- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Partially inspired by TrueHoop's excellent HoopIdea series, College Basketball Nation humbly presents Change the Game, a weekly discussion on the game we love and the ways it could be made better. And nothing is off the table.
Look for CtG every Friday for the foreseeable offseason future. To share your thoughts or submit a topic for discussion, reply to me on Twitter, @eamonnbrennan, with the hashtag "#CtG."
Thus far, we've discussed the infuriating block-charge call, the influence of NBA isolation, why college basketball needs to wave goodbye to the foul-out, and why it's time to go all-in on monitor review. Today: How the NCAA tournament selection committee can get even better.
The NCAA tournament selection committee does a good job. All anybody really wants is for it to keep getting better.
This is the essential disclaimer that must accompany any criticism of the committee. Why? Because it’s true! We like to moan and complain about the last four teams in and the last four out, but at the end of the day, it rarely matters. The committee typicaly gets it mostly right, especially in selecting the 37 at-large teams to fill out the last two 68-team tournaments. Valid complaints have been rare.
But that doesn’t mean the committee’s methods and results can’t get better. Here’s how.
Join the numerical 21st century.
In February, Scott Van Pelt dropped the radio monologue that launched a thousand columns, wherein he called the NCAA’s proprietary tournament selection metric, the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), akin to “a guy that’s walking around with a big Walkman on his hip the size of a toaster, who’s flipping over his cassette tape, who wants to run home to program his VCR on his standard-definition television.”
For those frustrated at the NCAA’s continued reliance on RPI, this was a cathartic rant. For those who take up the cause to defend it anew each season -- for some reason -- those words stung. No one wants to be the guy with the Walkman on his hip (unless you’re the retroist hipster type, in which case that could be a good look).
At any rate, RPI defenders are increasingly the exception. A consensus seems to be forming around the idea that it’s time for the NCAA to join the rest of us out here in the 21st century because Van Pelt’s right: I’m typing this from an almost unfathomably light MacBook Air while listening to music I’m beaming wirelessly to a Bluetooth speaker in my house. We have no problems adopting technologies that just five years ago would have seemed like magic. Why shouldn’t entrance procedures for the greatest tournament in American sports advance just as quickly? Why has it gone so long without doing so?
When the RPI was invented, it was a huge first step in quantifying a wide range of college basketball teams. It did what the NCAA needed it do. It was even elegant, in its own way. Now, thanks to the work of Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, Kenneth Massey, Dean Oliver and the folks at LRMC (whom I assume to be androids like Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus”), we have much, much more accurate formulas to discern and rank the entirety of the sport each and every season. It’s time the NCAA started using them.
None are individually perfect, of course. They all have minor blind spots. More importantly, the NCAA is notoriously wary of formally embracing formulas that include margin of victory, fearing it could encourage teams to run up the score during the season.
I’m not really worried about that. This is college basketball, not T-ball; you don't get a cookie for participation. But I suppose it’s a fair concern. So, which formula do you use? All of them. Replace the RPI with a weighted average of all of the best and most accurate rankings systems in the sport. Include RPI in the formula if you really want to.
The point is, despite its protests to the contrary, the NCAA organizes the committee’s information almost exclusively by RPI. The categories are all RPI-based, the kinds of things we cite in Bubble Watch every week: Wins against the top 50, sub–200 losses, non-conference strength of schedule, you name it. When the NCAA says the RPI “never comes up,” it’s like me never consciously thinking about which row of the grocery store contains the bread. It’s just an accepted organizing principle. It’s baked in to everything the committee does.
I have no problem with that general idea. It’s a lot of information to process. But if the committee is going to use a statistical construct to organize teams, it should be given the best, most updated statistical construct available. Improvement, however incremental, should always be the goal.
Let us see the human side.
Of course, that’s just the numerical side of the process. I’m glad that’s not the only side. For as much as I believe we need more and better math in that room, I also love the idea that it is just a room of administrators and athletic directors doing their best to put together the best NCAA tournament possible -- mistakes and all.
What I don’t understand is why the NCAA hasn’t already sold this show.
We need a selection committee reality show! I’m only half-kidding! I do believe the NCAA and I agree on one thing: The process needs to be more transparent. That belief has led the NCAA to host media mock bracket sessions for the past five or so years; clearly, it is interested in ensuring we all understand the process as much as possible. But the only way we can really understand it is if we’re allowed in the room with the committee members while they’re doing their job. Put a camera in the committee room all day and charge some sports network a bunch of money to broadcast it. I’d watch. Wouldn’t you? Throw it up on the Internet. At least get a live Twitter feed going. Something.
Maybe it would be as boring as the NCAA hopes. Fine. But at least we’d know what the selection process' defining principles and arguments are. We wouldn’t be reading between the committee chair’s lines after the bracket is revealed; we’d be there every step of the way.*
(*To Jeff Hathaway’s credit, he did a fine and open job explaining the bracket process on the selection show this spring. His predecessor, Gene Smith, was a post-show transparency disaster. Both teams played hard, and all that. It was bad.)
There would be less suspicion that obvious conflicts of interest in the committee room proceeded as they should (i.e., the person recuses himself from the debate on a certain team or conference). To this point, we’ve always taken the committee’s word on that. I believe them, of course, but why not just show everyone how that works?
In the process, you could hammer home to everyone just how difficult and harried the selection process can be. The conflicts with travel, the different exemptions, the logistical tangles. That’s the real benefit: Letting the audience in on the unique challenge of building a 68-team tournament to be ready just a few hours after the season’s final games have been decided. Let them -- us -- see the inherently human folly that goes into such an endeavor. Let us laugh along, recognizing that mistakes come from people doing their best, instead of screaming angrily at some faceless committee in an undisclosed hotel conference room/bunker in Indianapolis.
Let us in, selection committee. Let us in. We know you’re scared. We’re scared too. But this could be so, so good.
After all, the NCAA tournament is selected and seeded in much the same way it was 20 years ago, and guess what? It still rules. But just because something is done well doesn’t mean it should stop trying to get better, that it should stop looking for every improvement around every margin. These are just two. They’re a start.
I don’t know what kind of phone I’m going to be using in five years, but I assume it will be pretty wild. Likewise, I assume the world around will keep changing, and it will keep becoming smarter, more open and more data-driven in every way. Let’s hope the greatest tournament in American sports comes along for the ride.