Media mock bracket session reveals real-world challenges for NCAA

03/01/2014 9:33 PM

11/12/2014 4:07 PM

Two days spent walking in the footsteps of a selection committee member for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament revealed the following truths:

• I will never, in my lifetime, cast as many ballots in presidential elections as I did in two days of evaluating the proper pecking order for this season’s top teams (more than 50 votes).
• The phrase “nailing Jell-O to the wall” has new meaning and applies to getting 10 individuals to agree on the placement of 68 teams in an accurate, sequential order from best to worst.
• There is far more order and clinical analysis, rather than chaos and big-school favoritism, that goes on behind closed committee doors than naysayers would like to believe.
• Unless individuals on the actual NCAA selection committee have radically different opinions than media members who put together a mock bracket on Feb. 13-14, Selection Sunday will be a historic day for fans of No. 2 Wichita State and No. 23 SMU. It also should serve as a sobering reality check for No. 17 Kentucky followers.

“The visual that this is an old boy’s network in a smoke-filled, back-room type of process is just not at all the case,” said Dan Gavitt, vice president of NCAA men’s basketball championships. “It’s time-consuming. It has order to it. It has policies to it.”

Of all the eye-opening aspects involved in putting together a tournament bracket, the most fascinating — and most reassuring — is how much “scrubbing” goes on behind closed doors for a tournament that will conclude, April 5-7, with the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

We’re not talking about an exercise with soap and water. We’re talking about the process of comparing teams with comparable credentials to see which one is more impressive when sifted though the NCAA’s tournament-specific computer programs. Those programs offer a “Nitty Gritty” breakdown of each team’s RPI ranking, strength of schedule, record against other elite teams and average shoe size.

OK, there’s no entry for shoe size. But there are several other categories, all of them offering pertinent information to help 10 committee members decide whether Roundball State should be the No. 24 team in the field or whether Hoops Central, at No. 25, should pass them in the pecking order before locking in the seeds.

These head-to-head comparisons take place, time and again, over five days in the real world. They will generate a significant percentage of the more than 100 votes taken by committee members every March to reach a consensus in assembling the bracket.

“The way we seed teams is an intense process. We literally scrub every team against every other one,” said Ron Wellman, chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee. “We have a first-quadrant committee working throughout the week. We have a fourth-quadrant committee working throughout the week. We assign the seeds according to those reports.

“But then we compare No. 1 against No. 2. And we go into great detail. We go all the way through No. 68, comparing No. 67 against No. 68. And we don’t do that just once. We will scrub the seeds probably five or six times during the course of the week.”

It makes for some lively and time-consuming discussions, even during the truncated session used to fill out the media mock bracket (15 hours, spread over two days). During our time behind closed doors, Kentucky ended the first night as the No. 9 team in our initial round of votes to place teams on the third line of the bracket. But early the next morning, the Wildcats fell six spots to No. 15 after being scrubbed, and falling short, in head-to-head comparisons with San Diego State, Michigan, Cincinnati, Creighton, Wisconsin and Iowa State.

The scrubbing sessions follow parliamentary procedure. An official motion, followed by a second, is required before members vote to go forward with the head-to-head comparisons. Some motions pass easily. Others get … well, scrubbed.

During our exercise, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi proposed moving Florida (No. 4 team) ahead of unbeaten Wichita State (No. 3 team). He suggested that most individuals in the room would agree that Florida would win that game if played on a neutral floor. I joined several others in a quick rebuttal. Moments later, a 5-5 vote killed the motion. The Shockers stayed at No. 3.

But not all teams are that lucky when push comes to shove.

“There was one team, one year … they started out as the No. 27 seed,” said Wellman, who declined to name the school. “We compared them to No. 28 but they weren’t quite as good as No. 28. So we compared them to No. 29 … Eventually, they fell to No. 46.”

Such meteoric plummets are rare, but they occur. So do disagreements between committee members, which are settled by an endless series of secret ballots. In our session, it was fun to track the banter between Lunardi and CBS Sports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm, each vying to show who had a more encyclopedic grasp of the college landscape and the bracketing process.

Bottom line: Both know their stuff, backwards and forwards, when it comes to college hoops. So do the 10 real-world committee members, comprised this year of seven athletic directors and three conference commissioners.

When they are done running their computer programs on Selection Sunday, they will produce a ballot with more teeth behind it than our February version. Based on regular-season results through Feb. 12, as well as hypothetical automatic qualifiers provided by NCAA officials, we handed out No. 1 seeds to Syracuse, Arizona, Wichita State and Florida. For Wichita State, which routed Missouri State on Saturday to finish the regular season 31-0, a real-world No. 1 seed would be the first in program history.

We broke the hearts of fans from St. John’s, Richmond, Dayton, and Southern Mississippi – the first four teams left out of the bracket when at-large berths were distributed.

We made SMU (23-6, 12-4 American), one of this season’s surprise teams under second-year coach Larry Brown, a No. 8 seed that required minimal discussion. The Mustangs, who last reached the NCAA Tournament in 1993, were one of three schools from the Lone Star State given spots in the mock bracket, joining Texas and Stephen F. Austin. Baylor, mired in a 2-8 stretch during the time of our deliberations, was dismissed quickly in favor of fellow Big 12 bubble riders Oklahoma State and West Virginia for the last two of the league’s seven NCAA berths.

If discussions reconvened today, the Bears would get a stronger push than OSU or West Virginia from the committee representative assigned to monitor the Big 12. I know because I served as the Big 12 monitor, along with monitoring Conference USA and the Southland Conference.

The role is significant because the first step taken in the initial selection meeting is to listen to monitors’ reports. They outline which, if any, teams from their respective leagues are worthy of at-large berths in the field without further discussion. They also suggest teams to discuss as potential at-large invitees.

At that juncture, each committee member submits an initial ballot of teams the individual considers deserving of at-large berths or further discussion. Teams that receive all but two eligible votes from the group for at-large inclusion are placed into the field, with seeds determined later. The others slide to an “under consideration” board, where they will be voted on — early and often — in groups of eight, with the top four vote getters advancing on ballots and compared with other groups of four survivors to maximize head-to-head comparisons.

Eventually, the top vote getters fill in the remaining seed lines for at-large entrants. But only after lots of discussion and lots of tiebreaker votes to put each group of eight in preferential order.

At the fingertips of each committee member is a personal laptop and/or iPad, as well as multiple shared computers uploaded with tournament-specific programs and information. But no televisions.

The wall-to-wall computers, said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, can make committee members feel like “we’re all in a cockpit” of an airplane. But the key, said Castiglione, is listening and learning from colleagues while deciding which information to embrace and dismiss. For each, the formula may be different.

“That adds to the context,” Castiglione said. “We’re just trying to get the best analysis possible.”

No bracket exercise would be complete without a stunning upset from a conference tournament that impacts the field. NCAA officials provided that when Illinois knocked off Michigan State in the hypothetical Big Ten title game, giving the Illini a last-minute berth as an automatic qualifier and eliminating a potential at-large bid to St. Joseph’s, which had been voted (temporarily) into the field.

During our discussions, several committee members or NCAA officials offered insightful observations that may prove telling when the real committee puts together its 68-team bracket on March 16. Among them:

• Chris Carlson, associate commissioner of the West Coast Conference and former men’s basketball coach at the University of California-San Diego, noted that SMU’s dismal nonconference strength-of-schedule ranking (No. 294 nationally during deliberations) may hurt the Mustangs’ seed with the NCAA committee more than it did with media members.
• The top-to-bottom balance of the Pac-12 has created a larger-than-normal collection of bubble teams in that league. Yahoo Sports national columnist Pat Forde said: “That league’s like a tub of live bait this year.”
• Despite heading into Saturday night’s game with six losses, No. 5 Kansas has played such a challenging schedule that the Jayhawks (22-6) may overtake a team with fewer setbacks for a No. 1 seed by March. Kansas remains No. 1 in RPI and, in mid-February, had played a national-best 14 games against teams ranked in the RPI top 50. During discussions about the Jayhawks, Palm said: “Kansas is playing a historically strong schedule. Their strength of schedule is No. 1 by a huge margin … the biggest margin in the 20 years I’ve been tracking this.”
• Do not rule out a last-minute addition to the field making a deep tournament run. Each morning, committee members begin each session with the same question: “Is anything bothering you?” Designed to trigger discussion, that query in 2011 caused one individual to make a last-minute presentation for VCU, which had not been included in the bracket the previous night. After discussion, VCU wound up playing as a “First Four” competitor and wound up reaching the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

After 15 hours of deliberations, we finished seeding a 68-team bracket that included several at-large teams that might not pass muster today (Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Minnesota). We omitted two that are on recent upticks (Baylor, Nebraska) but never moved the needle in February.

Upon completion, I asked Gavitt if we had just cobbled together the worst-looking mock bracket in the eight-year history of the annual exercise.

“Hardly,” Gavitt said. “I think it’s very realistic.”

Asked what insight he hoped media members would glean from their temporary trip inside the NCAA selection process, Gavitt said: “Just that it’s a process. There’s 10 people that have their own opinion that have to vote. And the votes carry the day.”

They definitely do. Now, it’s time to resume icing my elbow while I recover from all of that lever-pulling at the NCAA ballot box in Indianapolis.

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