The Morning After: Post-bracket edition

March, 12, 2012
3/12/12
10:30
AM ET
Usually, the Morning After is our semi-daily recap of last night's best basketball action. Today, it is a roundup of thoughts, links, reactions and other errata from the post-Selection Sunday maelstrom. (Also: MARCH MADNESS, baby! Wooo!)

Hats off to the NCAA. There are quibbles to be made about the seeding and placement of certain teams in the tournament. (Harvard fans seem particularly upset, and they're not the only ones.) You can gripe about Iona over Drexel if you like. (And you would be totally fair in doing so.) You can criticize the committee for continuing its frustrating relationship with the RPI. (He's bad for you. Dump him already!)

But you have to hand it to the 2012 NCAA tournament selection committee, and you have to hand it to the NCAA. A few reasons:

[+] EnlargeTony Wroten
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWinning the Pac-12 regular-season title wasn't enough for Tony Wroten and the Huskies.
1. It didn't inherently hew to tradition. I'm speaking mostly about Washington here, which became the first power-six regular-season conference champion to miss out on the field. This was the correct choice. It was also, no doubt, a difficult one. But the committee stuck to the principles it espouses all the time: that nonconference performance matters, that conference record is a nonstarter, that teams are evaluated individually on standardized criteria. It would have been easy to say, "Well, it did win a traditional power league." It would have been easy for one member to make the argument that anytime you win the Pac-12, you deserve to be in the tournament. But reason won out, tradition lost, and that's a good thing all around.

2. The field is mostly well-done. Again, there are some seeding quibbles. Again, Drexel has a right to feel aggrieved. But for the most part, the committee got things right. I like to work up a good lather about committee decisions, and I hate when people act like putting a bracket together is a mix between rocket science and figuring out why "The Big Bang Theory" is so popular, but I'm finding it difficult to gin up much outrage here. That has to be a good sign.

3. This was the most transparent post-selection discussion we've seen in years. It was certainly better than 2011. Let's be frank: Last season's committee chair, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, performed disastrously. Here's what yours truly wrote about it at the time:
But in interviews on ESPN and CBS, as well as in his post-selection show teleconference, Smith practically refused to answer the media’s questions about the committee’s various seeding and selection decisions. Instead, he gave polite nonanswers. ... Smith used the phrase “well-coached” to describe nearly every team he was asked specifically about.

Look: No one expects the committee to get everything right -- it often does a marvelous job under difficult time constraints -- and no one expects the committee chairman to make the entire process an open book. But as the NCAA strives to increase transparency in the selection process and rid fans of the notion that the process is shrouded in secrecy, Smith’s nonanswers only made a frustrating night that much more so.

This year couldn't have felt more different. Current chair Jeff Hathaway was willing to be more open about the specific criteria on which teams were judged. That was impressive in and of itself. Even more impressive was the NCAA's clear, concerted effort to lend transparency to the process. For the first time in history, the NCAA released the committee's S-Curve, a list of the tournament's teams from 1-68. That helpful piece of data was unveiled on "Hardcore Brackets," a horribly named but altogether excellent idea, a show in which Hathaway and committee vice chair Mike Bobinski (not to be confused with Soda Popinski) subjected themselves to grilling on various minute details of the bracket decisions.

The results were occasionally awkward, one Charles Barkley-led exchange in particular. But the show -- and Hathaway and Bobinski's willingness to be relatively open about their process -- was altogether a success.

NCAA staffers Greg Shaheen and David Worlock also sat down for a media teleconference "backgrounder," another change from 2011. Shaheen and Worlock don't have influence over the committee's decisions, but they were in the room, and as such could field questions about the process as they observed it. My favorite exchange was the very first:
"Q. My first question deals with Gonzaga and West Virginia. This is the second time in four years that this has happened to Gonzaga. I wanted to hear the rationale that West Virginia, as a 10, is an hour away in Pittsburgh, and Gonzaga as a 7, obviously has to go across the country? It happened in 2008, they played Davidson in Raleigh in the state of North Carolina.

Greg Shaheen: As you know, we work to protect the first four or five lines in the tournament in terms of their first game, which would be the second round in that circumstance. So a 7-10 game doesn't apply in that situation. Certainly as the committee went through the seed list, ultimately placed Gonzaga and West Virginia in the bracket, they also would not have looked at history, as you cited I believe, four years ago. They would look at examining the past two years' brackets to see both the travel patterns and also anything related to tournament rematches."

Shaheen calmly and politely answered the question, even though the temptation to reply with "Um, because 7-seeds don't get geographic protection? Please learn the rules before asking outraged questions" had to be incredibly strong. Well played, Greg. Well played.

[+] EnlargeMark Few
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonMark Few and Gonzaga must travel across the country to open the NCAA tournament.
All in all, the committee has clearly heard the outcry. It is obviously dedicated to demystifying this process. We may never get the holy grail -- a live, "Road Rules"-style production crew set up in the committee room, complete with some sort of elimination challenges -- but we are closer than ever to legitimate NCAA tournament selection transparency. This is a good thing.

Oh, and nonconference strength of schedule should be an important criterion. Maybe not as calculated by the RPI. OK, definitely not calculated with RPI. But in a larger sense, as a matter of policy, the committee and the NCAA have this right, too: Nonconference strength of schedule should play a large role in deciding which teams get in and which teams are left out of the NCAA tournament ... wait for it ... with one big qualification:

This should mostly apply to power-six schools. It simply isn't easy to schedule when you're at a certain awkward mid-major level. Beyond neutral-site tournaments, true home games against high-major teams are practically impossible to come by. You're left to go on the road -- and have us say "Oh well, they went and played teams, but they didn't beat anyone" -- or you're racking up wins and proving how much better you are than your competition. It's hard to strike the right balance.* That's probably what kept Drexel out of the tournament, unfortunately -- the sheer lack of quality nonconference road trips. (An imbalanced CAA schedule didn't help.)

*You can always go with the patented Dan Monson Long Beach State scorched-Earth philosophy. But another slip-up or two in conference play and the Beach might have had its issues getting in the field, too.

With the caveats (A) that this should apply to power-six teams much more so than true mid-majors and (B) that it's just one factor for comparison's sake like the rest of the committee's business, then yeah, the folks in Indy should be emphatically stressing the importance of nonconference play.

Why? College basketball has a four-month regular season. Every game matters. Or: Every game should matter. Some less so than others? Sure. That's the point of interpretation and analysis in the committee room. That's the point of the humans.

But there's no point in having the first two months if the games don't really count because everyone's still "figuring things out" and fans are still "watching December bowl games," which, ugh, apparently people actually do? If college basketball as a sport and pastime and item of cultural interest and whatever wants to expand outside the coming three weeks, it only makes sense to emphasize that the stakes are just as high in November as in February. At the very least, the NCAA has to try, right?

So yeah, coaches of the world, lend me your ears: Go out and play people. Worry less about gaming the RPI and padding your win totals and more about getting your team ready to roll by early December. Because when the South Dakota State Jackrabbits come to town a week before Christmas, you never know how Nate Wolters' 34-7-5 night might come back to haunt you.

No. 1 seeds have it rough. OK, so being a No. 1 seed always means you're in good shape. But when was the last time we saw four third-round matchups that looked this difficult? When Michigan State advances, it will face either Memphis or Saint Louis, teams both ranked in the top 15 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency. When Syracuse advances, it gets a brutal team-specific matchup with a very big, physical, defensively tough Kansas State team. When Kentucky advances, it will face either Iowa State -- a dangerous, hot-shooting team with a brilliant versatile forward in Royce White -- or Connecticut, one of the more talented (albeit underachieving and frustrating) teams in the country. North Carolina may have the easiest third-round matchup, but Creighton is a low seed at No. 8, and Alabama is still one of the better defensive teams in the country.

Do I think any of those teams will lose? No. Not at all. But I do think, as third-round matchups go, they seem much more collectively difficult than in years past. One of the quirks of the bracket, I guess.

[+] EnlargeFab Melo
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIDespite a No. 1 seed, Fab Melo and the Orange face a tough road.
Did Syracuse get the short end of the stick? Syracuse fans should be thrilled. Their team is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, after all, and it's one of the few consensus contenders to cut down the nets in New Orleans in April. Life is good, right? Right.

But Orange fans may just have a beef with the committee. Basketball Prospectus's Kevin Pelton looked at the distribution of seeds according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced efficiency rankings metric and finds that Syracuse's draw may just be the toughest of any No. 1 seed.

Let the Northwestern fallout begin. As expected by most, the Northwestern Wildcats extended their ignominious inability to reach the NCAA tournament; they're still the only major-conference team in college hoops to never visit the Big Dance. They were close -- oh, so close -- but were done in by several close missed opportunities and last week's loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament. Which, naturally, raises the question: Is it time to move on? Or, put more bluntly: Should Northwestern fire Bill Carmody? From the Chicago Tribune's David Haugh:
Carmody hasn't done anything wrong as much as he hasn't done enough right. One argument says firing Carmody would be an overreaction given Northwestern lost three games in overtime and three more by a total of five points. Those on the other side of that argument can't help but wonder if another coach might have coaxed at least a couple of wins out of those losses that would have put Northwestern over the top Sunday.

Yes, Northwestern's facilities are limited, its admission requirements are rugged and unique challenges exist. But the basketball standards should be higher so that making four straight NITs isn't considered a positive.

Vanderbilt plays Harvard on Thursday — and not in the NIT. Notre Dame and Duke look on course for a third-round NCAA matchup of brainy kids who can shoot. It can be done. Northwestern is the only school from a Big Six conference where it never has. Bringing back the same coach to try the same approach a 13th year would seem to deny the sense of urgency felt Sunday night by fans, alums and some administrators.

For what it's worth, every Northwestern fan or alum I know -- and when you work in sports media, you tend to know a lot -- thinks it's time to move on. The idea of starting from scratch is hardly appealing, but that's always the case when coaches come and go. Most would like to see Carmody succeed. But after 13 years, and heartbreaking near-miss after heartbreaking near-miss, you can certainly understand the frustration.

Fastest hoops in the West. In a month when nothing is guaranteed, here's a free lock of the month: If you like fast-paced basketball, the West Region is going to be 2012's most entertaining. From ESPN Stats & Info: Six of the top 12 teams in tempo (possessions per game) in the NCAA tournament are in the West Region. Brigham Young and Iona play in the first round. Seven teams that led their conference in transition points per game are in that region (Michigan State, Missouri, Marquette, Murray State, Memphis and Iona).

Can offense get you to New Orleans? Among other Sunday observations, Luke Winn noticed that four top-five seeds and brilliant offensive teams -- Missouri, Duke, Indiana and Temple -- all lacked the kind of stingy per-possession defense that typically takes teams to Final Fours. Can any of the four overcome that? Or is their fate written already?

Visual joy. Mike Miller picks two trademark "only in March" photos of the day.

The room itself. A photo of the selection committee's famed room, just after the dust settled.

Who's your favorite announcing duo? I have my own, but either way, if you want to know which TV folks will be where, there's a list for that, too.

This is how you react to selection. It was the last open slot in the field. NC State fans, fatalistic and still seething after a questionably officiated ACC semifinal loss to hated rival UNC, had sat and watched as 67 other teams heard their names called and their seeds placed on CBS' selection show. Hope had run out. The Wolfpack had made a valiant effort. They tried their best. But they were going to miss the NCAA tournament yet again.

And then, like a half-court buzzer-beater that clanged off the rim and dropped in the hoop, glory: NC State's name went up on the board, the last team to be selected on the show, the resignation and defeat morphing into sheer joy. I wasn't sitting next to any NC State fans. I can't vouch for their reaction. But I'm guessing it looked a little something like this.

At that link you will find a video of the Wolfpack players and coaches themselves -- complete with a split-screen camera focused on Mark Gottfried -- reacting as they hear the news. Soak it in, because that video right there? That's what March looks like.

One more thought: I don't have this sort of power, but if I did, I would say this: It's Monday. Let's all forget the snubs and the seeds and what may have been and embrace the bracket as it is. The next three weeks are going to be magnificent. It's full speed ahead now.

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