Friday, February 12, 2010
First-day notes from the NCAA's mock selection committee
By Eamonn Brennan
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- I am drunk with power.
OK, not really. One of the first few things you learn about being a "member" of the selection committee -- as part of a yearly simulation run by the NCAA wherein a group of media members act as pretend tournament operators, going through a condensed version of what the real selection committee will do in a month -- is that you're kind of powerless. Not entirely powerless, of course; if you're vocal, you can be a difference-maker. But you quickly learn that there's no accounting for taste, and that's as true in basketball as it is in anything else.
Does your fellow committee member hate RPI? Does the chap across the table think Purdue is a No. 1 seed? And just who put North Carolina in the "considerations" pile, anyway? Deal with it, deal with it, and -- well, OK, that last one is ridiculous. You don't have to deal with that.
These are the things we spent most of Thursday balancing. If there's one major thing I learned about the selection committee in our first day, it's that this is how the NCAA likes it. There should be disagreement. There should be an RPI-obsessed guru in the room. There should be your classic, even stubborn "I know because I watch the game" guy down the table. There should be an informed member willing to discuss why, say, the quirks of Illinois's schedule hurt its case for an at-large bid. The NCAA wants this balance, wants it to fluctuate from year to year, and if that balance produces a choice that horrifies your brilliant basketball mind, well, tough. You're just one committee member. You did your best. Now live with the result.
It's been a fun process so far, but we have lots of work ahead today -- we still need to seed a whole mess of teams, as well as adjust our inclusions based on new fake conference tournament "results" coming in -- so let's keep moving. For now, here's a few other rambling thoughts from the first day of my turn as a fake selection committee member. For a full chronology of what the committee actually did all day yesterday (which teams were included, which ones were ranked, and which ones are still on the board), see Lexington Herald-Leader writer John Clay's blog, as well as the full summary on NCAA.com.
The NCAA keeps the process straightforward, sort of. The actual physical process of deciding on teams is rendered in a computer program run by the NCAA. Committee members are given a secure laptop with access to an intranet program that runs "elections" -- the process by which committee members pick the best eight teams from a large pool, vote on them, eventually rank them, vote on them again, rank them again, and so on and so forth. The common analogy in the room yesterday is that the process is like peeling an onion away. There's plenty of overlap -- you're likely to see each team several times -- That said, the way the NCAA organizes the information it gives to committee members, many of whom might not take a regular look at the RPI and other factors, can occasionally be confusing. Once you get used to it, it's fine. But the NCAA's "team sheets" -- a breakdown of each team's record, schedule, RPI, key wins, and a variety of other categories -- aren't the easiest to read or most visually appealing documents in the world. It would be easy to see why a committee member uninterested in the RPI or "numbers" in general would quickly get frustrated and eschew that process. Hopefully this doesn't happen, but you can see why it would.
This hasn't been an issue practically, but it was brought up early in the process, and I had no idea this happened: The NCAA asks its committee members to consider three polls: The AP top 25, the ESPN/USA Today, and another poll you've never heard of. It's called the NABC regional advisory committee poll. It's a poll created by 31 coaches, one from each conference, that asks each coach to rank 15 teams from his region. NCAA senior vice president of basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen said the poll was created because coaches were concerned that they didn't have a voice in the committee room. Does this poll play a large role? It's hard to say. We rarely, if ever, looked at the AP or the ESPN/USA Today poll, and though we didn't have access to the regional advisory poll and wouldn't have been able to look at it, it's hard to see any reasonable committee spending more time looking at that than at, you know, RPI, strength of schedule, etc. Maybe it happens. But it seems doubtful.
Does the committee care about tempo-free? Kind of, but not really. Ken Pomeroy's invaluable efficiency ratings are explicitly listed in the "resources" section of our committee materials, alongside Sagarain ratings and Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com. But they're listed last, and in our committee, which is made up of media members who write about basketball numbers for a living (and not, you know, conference commissioners and athletic directors), Ken Pomeroy's stats came up maybe once or twice. (They did play a role in the committee recognizing Marquette was this year's most unlucky team, but we might have reached that committee Pomeroy-or-no.) In other words, while the burgeoning tempo-free statistics movement has made major inroads in college basketball media, but it doesn't have much of a place in the committee room. Sad smiley face.
Our group has thus far been very civil. It's easy to see how things could quickly go downhill -- you're stuck in a room poring over repetitive minutiae from early in the morning until late in the evening -- but our group has exactly zero jerks in the room. Discussion has been robust but never angry or frustrated. This makes things much, much easier. (And really, if you can't have fun talking about college basketball and the NCAA tournament, what's wrong with you?)
Shaheen and other NCAA officials ended the day yesterday with a discussion of how, in the past 10 or 15 years, the difficulty in distinguishing between the final 10 or so teams in the tournament has become more and more difficult. It's interesting -- even as the technology improves and makes the committee's actual physical task easier, the amount of information available keeps increasing, thus making the consideration process for each team longer. (Oh, and it's a nice little way of segueing to 96 teams, which is a likely topic of conversation today. I'll update once that happens.)
We're thick in the throes of arguing over the last few teams in, so I should stop typing, but in case you're curious about the exact step-for-step process the committee goes through, here's the same document of principles and procedures we received and reviewed before beginning yesterday. We've heard plenty about the NCAA's desire to increase the selection committee's transparency, so it doesn't need to be repeated again, but keeping documents like this public is a good way of doing so.