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.

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