I am going to lay out a modest proposal for how I would select teams for the NCAA Tournament if I were commissioner of basketball. Now, granted, I am not. And this will never happen, but play along.
In reality, the committee spends lots of time going over who gets in the field, “scrubbing” and selecting the teams in a constant back-and-forth process. When I attended the NCAA’s mock exercise in Indianapolis three years ago, we ended up putting only 17 teams in the initial at-large “in” group (along with the teams we were told were auto bids). That was less than half of the ultimate number of at-larges, and we spent a lot of time going through and voting on teams in groups of 4 to thereafter make it after debating them.
So our current system involves 32 automatic bids to each conference tournament champion, and 36 at-large bids doled out by the committee. In actuality, though, most of those bids are pretty easy to pick out, even if it does take time out of the process. There’s a reason everyone touts picking 66, 67 or all 68 of the field each year.
So my proposal borrows from European Soccer and how they select spots for the various continental tournaments (Champions League, UEFA League, etc). It’s based on recent past performance of teams in those leagues. The less successful leagues resemble our smaller conferences, where one team may get an invite to each level of tournament. Spain or England, meanwhile, might resemble the ACC or Big Ten.
I would take a certain number of those large amount of 32 at-larges, and just allocate them by conference based on recent past performance of its current member teams in the NCAA Tournament. Tournament success, therefore, earns you more spots in the next few tournaments.
The formula can be set in any manner as long as it limits how far back it looks. For example, I excluded all “First Four Wins” and gave full credit to all wins in the NCAA Tournament in the last two years, two-thirds credit for Years 3 and 4, and one-third credit for Years 5 and 6. I am giving the committee 6 discretionary at-large spots, from which they could pick the best big conference or quality mid-majors (LOL, jk) and allocating the rest. Here are the number of automatic bids that each conference would have gotten in the last four years in my proposal. The final two spots out of the 30 newly allocated automatics are designated as available for the “First 4” (and marked with an asterisk). Otherwise, the Committee must populate the First 4 with its at-large choices in those final spots.
So, the ACC will have earned 8 automatic spots, and the committee would then fill those 8 slots without comparing to other teams in other conferences, until seeding arrives. This doesn’t mean the Big 12 only gets 5 slots. It does mean, that based on conference performance, they are guaranteed 5, and if the selection committee wants to put in 8, 3 of them occupy half the at-large discretionary spots, and some will likely have to play in Dayton.
Conversely, the Big Ten would get 6. Now, this is considered a down year for the Big Ten (at least by the committee’s preferred RPI). But the Big Ten has been a consistent tournament force and my guess is its members will collectively outperform their seed. I think it’s a longshot that any of Nebraska, Penn State, and Maryland get in. In this scenario, those three would go to New York battling for two slots, with a lot on the line. If you go by Ken Pomeroy’s power rankings, all three of those teams are in the top 55 and would be very much in line with past at-large selections in quality.
My proposal may sound dramatic. In truth, it cuts out a lot of meaningless work and only matters on the margins. In fact, I went back through the previous three tournaments using the methodology, and then assigning the six at-larges based on the committee seeding list.
Only 8 teams in three years would have been different. Here they are:
That list includes many notable “snubs” at the bubble that were somewhat controversial at the time. Tulsa over South Carolina, for example, or leaving out St. Mary’s in 2016. Illinois State missing out last year because of Wichita State. In my proposal, the quality of the MVC performances would have earned them a second auto bid and taken it out of the committee’s hands. Same with St. Mary’s, based on how Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU have done in recent years.
The average Ken Pomeroy rating of my 8 teams that would have gotten in is 51.9. The average Ken Pomeroy rating of the 8 teams that would have missed with my change was 51.0. It’s shuffling deck chairs.
But in my crazy proposal, the WCC would know they get two bids (and then, by the way, it would be a huge deal for BYU to break through and win the WCC tournament), the Atlantic-10 would know they get two (and St. Bonaventure would be in the same boat, needing to knock teams out to prevent a bid thief directly affecting them).
I know, the committee would hate that they don’t get to overvalue Top 50 wins or the RPI to a greater degree. And I know what you are thinking–why should past seasons matter? Well, they do, every bit as much as making decisions based on a very small sample size of games in November and early December to set conference superiority in the RPI. The types of teams that would be missing would be in large part those that get overvalued at the bubble. Only two of the eight teams won a game to advance to the Round of 32. These aren’t changes that would have had huge impacts on the tournament.
And the real effect, if there’s not much difference in team quality, is that far less time is spent on deciding who’s in, when 96% of the field ends up being pretty predictable anyway. My method would have put 96% of the same teams in the NCAA tournament, and taken far less time.
That would leave time for seeding and bracketing, and avoiding situations where one region is loaded or the committee makes a bracketing error. Seeding is by far the biggest factor in the tournament, not the selection of a couple of bubble teams. Bracketing competitive regions is a far more important task. There may be slight year-to-year changes in which of the big conferences are considered “the best”, and the committee has those six discretionary spots to address that. But the conversation on those 6 can come late in the process and they can start discussing brackets and regions in far more detail earlier.