SALT LAKE CITY — After two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it seems like a good time to ask a few questions:
Has college basketball’s long regular season been rendered meaningless? Could the selection committee make the selection criteria more convoluted, inconsistent, incomprehensible and, ultimately, unsuccessful if it tried just a little harder? And were these really the best 68 teams?
Consider what has happened so far:
Among the 16 teams that advanced to this week’s third round, the average regular-season finish in conference standings was fourth place (average conference record: 12-6).
Only four of the remaining 16 teams won regular-season conference championships — Kansas, Gonzaga, Nevada and Loyola-Chicago. Kansas is the one surviving regular-season champion from a major conference.
The regular season has become irrelevant. It’s an exercise to sell TV ads and tickets and serve as a training camp for the tournament. You could argue that it establishes the seeding for the NCAA Tournament, but that role has been greatly diminished, as you’ll see.
First, a little background about the new selection process, which has been made even more mysterious and complex by adding the so-called “quadrant system” to the mix of strength of schedule, record, RPI/KPI ratings, Sagarin rankings etc., etc., etc. The primary metric for evaluating a team's record is still the flawed, highly subjective RPI system, except now it breaks wins into “quadrants.”
The RPI system has always valued strength of schedule, but now it places values on where the game was played — home, neutral, away. It devalues home wins and doesn’t penalize road losses as much as it did previously.
It’s an attempt to encourage teams to play strong opponents and road games. In simplest terms, in the minds of the selection committee members, if Team A wins on the road, that’s great; if it loses on the road, they don’t really care; and if you win at home, they care less than they used to.
This crazy, stat-crunching formula might actually work, but we’ll never really know because the selection committee is only half committed to it. After setting up this incredibly elaborate system, the committee ignores the whole thing and automatically awards NCAA berths to the 32 conference tournament winners, regardless of what they did in the regular season and regardless of how small their conference. Nearly half the field comes in through the back door.
The University of Maryland-Baltimore County finished second to Vermont in the American East Conference regular-season standings, but handed Vermont its first conference loss in the tournament final with a desperation 3-point shot at the buzzer to earn its pass to the NCAAs. Vermont was left out.
The quad system turned the selection process on its ear. Arizona State tied for eighth in the Pac-12 with an 8-10 record and lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, yet still qualified for the NCAA Tournament (and lost its first game).
Syracuse, 11th in the ACC standings with an 8-10 record, lost in the second round of its conference tournament and, you guessed it, still made the NCAA Tournament, where the Orangemen got hot and advanced to the Sweet 16.
It’s revealing to examine the fates of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which tied for sixth out of 10 teams in the Big 12 standings with 8-10 records, but with very different rewards. Oklahoma, 18-14 overall, lost 12 of its last 16 games, including its first-round game in the conference tournament. The Sooners made the NCAA field (and lost in the first round). The reason: Their conference losses were to good teams on the road, and they beat some good teams on the road early in the season. And, no, the selection process doesn’t factor in when wins and losses occur, so that late-season tailspin wasn’t a factor.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State, 21-14 overall, beat a long line of teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament, including Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma (twice), Texas Tech and Kansas, but didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The reason: All of the above wins were at home and thus were devalued; not even road wins over Kansas and West Virginia could overcome that.
The end result of the selection process is a mediocre, diluted field — the result of loopholes that account for more than half the field. It lacks marquee matchups because of the flood of conference tournament winners that circumvent the system and claim an automatic berth.
No one is going to abandon the conference tournaments — they’re too popular and profitable — but the selection committee should ignore the outcomes of those tournaments and apply their formulas across the board to the entire 68-team field. Any team can get hot at the right moment — to wit: UMBC, which upset Vermont in the conference tournament and No. 1 seed Virginia in the NCAA tourney. That will always be a fun part of the NCAA Tournament, but partially remove that component by eliminating automatic berths for conference tournament winners and instead reward sustained, season-long excellence.
The bottom line is that the selection process — decades in the making — still needs to be fixed.