For the second consecutive season, the committee has produced a bracket that has little with which to contend. OK, there's always room for some quibbling
But the top eight teams are accounted for properly (we'll debate this more in a bit and discuss a potential future Pandora's box). For the most part, the geography is a good fit (and that can be a real challenge). And the bracket is fairly balanced. The next three weeks should bring a fair and competitive tournament, and that means the committee did its job. But there are always some questions.
Why put Connecticut and Rutgers in the same region?
The committee has set up a potential third matchup between the Big East rivals -- the Huskies are a 1-seed and Rutgers is a No. 2 in Greensboro -- for the right to go to the Final Four. Such a situation could not have existed last year, but a revision to the bracketing procedures this summer allowed the committee some flexibility in placing teams from the same league in the same region as long as the two wouldn't meet until the regional final. Previously, teams from the same league could not be seeded among the first four seeds in a region.
The question all season long in the land of Bracketology was whether would the committee actually do it. We have our answer now.
According to the NCAA selection committee chairwoman, Judy Southard, it sort of plays out like a draft, with the top selection going to the region closest to its campus. So in this scenario, we would look at Stanford as the first No. 2 seed and getting to go to Spokane, then LSU getting Baton Rouge as the next No. 2. Let's assume Rutgers was next, so it would get Greensboro because it's closest. Then Texas A&M falls into Oklahoma City.
Southard went on to say it had to be done this way to protect the balance of the bracket. In this case, she's correct, or at least close to correct. This year, it all really works out among those top-eight teams (unless you are really opposed to the UConn-Rutgers setup; I don't like it, but I can live with it). However, this placement by S-curve-ranking philosophy could have some problems in other scenarios and other years. The committee might have created a slippery slope for itself.
For instance, what if the No. 5 overall team is located in the same geographical area as the overall No. 1? Here's a hypothetical: NC State is the fifth-rated team on the board. Based on all of Southard's explanation on this today, that would put the Wolfpack, the top No. 2 seed, in the same region with the top No. 1 seed, UConn. Immediately, just five teams into the process, an unbalanced bracket has been established. Avoiding such a thing is supposed be the very first principle of bracketing. That seems to be what happened in 2006 with North Carolina and Tennessee in the same regional ( it also seems to be the reason that North Carolina and Tennessee were paired in the same region on the men's side this year, which was the biggest injustice -- not Arizona State -- on the men's side but barely discussed).
It was wrong then, and following this geography principle this strictly, is wrong now. That ideal can too often lead to competitively unfair placement of teams.
Southard said doing anything different this year would have created imbalance and that this was the most balanced bracket in years. All true. This year. But geography cannot take precedent over competitive balance and fairness. The message on this Selection Monday is that geography is first. That is a huge mistake.
Why Florida State?
No one outside the war room will ever know for sure, but the Seminoles had to be the last team in. The question is, should they have been? The answer here is no, but it isn't that simple. This isn't like the argument on the men's side where pundits were asking, Why not Arizona State? This is more of a argument against, rather than an argument for, mainly because the teams to argue for aren't great, either. They are just better than the Seminoles.
Florida State had an RPI in the high 50s, won merely 18 games, had a losing record on the road, finished with five losses in its last eight games (4-6 in the last 10), and had two sub-100 losses. And those aren't even the reasons why the Seminoles should not have made the field. The biggest reason is they didn't beat anyone. Florida State went 1-11 vs. the top 50, and its only win among those 12 games was against Florida, which was not tournament-worthy.
The Seminoles clearly got credit for close losses to Maryland, Georgia and Virginia. Southard added that eight losses for the Seminoles came against the RPI top-15. Understandably, not all losses are created equal. She also mentioned the Seminoles' nine games without leading scorer Tanae Davis-Cain. Injuries are to be evaluated, but in this case the injury provision was applied incorrectly. Some sort of difference in a team's performance needs to result from a key player missing time. Florida State didn't beat anyone with Davis-Cain -- just as it didn't beat anyone without her. Her absence is far less relevant than it seems the committee viewed it.
The bottom line is this: Florida State got a gift. That the Seminoles were among the three survivors from the group of 11 teams that Southard said the committee discussed for those spots is perplexing.
But if we're arguing Florida State should not have been included, someone else has to go in. The choice here is Michigan State.
The Spartans have five wins vs. the top 50, wins over tourney at-large teams Kansas State, Ohio State and Minnesota, and finished stronger. The case against the Spartans is that they did lose 13 times, like Florida State, had a losing road record and a loss outside the top-100.
Michigan State is still not a great choice, but a better one than Florida State. And the Spartans are a better choice than Auburn, as well. If Davis-Cain's injury was noted, then I'm sure the difference between Auburn with and without Whitney Boddie was discussed as well.
Since the point guard's academic suspension, Auburn went 11-10 with only one quality win (over Georgia by 30). The Tigers' only wins in the last month of the season were over sub-100 Arkansas (three times), sub-100 Alabama and sub-90 South Carolina. Not good and not tournament-worthy.
However, here is where it becomes hard to criticize too much on this issue. None of these teams have been very good and aren't likely to have a lasting impact on this tournament anyway. This is really like deciding between your younger sibling and the nerdy kid down the street who is afraid of the ball for your last pick on the baseball team. You really can't go right. However, the committee could have gotten closer to right with this selection. Florida State was not the best of the worst in this instance. Michigan State was.
Why Maryland over Stanford for the No. 1 seed in Spokane?
Ultimately, this is not a big issue because these clubs are in the same region anyway and also have the benefit of playing first- and second-round games at home. Being a No. 1 seed is a badge of honor (the reaction on the NCAA Selection Show from the two teams said it all), so all the talk is worthwhile.
Stanford has been the choice in this space and it still is today, but these clubs are so ridiculously close that arguing too loudly is wasted air. The Cardinal went 12-1 against tournament teams. Maryland went 13-3. Both outstanding. Stanford a bit better. Thus, let the Cardinal wear the mantle of a No. 1 seed. The committee found reason to disagree and obviously pointed to Stanford's losses to USC and UCLA as the reason.
did Utah fall to a No. 8 seed?
The Utes went 27-4 overall, unbeaten in the Mountain West, and 7-2 (wins over Fresno State, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Mexico and Wyoming each twice) against tournament teams, yet were give a No. 8 seed. They also open the tournament on the road against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ill., with the prize being a likely meeting with Tennessee in the second round.
Conference tournaments are supposed to only be one piece of the puzzle, but it clearly appears that Utah's stunning loss to Colorado State, which was 3-27 at the time, weighed heavily on the minds of people in that room and impacted the decision on Utah. It should have entered the discussion. It shouldn't have mattered as much as it would seem it did.
For the sake of comparison, let's look at the No. 6 seed in the same Oklahoma City Regional. The Sun Devils, even while playing an overall better schedule, were lower in the RPI. They also went 2-8 vs. the top-50, lost 10 games and, most importantly, went a meager 3-9 vs. other teams in the field.
Even if the comparison is just record vs. at-large teams in the field, Utah is 4-0, while Arizona State is 1-6. Strength of schedule is the only category of note that the Sun Devils have the upper hand. Even if both clubs were moved one seed line for bracketing reasons, at best the committee saw Utah and Arizona State as equal. The numbers above do much more than suggest otherwise.
Tennessee and Rutgers might potentially play road games in the second round?
Higher seeds being put in road situations is not unusual in the current format. However, this is the second season in a row for both of these programs. Yet the committee says it tries to avoid that kind of frequency. In fact, Rutgers will be playing in the home state of a first- or second-round opponent for the fifth time in the last six tournaments.
This is more of an observation than a criticism. No one wants this circumstance, but it can be impossible to avoid and it was as difficult as ever this season. If there was a way around it, the committee would have found that way.
The selection committee did another fine job and it's not an easy one. Most of the disagreements are relatively small. Most.
The placement based solely on geography is not a small issue. That philosophy could have major negative implications on the competitive balance of future tournaments. If this selection gave us anything, it was clarity on this part of the process. Seeing clearly can actually be bad if what's up ahead isn't so pleasing.
It worked out fine this time around, but let this be a warning light. If competitive balance is truly the first priority, then the strict process in which teams were placed in the bracket in 2008 needs to be looked at before we get to 2009.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.