The most important and controversial annual function of the selection committee for the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament is to decide which 36 teams merit at-large bids into the final field alongside the 32 conference champions that qualify automatically.
The excruciating endeavor requires weighing the cases of dozens of teams, each of which has typically played more than 30 games at home, away and on neutral courts throughout a season pockmarked by injuries, suspensions and inexplicably poor (or outstanding) performances. And the task is mostly thankless: Teams on the bubble that do get in feel they belonged and rarely feel the need to offer gratitude; teams on the bubble that are left out, and exiled to the National Invitation Tournament, have little use for explanations.
But picking the field is only the start. The committee must then seed the teams based on how good they are while considering several other byzantine factors. (Some examples: Teams from the same conference may not meet before the round of 16 if they played twice during the season; and teams may not receive a “home-crowd disadvantage,” like, say, being matched against a 10th-seeded Utah in Salt Lake City.)
The committee’s job is mind-bendingly difficult, and for all the complaining, its members are pretty good at it. But recently, the public’s focus has been on parsing what the committee has done.
In summary, it is a question of results versus prediction. Should the season’s results carry the day? Or should a broader sense of which teams are more likely to advance be the decisive factor?
“That’s the debate that happens every meeting with new people,” said Doug Fullerton, the former Big Sky commissioner, who served on the selection committee from 2010 to 2014. “Some people will raise their hand and say, ‘Are we picking the teams that deserve to be there — did what they were supposed to do — or the teams we think can win?’
Several close observers acknowledged the debate is somewhat one of semantics. But not completely. Imagine, for instance, two teams that have identical records except for five games. One team won those five games by a point each; the other team lost those five games by a point each. The results say the teams are vastly different; a reading of the fine print suggests they are roughly the same.
Sokol added, “The predictive methods — I don’t want to say they ignore who won or lost — but they don’t treat a 1-point last-second win and a 1-point last-second loss very differently.”
St. Mary’s is a good team to watch as a bellwether for the committee’s thinking this year. With a 28-4 record, the Gaels are hardly at risk of being snubbed outright. But their West Coast Conference competition and their dearth of wins against highly regarded opponents mean a conventional, results-oriented analysis would probably leave them with a disadvantageous, double-digit seeding.
The introduction of predictive metrics, which have been embraced by the N.C.A.A., has only complicated this fundamentally philosophical debate. Because while the N.C.A.A.’s traditional rating percentage index focuses on win-loss records, the new metrics tend to account for margins of victory or defeat, which frequently convey more information about a team.
However new some of the cutting-edge statistics are, the debate itself is an old one, according to Bill Hancock, who was director of the men’s basketball championship for more than a decade.
“We were having the same debate 20 years ago,” he said, adding: “What that came down to would be to ask the former coaches on the committee, ‘Which one do you not want to play?’ That’s another way of saying, ‘Which is the better team?’”
Now, as executive director of the College Football Playoff, Hancock works with a committee that tackles a similarly heated and high-stakes debate — how to pick the “best” four teams based on a season’s worth of games — and seems to have taken a pretty clear stand on prediction over results. In 2014, the football playoff committee slotted two one-loss teams over undefeated Florida State. Last season, it slotted Ohio State (11-1) above Washington (12-1), a conference champion, and Penn State (11-2), a conference champion that had beaten Ohio State that season.
“So many games are decided by momentum, emotion, injuries, the way the ball bounces,” Hancock said, adding, “The debate was over early for us: the best four teams.”
A 68-team tournament with six full rounds is a different story. As Sokol noted, with 68 teams in the tournament (and more important, 36 at-large teams), “it’s a virtual certainty that the best team will be included.”
“Then,” he added, “the onus is on them to win.”