The NCAA Selection Committee chose their field of 64 yesterday, then took to the television to explain and defend their selection process.
Much of the talk from the committee members centered around topics like "playing a tough schedule" and "competing against top teams." They would often cite wins against the Top 50 and the eye test as a part of their decision making process. Many of the most optimistic of NCAA fans like to think the committee looks at a variety of things in making their decisions on who should make the cut.
But was it really that complicated? Probably not.
A quick look at the RPI rankings reveals a lot about why teams like Iona were selected instead of teams like Drexel. The highest (or lowest depending on how you look at it) to receive an at-large bid was Virginia at 54. The only team inside of 54 that did not receive a bid was Northwestern at 52. Every single team in the top 51 of RPI was invited to participate in the NCAA tournament.
Suddenly, the process of deciding who is in and who is out doesn't look so difficult.
RPI is often derided, but it is less about the metric itself and more about how there are better rankings systems that have been created. The favorite of this website is, of course, Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings. Why are they so much better than RPI? Well, at a basic level it comes down to the number of data points. When you are looking at thousands of possessions to judge a team, or 30 game results, which do you think would tell a better story? RPI gives the same value to a one-point win and a 30-point win. Pomeroy is going to give more credit to that team that won by 30.
I decided to make find my own 37 at-large teams using the same exact criteria that the committee members spoke of and that the data implies, but by replacing RPI with Ken Pomeroy's ratings. As expected, the teams were mostly similar, but there were some major changes (especially for Pac-12 fans) among the last four teams in.
First, I did just as the committee did: Every team ranked in the top 51 of KenPom that doesn't already have an automatic bid will be taken at-large. We'll call them "shoo-ins."
Shoo-in At-Large bids
2 Ohio St.
5 North Carolina
10 Wichita St.
15 St. Louis
22 Kansas St.
30 Iowa St.
33 Nevada Las Vegas
38 Miami FL
40 Notre Dame
42 West Virginia
44 North Carolina St.
47 Seton Hall
50 Brigham Young
If you were counting, you know that is a total of 36 at-large teams from the "Top 51." That means there is just one spot left to play with.
But how are we to choose? All those teams and just one more bid? This is going to be hard!
Well, not exactly. We can go back to what the committee did and not award a bid to anyone ranked above 54. That leaves three teams vying for the last spot: San Diego State, Stanford, and Minnesota. Here are their records against the KenPom Top 50 and their KenPom Strength of Schedule.
Point and laugh at those jokers from Minnesota! 1-9 against the Top 50, get out of here! Never mind that all ten of Minnesota's "Top 50" games were actually against the Top 25, while only 3 of SDSU's and 1 of Stanford's were.
But hey, from listening to them defend their picks on Sunday, especially in defense of Colorado State's 3-9 Top 50 record, it would seem that all Top 50 games are created equal. Playing Ohio State is exactly the same as playing Arizona. Congratulations, San Diego State, you are in the field.
So now that the we have 37 at-large bids using KenPom instead of RPI, how do the groups differ?
New teams: Miami (FL), Drexel, Seton Hall, UCLA, and Arizona
Teams that got the boot (with rankings in parentheses):
Iona (57), Xavier (59), South Florida (66), Southern Miss (71), and Colorado State (76)
It's clear that the Pac-12 would come out as the big winner here. They may end up having two teams in the play-in games, but they still will have four total teams in the tournament, and the cries for the demise of the conference may not be quite as loud.
With the inclusion of UCLA especially, some of you may be saying, "This is absurd, how can you make decisions based on one number?"
No disagreement here. It is absurd that the committee puts almost everything into a single measurement, and then bases all other criteria off that single measurement. Think about it: If you are already using RPI to measure a team, what is the sense is looking at their record against the Top 50? Isn't that already factored into the RPI ranking?
This whole "selection process" didn't take much time at all for me, and it only came down to a decision for one spot between three teams. It seems the NCAA (at least this season) had some pretty rigid guidelines when it came to awarding at-large bids. Where they may start diverging from RPI is in the seeding of teams. For example: Memphis was ranked 16th, but received the dreaded 8 seed. 16th should have put them in line for a 4 or 5 seed. Maybe when the committee talks about using eye tests and other things, they are talking about when they start seeding the field, because the inclusion of teams seems almost entirely based on RPI.
So next time you see someone talk about how difficult it is for the committee to select the field of 68, just remember that they are using a cheat sheet. An old, yellowing cheat sheet from the late-70s.