On Tuesday, the NCAA hit the warning siren. In a release, it announced that the men's basketball committee chair Ron Wellman would sit down for a conference call to discuss new NCAA tournament bracketing principles adopted by the organization at its July meetings. For bracket nerds such as myself, this was exciting. The committee's guidelines for building the bracket are always evolving, and rarely is one so important -- so of interest to the casual fan -- that it necessitates a media availability in the middle of the summer. If Wellman was getting on the phone, something big was bound to go down.
Naturally, the real news was anything but.
On Thursday afternoon, the men's basketball committee announced a totally minor, uncontroversial, long-discussed process change, one ESPN.com's Andy Katz has covered in detail for almost a year. Beginning this season:
This means that teams from the same conference that played only once during the season can now face each other as early as the third round of the championship. Subsequently, teams from the same league that met twice during the year will not potentially play each other until the regional semifinals. Also, teams from the same league that played each other three times during the course of the season cannot play until the regional championship game.
The idea, basically, is that as conferences grow into 14 and 16 team behemoths, the NCAA needs more wiggle room when it comes to avoiding conference rematches in the bracket. There are already a panoply of bracketing guidelines similar to this -- previously, the top three teams from every league had to be placed in different regions, and no two conference members could be seeded in the same region unless nine or more teams from that conference received a bid, etc. -- to the point that seeding has become more convoluted than selection. This is a minor streamline of those rules, a bit of procedural spring cleaning in the face of an evolving basketball membership.
And ... that's pretty much it. There was another, even more minor facelift to the principles of nonconference rematch considerations, but it, like the conference seeding change, is so deeply wonky it's hard to register much emotion. (For a full accounting of the new rules stuff, check out bracket godfather Joe Lunardi's take.) When you read the words "scheduled press conference" and "changes to NCAA bracketing guidelines" in late July, you naturally assume we're trending more toward "real news story" and less toward "something for basketball geeks to annoy their Twitter followers arguing about." For a minute there, I even let myself dream of a world in which the NCAA had realized the error of its RPI devotion, and was ready to present a whole new quantitative system with which it would undergird the entire process. Turns out? Not so much.
I don't want to say I'm disappointed. I am a healthy member of society with a variety of interests that bring me boundless daily joy. (What? Seriously! OK -- it's video games, mostly.) I am, however, a bit surprised. Maybe a better word for it is impressed.
For much of the NCAA tournament's rise into the billion-dollar TV behemoth it now is, the bracketing process was shrouded in confusion, if not outright secrecy. There was no interest on behalf of the organization to put its committee members in the spotlight; it wanted the process to be insular and the results judged for themselves. For those outside, this arrangement was frustrating, and over the years it led to a vast volume of misplaced anger and even belief, from many, in bracketing rules that didn't actually exist. Eventually, this coalesced into a vague collective distrust. Besides, how hard could bracketing really be?
In the past five years, the NCAA has opened up. It hasn't allowed reporters or TV cameras into "the room," as we call it, but it has embarked on an annual PR strategy designed to give media members the full empathetic shock therapy of mock bracket selection. The mock bracket is easy to, um, mock, but there's no question it has helped a lot of media members get their heads around the nuttiest of the tournament's nuts and bolts.
Wellman's announcement Thursday is probably best viewed in that context. The announcement was all wonk. No one would have been pining for a news conference in advance. But the NCAA wants you to understand how the tournament works. It wants you to understand selection and seeding. If that means discussing minute guideline changes on Aug. 1, well, at least you can't say they're not trying.