The Seven Most Important Things to Remember During Championship Week

by David Mihm | March 5th, 2007


1) The RPI is not a script for selecting and seeding teams. It is merely a framework, from which there is often significant deviation.

Remember the following when you hear coaches, fans, and members of the media complaining in advance about the Selection Committee’s over-reliance on RPI data: it is simply one component of a team’s overall profile.

In the past eight years (the length of time for which I’ve been closely following the Selection process), the weakest RPI team to be included in the field was New Mexico at #74, in 1999. The highest-ranked team to be excluded from the Tournament was of course Missouri State at #21, last year. That’s a pretty dramatic variation in the numeric definition of a “Tournament-caliber” team.

Teams with weak RPI’s who are still strong candidates for inclusion this year: Stanford (58), Kansas State (60), Appalachian State (61), Gonzaga (68). Teams with strong RPI’s who may be in trouble: Air Force (26), Old Dominion (33), Illinois (35), Missouri State (38).

2) Don’t forget about the non-conference season.

With all the hype surrounding the Selection Committee’s “Last Ten Games” criterion this time of year, it’s easy to ignore big wins or bad losses that happened back in 2006. But those games are still important to the “overall body of work” that a particular team presents to the Committee.

Don’t forget, for example, that Arizona defeated New Mexico State, UNLV, Illinois, Louisville, San Diego State, and Memphis prior to its mid-season slide and late-season rebound. Don’t forget that Drexel beat Syracuse, Villanova, and of course Creighton on their home floors despite finishing in fourth place in the CAA.

Also remember that Virginia Tech, ACC co-champion, lost to Western Michigan and Marshall before the ACC season, and that USC does not own a single marquee win outside the Pac-10.

3) Not every conference schedule is created equal.

With the advent of the mega-conference and the dearth of true round-robin scheduling, this is a relatively new consideration for the Selection Committee. We are likely to see far more leap-frogging in terms of selection, and particularly in terms of seeding, this year.

For example, West Virginia, despite a 9-7 Big East record, has only defeated one NCAA Tournament-caliber team in its own conference: Villanova at home back on January 3. Villanova, which finished with the same record, defeated Notre Dame, Louisville, and Syracuse at home, and Georgetown and Providence on the road.

In the ACC, 11-5 Virginia played North Carolina, Boston College, and Georgia Tech only once, while 8-8 Duke played all three of those teams twice.

In the Big Ten, 9-7 Illinois played Ohio State and Wisconsin only once, both at home, while 8-8 Michigan State played them both twice.

4) One team on the bubble today will wind up as a protected seed, or close to it, by the end of the week.

This may surprise a number of people, but it has developed into a consistent trend in recent Championship Weeks, as Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Syracuse have done it in consecutive years.

In 2004, the Terps (7-9 in the ACC regular season) won the ACC Tournament and were given a 4-seed in the West region. 8-8 Georgia Tech accomplished a similar feat in 2005 (falling to Duke in the ACC Final) en route to a 5-seed in the West region. And of course last year, Syracuse went from the NIT to a 5-seed in the South region thanks to Gerry McNamara’s spectacular heroics in the Big East Tournament.

This year’s candidates for dramatic promotion: Stanford, Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Providence, Arkansas, Air Force.

5) Geographic balance has become an increasingly important factor for the Selection Committee in recent brackets.

Certainly the best example of this was last year’s field. UCLA was slotted 5th on the S-Curve (#2 in the West Region) despite only one RPI Top 25 win out of conference play. Cal was granted a 7-seed despite an atrocious non-conference schedule and two horrendous losses at home to Oregon State and Arizona State. Montana was given a 12 seed in Salt Lake City while Winthrop was dropped to a 15 to stay close to home in Greensboro, N.C. And of course Air Force and Utah State were selected as the last teams in the field at the expense of Missouri State, Hofstra, and Cincinnati, and were sent to San Diego for their first-round matchups.

The only logical explanation for any of this (which, to their credit, some members of the Committee admitted to after the fact) is a desire to include and protect more teams from the Western half of the country, in part to keep everyone closer to home for the first two rounds.

If that’s the case this year, look for beneficiaries to be the three (or four) teams from the Mountain West Conference, along with Gonzaga, Nevada, and a potential upset WAC Tournament champion. But the Pac-10 teams won’t need any added help: their profiles are all far stronger than a year ago.

Another area in which this may come into play is in keeping teams in their natural region, even if it means disrupting the S-Curve. North Carolina may be given a #2 in the East and Florida, Kansas, or Texas A&M a #2 in the South essentially “in lieu” of a #1 seed in a less-preferred region. The same can be said for lower-seeded teams as well, though there tend to be conference conflicts on the lower seed lines that make this kind of geographic management far more difficult.

6) You don’t have to be a conference tournament champion to earn a number one seed.

This is an argument I’ve heard commentators make during the past week more times than I care to recount. It is patently false.

In no way am I saying that performance in a conference tournament is irrelevant to a team’s seed or position on the S-Curve. But historical data shows that it’s actually more likely than not to have a non-champion somewhere on the #1 line.

We’ve seen two teams from the same conference be selected as #1 seeds an astonishing five years out of the last seven:

2000 – Arizona and Stanford
2001 – Michigan State and Illinois
2002 – Duke and Maryland
2003 – Oklahoma and Texas
2005 – North Carolina and Duke

This year’s candidates are Ohio State and Wisconsin, and there’s a strong chance that both end up on the #1 line next Sunday, particularly if Wisconsin defeats Ohio State in the Big Ten final. Why? The Badgers have a far stronger non-conference profile than Kansas or Florida, and a Big Ten Tournament title would do more than enough to prove to the Committee that Wisconsin has not missed a beat since losing Brian Butch in Columbus.

It’s very easy to make a last-minute switch of two conference teams on the same seed line, so this is one outcome that might be taken into account as a result of the Big Ten’s extremely late finish on Sunday.

7) Beware the talking heads.

When it comes to the prognostications of television analysts telling you who’s in, who’s out, who’s going where, and why, take ALL predictions with a grain of salt—the logical exception being the only bracket expert who makes regular television appearances, Joe Lunardi.

The reason? Few announcers have the time or the desire to follow the selection process as closely throughout the year as those of us who make it our full-time passion. Some media members have an 80-team projected field, others have extreme major-conference bias, and still others probably say things to make the viewing audience feel better about the chances of the two teams on the court.

There’s a good reason the Selection Committee sequesters itself in a suite at the Indianapolis Westin with little to no outside communication. It’s a complicated thought process that does not lend itself well to split-second calls or tasty soundbites. Keep in mind that NO ONE, not Joe Lunardi, nor Doug Gottlieb, nor Seth Davis, nor Billy Packer, nor even myself, has a 100% accurate reading of what goes on in that war room. That’s what makes the Selection Show the greatest hour of the year!

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