Monday, March 12, 2007

The Star Chamber

The final bracket is barely revealed on the CBS NCAA tournament selection show each year when analysts and pundits of all stripes begin debating/complaining about who didn’t get in. To its minor credit, the NCAA sends the chairman of the selection committee; this year it was Gary Walters, to appear before the cameras to explain some of the more marginal selections. But in the end, the process remains so much a black box.

Depending on whose ox just got gored, the answer we’re given is that a particular team got left out because of its non-conference road record or because of its RPI score or because of its conference record or because its conference is weak or because of the cut of their gibe. In the end, the only thing certain is that there is a bias for teams that play in major conferences and a near universal lack of respect for teams that don’t.

On some level, maybe that’s fine. But if that’s the case, why not simply say so? No one ever claimed that the NCAA tournament featured the best 65 teams, mainly because of the automatic bids. And this isn’t to knock giving every conference an automatic bid. But almost half the field is made up of at-large bids and given the amount of money at stake for the participants one would think the selection process would be much more transparent.

In fact, when it comes to the NCAA virtually nothing it does is transparent, which makes little sense given the power it wields. Fans, coaches, players and even most administrators are left grasping for straws as to what is taking place and why. The irony, of course, is that the NCAA mandates transparency of its member schools by demanding the slavish adherence to a Byzantine set of rules that impact nearly ever aspect of a sports program’s existence. Yet, the NCAA refuses to be similarly bound, particularly when it comes to selecting teams for its annual March money grab. As a result, teams like Syracuse, Drexel, Air Force and even Akron this year are left searching for answers that will never come. By listening to interviews with Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Keith Dambrot, you just feel the frustration and no it isn’t coachspeak.

The guess is that the NCAA doesn’t want its selection process to be automated to the point where it loses its human touch, nor should it. But having a set of solid guidelines would hardly be the death knell. The problem though is that by reserving for itself ultimate flexibility in selecting the field, the NCAA leaves teams wondering from year to year exactly what it will take, outside of winning their conference tournament, to get into the NCAA tournament.

This isn’t a small concern. If teams knew how much their non-conference road record was weighted, both in terms of teams played and games won, more competitive non-conference games would be scheduled. Syracuse, for example, might avoid playing Canisius in favor or, say, playing Texas Tech, in order to enhance its status. And fans of nearly every program with NCAA tournament aspirations would benefit. But without any sort of real road map, coaches and athletic directors are left to their best guess work knowing that what might have worked this year may not work next year when the make-up of the selection committee changes.

One would have thought, for example, that given the success of George Mason last year, the selection committee would be kinder to the mid-majors this year. In fact, they were less kind, reserving only six at-large bids for the so-called mid-majors this year. This is akin to simply writing off dozens of programs out of the gate on the theory that they can’t be competitive with the majors anyway.

One solution being advocated this that the NCAA simply expand its field. Tennesse’s Bruce Pearl, for example, argues for an 80-team tournament. That is one way to solve the problem. Simply expand the field to the point where selection guidelines are irrelevant. But expanding the field also has the benefit of finally recognizing that the number of quality programs is significantly greater since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams over 20 years ago.

In the end, the NCAA basketball tournament is still the most consistently entertaining sports event of the year. There will always be a Cinderella team or two, a shocking upset or three and an elite team that gets hot at the right time. The national championship game rarely disappoints. So in that sense it would seem that whatever process the committee utilizes, it tends to get it right. But not everything should be judged simply on its bottom line. The process, too, is important.

But perhaps what makes all of this most amusing is that the NCAA’s basketball selection process makes the BCS system used in Division I football look positively progressive by comparison. Who would have ever thought that would be the case?

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