Alabama has lost 4 games in a row to drop to 17-13, and now have a losing conference record in the SEC, with only the trip to College Station remaining. Nebraska has won 8 of their last 9 games and finished 13-5 in the Big Ten, and wait (as the #4 seed) to see if they get to play Michigan again in the Big Ten quarters.
And one of these teams, overwhelmingly, has been the choice of prior selection committees when it comes to evaluating the most deserving team for an at-large. And they almost universally settle on teams like Alabama.
Bruce Rasmussen, this year’s Selection Committee chair and the AD at Creighton, was on the Sharp & Benning podcast on 1620 AM The Zone discussing the process:
“There’s a perception that the selection process is changed this year, because the team sheet is shown differently to the public. So we’re talking this year in terms of quadrants instead of RPI, but the reality is, since I’ve been on the committee, the selection, and the conversation in the committee room has not changed.”
This is bad news for Nebraska. The committee may have had some analytical types in to discuss some things and make changes from Top 50 to Quadrant 1, but the philosophy is going to be very business-as-usual. And that business has generally involved overvaluing greatness by association and raw number of “top wins.”
You can pretty accurately predict the tournament field by knowing two things: overall RPI rank, and number of top 50 (or now, it would seem, quadrant 1) wins. The lower your rank in RPI and the more Top wins (even if you have lots of top losses and opportunities) means the more likely you are to be selected.
Of the 84 entries in the Bracket Matrix from the last two days, only 8 of them have Nebraska getting in the tournament as of today (6th team out). Seventy-two of 84 have Alabama in, with the average being a 10 seed. That is based on assessing and assuming the Committee will make decisions like they always have.
But let’s break that down. Nebraska is 57th in the RPI, Alabama is 59th. That portion of what the committee looks at is even, so then they will view the top wins very differently. Alabama is 5-6 in quadrant 1 games (and Texas A&M on the road will be another), while Nebraska, who did not get to play any of Michigan State, Purdue, or Ohio State at home, is 1-5.
Since 2011, a whopping 27 of 29 teams that had a RPI rank of 45 to 65, and at least 4 top 50 wins, were selected for the tournament. Meanwhile, of those in the same range who had 1 or 2 top 50 wins, only 12 out 52 made it (and almost all of those had a RPI of 50 or better).
But are Nebraska and Alabama even, as the RPI rankings would suggest?
The RPI has major flaws and they come to roost particularly when evaluating these teams near the bubble. The biggest problem is that the bottom few games of a schedule end up have some outsized influence. If you are categorizing teams, do you want the weakest three opponents each faced as a deciding factor?
Nebraska, for example, played Delaware State. Delaware State is the worst team in Division I, 1-27, ranked 351st out of 351 teams. That means that a two-game series of home against Kansas and Delaware State (combined 25-33) is viewed as worse than a two-game series at home against Iowa State and Lehigh (28-29). Now put on your thinking hat. If I said you had to get two wins, which of those two pairs of opponents do you think is easier to accomplish that? You would be ranked higher in RPI by playing the latter, but that’s also the one everyone would choose to play to get two wins more easily.
It’s a system that can be gamed, and where a poor non-conference opponent can sink you, regardless of how badly you beat them. You get worse by just playing them (which is why I would advise any school wanting a guarantee game to contact a non-D1 school).
You can use the RPI Wizard at RPI Forecast to substitute or remove individual games and see the effect on a team’s ranking. Here’s what happens if you swap the bottom 2 or 3 opponents for Nebraska (Delaware State, Stetson, Marist) with Alabama (Alabama A&M, Louisiana Tech, Mercer):
That’s right, Nebraska would be a lock if they had just played the bottom of the Alabama schedule instead of theirs. These are games where Nebraska had a 99% chance of winning and Alabama still had well over a 90% chance. So that thing where the RPI looks at a 17-14 Alabama and says it’s similar to a 22-9 Nebraska? It’s mostly based on games no one cares about, played in empty arenas over the winter break. It’s not because of the SEC schedule versus the Big Ten. Both teams played two potential tournament at-larges non-conference (Creighton and Kansas for Nebraska; Arizona and Texas for Alabama). Any differences are based on playing slightly less worse teams.
The practical difference between playing the 350th best team and 250th best team at home in the non-conference is negligible. You beat both of them, at least 95% of the time. If the NCAA stays with the RPI, I would exclude the bottom 5 wins for each team to minimize gaming the system. Seth Burn calculates “Wins Above Bubble,” which seeks to answer the question “how many wins should a bubble team have against this schedule?”
Much like my “let’s swap or remove the bottom 3 games” rankings, he has Nebraska as the 32nd best resume, and Alabama as 66th. A bubble team playing Nebraska’s schedule would have between 20 and 21 wins. One playing Alabama’s schedule should have 18-19 wins. Yes, Alabama’s schedule is tougher. It’s not 5 games tougher. Anyone who believes that is not grounded in logic.
Yet here we are. Here, by the way, are the Quadrant 1 games for each, and I’ve shaded them different colors depending on if they are in the upper half of difficulty in Quadrant 1 or not.
You’ll notice that while the Quadrant 1 records are different, the biggest factor is that Nebraska does not have any relatively easier ones, the kind bubble teams tend to win almost 50%. Nebraska played the more difficult Quadrant 1 schedule on average. The difference in those more difficult games comes down to one Svi Mykhailiuk shot by a team now being talked up as a #1 seed. The difference in resume at the top is vastly overstated.
The committee will see a difference, but I think a fair evaluation would say Nebraska going 22-9 against their schedule, when they had to play 3 road games at Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State and Kansas at home, is more impressive than Alabama managing to be 17-13 against theirs. People like to say the RPI rewards winners. Which team is the winner? Versus which one gets credited for just having more opportunities?
Finally, I’ll show you why the Committee’s preference for the Alabamas over the Nebraskas is demonstrably bad policy. I don’t have to agree with you that the best 2-3 wins equals the best resume.
One would think that if the Committee was correctly picking the best candidates in those final at-large spots based on things like RPI Top 50 or Quadrant 1 wins, those teams would perform decently.
I went through the last 5 tournaments, and pulled every major conference that either sent (a) over half of its members to the tournament or (b) less than 40% of its members. The former resemble this year’s SEC (or Big 12), the latter this year’s Big Ten (or Pac-12).
I then pulled all results for every team from those conference types seeded 7 or lower.
Of the bubble teams from the heavily-represented power conferences (the Alabamas), 3 played in the First 4 game, and went 1-2. Of the 22 that played in the First Round, they went 4-18. Four wins! That’s a worse win percentage than the 13 and 14 seeds have had in the First Round. And remember these are games where they are seeded between 7 and 12 and playing other teams that should be similar to them. Only one of them–Xavier last year–advanced to a Sweet 16. It seems that the committee might be overvaluing the quality of these teams because they played a higher quantity of top games and happened to win some of them.
Of the bubble teams from the lightly-represented power conferences (the Nebraskas), 4 played in the First 4 game, going 3-1. Of the 18 that played in the First Round, they went 11-7 (Often against those Alabama types). Five of them then reached the Sweet 16, and two the Final Four.
The evidence is pretty overwhelming that the Committee-if they do business as usual-is getting it very wrong at the bubble. They reward greatness by association. They reward teams that get a large quantity of top games in their conference, and then win them occasionally. Alabama hasn’t done anything special. They’ve shown themselves to be a sub-500 team in a power conference and don’t have any notable non-conference wins to boost them above that (compared to say, Texas A&M, who does have some good non-conference wins).
They are gonna get credit for a road win at Florida for example (that’s a quadrant 1 game) while losing at home to Florida isn’t part of the Quadrant 1 equation now. That doesn’t make much sense to credit them for splitting in that manner, compared to both teams winning at home. If they lose to Texas A&M, they will drop to 17-14. That schedule isn’t that hard that they should be able to get in with 14 losses.
Nebraska meanwhile, is probably going to get snubbed. And they can think Delaware State, and the Committee not understanding why the RPI is bad, and why overvaluing greatness by association is worse.