Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Breaking Loose in Tulsa: Anatomy of a bad at-large NCAA Tournament selection, and the business of at-large bids

Every NCAA Tournament selection show ends with howling over snubs and undeserving inclusions. This year's bad-inclusion winner is a duesy: Tulsa made the field at large despite ranking 75th in Massey Ratings and a mediocre finish that included multiple losses to unheralded Memphis.

Syracuse (58th) caught similar flak, especially after losing 5 of their last 6, including a regular season closing road loss to NIT-worthy Florida State. This is especially glaring given the omissions of worthy programs like South Carolina (44th) and Georgia Tech (45th). However, Tulsa's inclusion is quite glaring given their rating even made them a marginal pick for the subordinate NIT tournament.

Someone on reddit floated an excellent theory that might not only explain these inclusions but also illustrate the sort of political factors within the NCAA that lead to certain selections and omissions:

Each conference gets a certain sum of money for every NCAA bid they get. Louisville and SMU, who would have certainly made the field, are barred from postseason play this year and could not go. The ACC (Louisville) and American Athletic Conference (SMU) lose out... unless the tournament takes one extra at-large team from those conferences in their stead.

Hence Syracuse (ACC) and Tulsa (AAC) got bids they probably didn't deserve, as a restitution payoff to the power conferences for their powerful but banned programs not getting in.

Yes, this is terribly unfair from a competitive standpoint. Yes, the committee ideally should take teams on their own merit rather than out of loyalty to a conference or program. But as long as the NCAA fills a field by hand picking teams at-large, this is always going to happen with the bubble teams. Teams are always going to get seeded higher or lower than they should, or play at an out of place region when circumstances would have allowed them to play closer to home.

Unfortunately, when you give a group of rich white men the power to hand pick competitors for a championship, political and business interests become just as important a factor in your program's fate as your strength of schedule or win loss record.

Monday, March 7, 2016

If Roy Williams want automatic NCAA Tournament bids for regular season conference champs....

Roy Williams has stated for years that he feels a conference's regular season champion should get the conference's automatic tournament bid, rather than the conference's tournament champion. Should the regular season champion get an automatic tournament bid? Or the conference tournament champion?

My answer? Yes.

If you're going to do it, both should get it. We should do away with at-large tournament bids, give every conference two bids and expand the field to 72.

Much like how international soccer leagues' non-premier divisions hold playoffs to determine who gets promoted, I think the conference tournament should be played among every runner up in the conference as a winner take all event. The conference champ gets an automatic bid, and every other team in the conference plays each other for the right to the other automatic bid.

With 36 conferences, this leaves us with 72 tournament entrants. You may do one of three things.

1. Hold eight play-in games at Dayton over Monday and Tuesday to determine the 15 and 16 seeds. This gives the lowest seeds a chance to at least win a tournament game before being fed to the #1 and #2 seeds on Thursday/Friday.

2. Hold a pair of 4 team play in tournaments at Dayton on Monday and Tuesday among the lowest 8 rated teams in the field, to determine the lowest #16 seeds for Thursday/Friday's round of 64. This gives the field of 64 a little more stuffing, since more of the lowest rated teams would knock each other out during these play ins.

3. Take a page from the conference tournaments and "stepladder" the rounds with byes to reward the higher seeds. Perhaps the top 8 teams (all the #1 and #2 seeds) get a bye to the round of 32, while everyone else has to play on Thursday and Friday. This jacks with the seeding, with 18 teams now in every region rather than 16, plus instead of 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15... 3 plays 18, 4 plays 17... down to 10 playing 11... while #1 and #2 get the 1st round off.

The obvious issue with this more objective format for determining tournament teams is that you involve fewer of the power conference teams, which not only dilutes attendance and viewership, but also doesn't allow these conferences to rake in extra tournament money. That alone will likely prohibit the NCAA from ever eliminating the placement of at-large teams from the tournament.

Still, if Roy Williams is serious about giving the conference champ an automatic bid, there would need to be a carrot for the conference tournaments, which obviously won't ever go away. This would be the most workable solution, outside of that silly 96 team expansion idea the NCAA had a few years ago.