Willie Cauley-Stein's 20-point performance in the win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday. Maybe he just needed a game to get used to the idea of being the full-time center.
• Pop quiz: Who's alone in second place in the SEC? No peeking. Answer below.
• I think Mark Turgeon is a terrific coach, and I believe his passion on the sideline is genuine. But as I watched him during Maryland's upset over Duke, and as I heard him talk afterward about how he dreamed of beating Duke in the off-season, I couldn't shake the belief that a coach does not serve his players well when he gets caught up in the emotions of the moment. The last time Maryland had a big win (over N.C. State), the team went on a losing binge, and they followed the Duke win by losing at Boston College. Now they're back on the outside of the bubble looking in. It's the coach's responsibility to help his young players maintain an even keel.
• You want to know who has a great demeanor? Shane Larkin, that's who.
• I've never seen Mike Brey more fired up than when he got his technical Monday night at Pitt with his team trailing badly. It was a classic case of a coach getting a technical for the purpose of firing up his team -- and it worked.
• It also sounds like Scott Martin is getting close to returning to practice. That would be a nice lift for the Irish during the final stretch.
• I'm hearing good things about Ryan Kelly's recovery at Duke. The Blue Devils hope is to have him back in time for the ACC tournament. It would be too much to expect Kelly to be playing at the level he was at when he got hurt, but whatever he can contribute will certainly make Duke a better team. The Blue Devils are getting absolutely no production from their other bigs.
• I also don't think the average fan is attuned to the fact that Seth Curry almost never practices because of his lingering leg injury. This kid is putting together one of the more remarkable individual seasons we've seen in a long time.
• I just love the way junior guard Vander Blue has matured at Marquette. His scoring numbers and shooting percentages are up across the board, and he is showing a lot more poise and discipline in his game. In other words, he has grown up, which is what college is supposed to be for.
• N.C. State freshman T.J. Warren had his best game of the season in Tuesday night's win at home over Florida State. Yes, he scored 31 points (on 12-of-15 shooting), but I was more impressed with his 13 rebounds. This team needs more toughness, and Warren is capable of delivering that, when he chooses to.
• Interesting to see Roy Williams going all-small right now. He really had no choice. I actually think it benefits James Michael McAdoo, because it forces him to get to the block and go to work. He's not exactly a hardhat-and-lunchpail kinda guy.
• I have tremendous respect for the way Mike Montgomery handled the shoving incident with Allan Crabbe. A lot of guys would have dug in and refused to apologize, but Montgomery owned his mistake like an educator should.
• Answer to the pop quiz: Alabama.
• In Big East games, Cincinnati is shooting 37.8 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from three-point range. Just making sure you knew.
• You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger victim of conference realignment than VCU. The school thought it was upgrading by jumping from the CAA to the Atlantic 10, but now it looks like the A-10 is going to lose Butler, Xavier and Dayton to the basketball-only league featuring the former Big East Catholic schools. Keep in mind the Atlantic 10 is already scheduled to lose Temple (to the Big East) and Charlotte (Conference USA). Makes you wonder if Shaka Smart will be a lot more inclined to listen when his phone starts ringing again after the season.
• I have to say, I'm sorry to see Bracket Busters come to an end this weekend. It always provided the regular season with a real jolt in February. Just an example of a good idea that grew too big and ran its course.
Here's a beautiful story about the shrinking social media world we live in.
I was sitting in a roomful of monitors at the CBS studios on Saturday when I noticed some interesting footage coming in from a satellite feed prior to the Creighton-Evansville game. It featured a blind man shooting -- and making -- a pair of free throws. That was impressive enough, but a minute later I saw video of that same man singing the national anthem. I happened to be tweeting (what else is new?), so I wrote about the awesomeness of what I had just witnessed.
Later that night, someone wrote to me over Twitter to say that he knew the blind man I had written about. I replied that I would like to speak with him. A couple of hours later, my phone rang from an 812 area code. Sure enough, it was the blind man I had seen on the monitor. I told him I was delighted to hear from him. "You inspired me today," I said. "But I have to ask. How did you get my number?"
The man replied, "Coach Pitino gave it to me."
As it turns out, I am just one of many basketball-related people who have been sucked into Bryce Weiler's vortex. Weiler's friendship with Pitino and other coaches was detailed last March in this terrific Washington Post profile by Steve Yanda, but here are the basic facts: He was born four months premature and has been blind since birth. He grew up in Vincennes, Ind., and was an Illinois fan but became entranced by listening to Indiana and Purdue basketball games on the radio. He spent four years at the Indiana High School for the Blind in Indianapolis, then enrolled at Evansville and struck up a friendship with Aces coach Marty Simmons, who let him sit on the bench for home games. After an Evansville-Butler game, Bryce met and befriended Brad Stevens, who talked to him regularly on the phone, gave him a tour of Hinkle Fieldhouse, and eventually gave him a piece of the net after Butler made the 2010 Final Four.
That led Bryce to decide he wanted to develop similar relationships with other coaches. He set a goal of adopting one coach from each of the six power conferences. He started with Pitino, partly because he enjoyed listening to Louisville play-by-play man Paul Rogers. "He commentates basketball very well for someone who can't see," Weiler told me, which I'm sure Rogers takes as the ultimate compliment. Weiler called the Louisville basketball office and since then Pitino has been a dependable, devoted friend. Pitino and Weiler email and call each other frequently. When Louisville cut down the nets after reaching the Final Four last year, Pitino asked center Gorgui Dieng to cut his piece for him. Then he gave it to Weiler.
Pitino later helped Weiler hook up with two of his former assistants -- Florida's Billy Donovan and Arizona State's Herb Sendek. When Weiler decided he wanted Baylor's Scott Drew to be his Big 12 coach, he sent Drew an email through the team's website. Drew called him the next day. Weiler's ACC coach is Steve Donohue of Boston College. "I talk to him every Monday at nine o'clock," Weiler told me. "I love it. It's my favorite part of Mondays."
Weiler makes free throws with the help of a friend who stands under the basket and claps. He does color commentary for Evansville's soccer and softball games for the student radio station, and he has called five women's basketball games. He will call another on March 3. When I asked Weiler the obvious question -- how does a blind man call a game? -- he replied, "I listen to my partner's play-by-play. I memorize stats about the other team for 12 hours beforehand, and I interview the coach."
Weiler, who is a sports management major, told me that someday he hopes to work in a university athletic department or basketball office. "I think it would be fun to listen to college players grow on the court, and more importantly off the court in their four years," he said.
One more thing you should know about Bryce Weiler: This summer, he is traveling to Detroit so a surgeon can insert small cables into the backs of his eyes to see if he can detect any light. If that goes well, he is hopeful he can get microchips planted in his right eye (his left is too small) that would give him 400/2200 vision.
I promise to keep you posted on Bryce's progress, and I imagine information won't be hard to come by. From what I can tell, he's pretty good about keeping in touch.
California at Oregon, Thursday, 9 p.m.
Oregon has won three straight, but those wins came against the bottom of the league, and the Ducks are still without freshman point guard Dominic Artis because of an injured foot. I think the Bears have momentum on their side, and the incentive to clinch an NCAA bid with a win.
California 76, Oregon 72
Saint Louis at Butler, Friday, 7 p.m.
The Billikens are in the midst of a storybook season following the death of coach Rick Majerus, and they made a huge statement by dominating VCU at home on Tuesday night. However, Butler is fully healthy now, and the game is in Hinkle. That's a decisive advantage.
Butler 65, Saint Louis 60
Arkansas at Florida, Saturday, 7 p.m.
This is about as bankable a pick as you will find. The Gators are a really good team, they're playing a team that embarrassed them in the first meeting, they need to bounce back from the pratfall at Missouri, and Arkansas stinks on the road.
Florida 85, Arkansas 70
Georgetown at Syracuse, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Jim Boeheim said this would be an emotional game for him because it's the final regular season meeting for these two teams as league opponents in the Carrier Dome, but he better hope his players don't get caught up in that storyline. Georgetown is playing very well, but not well enough to beat the Orange in front of that enormous home crowd.
Syracuse 71, Georgetown 64
New Mexico at Colorado State, Saturday, 4 p.m.
If you haven't watched Colorado State play yet, do your best to catch this mature, senior-laden team in action. They play good, smart, fundamentally sound basketball. The Rams took UNLV to the wire Wednesday night in Las Vegas before losing, so they're primed to bounce back at home against the first-place Lobos.
Colorado State 62, New Mexico 58
Creighton at Saint Mary's, Saturday, 6 p.m.
This is the last chance for Saint Mary's to prove it deserves an at-large bid. I spy a desperate home team.
Saint Mary's 80 Creighton 74
Missouri at Kentucky, Saturday, 9 p.m.
Missouri scored an emotional comeback win at home against Florida, and it has been terrible on the road this season. If Kentucky can't win this one, it must not be a good team. And I don't think Kentucky is a good team.
Missouri 70, Kentucky 63
Cincinnati at Notre Dame, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Notre Dame's win at Pitt on Monday night was even more impressive than its five-overtime win over Louisville, because it came on the road and the Irish trailed 19-3 in the early going. They should be able to carry that over in a home game against a Bearcats team that has really struggled to score.
Notre Dame 71, Cincinnati 61
UCLA at USC, Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
The Trojans won in Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 30, and they have continued to improve since then. I like the production they have been getting from sophomore guard Byron Wesley, a long-range specialist.
USC 74, UCLA 70s
Michigan State at Ohio State, Sunday, 4 p.m.
Tom Izzo spoke cryptically about "distractions" that led to his team's loss to Indiana. I'm guessing he was not in a great mood during practice this week. That spells bad news for the Buckeyes.
Michigan State 75, Ohio State 66
Last week: 8-2
Season total: 96-44