NCAA tournament selection committee needs a new formula

NOVA12-N
A young fan steps up to shake hands with Villanova’s Jalen Brunson as everyone waits for start of the NCAA Selection Sunday show on campus March 11, 2018.

I ran into Bruce Rasmussen a few weeks ago before a game. When the Creighton athletic director and chairman of the selection committee told me he really puts a high value on seeing how teams play, I got my hopes up the NCAA tournament selections would not just be based on the tired and outdated RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). He said if it was only about a formula, there would be no need for a committee, suggesting it could all be done by computer.

What we got, in the end, was the same old formula dressed up in a fancier name. Now, we have quadrants. A Quadrant 1 win, the best kind, is a home game against an RPI top-30 team, a neutral game against an RPI top-50 or a road game against a top-75. Better than before, but the RPI, which does not take into account margins of victory, is an inherently flawed system.

Rasmussen, a former coach, is just one of 10 members. And he might have based his votes on the 36 at-large teams by what he saw. Many other committee members simply don’t have that kind of basketball experience and are not qualified to vote on anything but numbers.

So, here is a suggestion that was supposedly being considered but was clearly not used this time around. If the committee is going to rely on numbers so much, get rid of the RPI and use more modern, predictive metrics. There are so many out there that are better than RPI, which is, bottom line, just based on records. It has nothing do with how teams play, margins of victory or if teams change through a season.

I have long been a fan of kenpom.com. Its offensive and defensive efficiency numbers much better explain teams than raw scores. And its game predictions are so good that no respectable oddsmaker puts out a line without consulting the site.

Hopefully, someday, if the committee is going to be so reliant on numbers, it will incorporate kenpom into the discussion. If it had done so this year, teams such as Saint Mary’s,  Penn State, Notre Dame, Louisville and Baylor, each rated higher than 12 teams in the at-large pool, might have had a more pleasant Selection Sunday.

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Meanwhile, on to the bracket: Villanova got what looks like the easiest path to San Antonio among the No. 1 seeds. The Wildcats are not losing to the LIU Brooklyn/Radford winner in the first round. The 8-9 game features teams (Virginia Tech and Alabama) that have lost more games this season (26 combined) than Villanova has lost in the last five seasons (21).

The five-season 159-21 record technically won’t help Villanova win 2018 NCAA games, but all those experiences, which include five in-season tournament wins, are a real positive.

The Cats have a historically great offense, scoring a nation’s best 1.23 points per possession. Nova’s defense, a problem all season, got markedly better in the Big East tournament, a good sign that may portend a deep run.

There are other serious offensive teams in the East Region, including Wichita State, a possible Sweet 16 Nova opponent, and No. 2 seed Purdue. The Boilermakers’ defense faded badly late in the season, so the Cats should be able to put up numbers on them if it comes to that.

Penn was seeded incorrectly. A 14 or 15 would have been more reasonable, but playing Kansas in Wichita will be a lifetime memory for a team that has maxed out its talent with brilliant coaching. Penn’s defense is now Top 75, going up 150 spots in two seasons. Kenpom has it Kansas 80-Penn 66, a much closer prediction than a normal 1-16.

I have a few problems with No. 1 overall seed Virginia and none has anything to do with its seed. The Cavaliers deserved it. What I am concerned about is its 60 possessions per game, a number that has the potential to keep inferior teams in games, and the South Region in general. The Cavs are looking at Kentucky or Arizona in the Sweet 16, with NBA players all over both rosters. And just imagine if they play Cincinnati in a regional final. Could be nil-nil. First team to 40 would be a cinch, if anybody actually gets there in a potential game between the country’s two best defenses.

If you are wondering how Arizona State got in despite hitting a wall down the stretch, the committee looks at the entire season. Arizona State beat two No. 1 seeds, Xavier in Las Vegas and Kansas at Allen Field House.

As to Oklahoma, I can’t really explain how a team that finished 2-8 got a 10 seed. Its best road wins were at Wichita State and TCU in December. However, it is worth noting that kenpom has the Sooners beating Rhode Island, 83-82.

I think I can explain why USC, Oklahoma State, and Louisville are not in the field. You think the fact that all three were named in the FBI investigation could have impacted their exclusion?

Both Michigan and Montana got bad draws. The Wolverines are John Beilein with defense, easily the best of his tenure. Big Sky champion Montana is terrific. Kenpom has it Michigan 70-63, a scary prediction for a 3-14 game.

If you are looking for live double-digit seed dogs, consider two 12-over-5 games: Murray State over West Virginia and New Mexico State over Clemson; and two 11-over-6 games: San Diego State over Houston and Loyola Chicago over Miami. Kenpom has it Miami, 68-67.

Only two teams enter the tournament Top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, always a good predictor for long runs. Duke is third on offense and seventh on defense. The zone Coach K went to late in the season was very effective for the Blue Devils. Michigan State is ninth and ninth. That could be some Sweet 16 game in the Midwest.