The following story appears in the Summer 2017 edition of NABC Time-Out Magazine. To read the full Summer 2017 issue, click here.
Seed list. Scrubbing. Pod system. Competitive balance.
For nearly three hours on a May evening at the NCAA national office, the NABC Board of Directors and Ad Hoc Committee spoke the complicated language of the NCAA Tournament selection, seeding and bracketing process. Alongside NCAA staff and the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, NABC personnel took part in a mock selection exercise that simulated the Committee’s nearly week-long process of engineering March Madness.
Same selection room setup.
Same rankings and analytics.
Same principles and procedures.
The mock selection offered the NCAA a vehicle to increase transparency into a process that is as often misunderstood as it is criticized. And for the coaches, an opportunity to experience the minutia of the process first-hand.
“It blew me away,” said Kansas coach and NABC President Bill Self.
The NABC Board of Directors and Ad Hoc Committee are participating tonight in a mock NCAA Tournament selection process. pic.twitter.com/LWMRg4odOs— NABC (@NABC1927) May 10, 2017
Just as the Committee does at the onset of selection week in March, the mock participants started by completing an initial ballot, with lists of teams seen as locks and those deserving of consideration. After votes were tallied and the first group of at large teams placed into the field – the mock participants initially voted in 17, compared to the Committee’s 24 in March – the heart of the process began in earnest.
Next came a series of ballots to continue selecting teams for at-large bids. From the under-consideration board, participants identified eight teams, ranked them, and from that group placed the next set of four into the field. The Selection Committee repeats those steps in March until all 36 at-large teams are chosen.
Selecting at-large bids, however, is just one part of the equation. As teams are voted into the field and conference tournaments simultaneously produce automatic berths throughout the week, the Committee builds and routinely tweaks its 1-through-68 seed list – a process known as scrubbing.
During the mock selection, participants conducted multiple votes on moving teams up and down the seed list. They debated schedule strength and opportunity, the importance of conference tournaments, modern analytics, and the difficulty of comparing teams from disparate autonomy and mid-major leagues.
Similar dialogue, Selection Committee members attested, that takes place in the room each March.
“These guys feel the pressure,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said of the Committee. “They don’t feel the pressure that the coaches feel, or that the teams on the bubble feel, but they feel the pressure. They want to get this right.”
To further imitate the real thing, the NCAA recreated the Committee’s actual scenario from 2017’s final Selection Sunday at-large ballot: nine teams under consideration, with just four spots left in the field. Every angle of the individual resumes needing to be examined before submitting the decisive votes.
“It’s amazing how much detailed conversation and how much objectivity there is in determining which program may be ahead of another,” said Self. “It just goes to show you how much thought and time goes into a very difficult process.”
“It was mind blowing,” added South Carolina coach Frank Martin following the final vote. “That must be unbelievably intense in that moment.”
With the field of 68 selected and seeded, the final phase of the process is building the iconic bracket. Simple? Think again.
Various policies govern the bracket, identifying conflicts resulting from conference affiliation, regular-season rematches and competitive balance. The bracketing process’ pod system also sets a heightened importance on geography, rather than placing teams based on the s-curve model of old.
The Selection Committee walked participants through construction of the 2017 Tournament’s top-four seed lines. Starting with the No. 1 seeds and following in true-seed order, teams were first placed into each of the bracket’s four regions. And after a review of the top quadrant’s balance, first-and-second round sites were assigned.
Only then did potential later-round matchups begin to appear.
Notably, the mock bracketing process included no mention of conference power, rivalries or coaching storylines. Ulterior motives were nowhere to be found.
“Some have a feeling that there’s a conspiracy theory going on, creating matchups for fan and TV interest,” said NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt. “Once you go through the process, you realize it’s pretty automated.”
May’s mock selection exercise came amid a period of increased collaboration between the NCAA and the NABC. Last summer, under the guidance of NABC Executive Director Jim Haney and former SEC Commissioner and Selection Committee chair Mike Slive, the Ad Hoc Committee presented a series of recommendations pertaining to the tournament. Among them were proposals to hold a rankings release show in February and for the No. 1 overall seed to be given the choice of its assigned region – both of which were implemented in 2017.
“The collaboration that’s been ongoing for almost a year now between the NABC and the Committee has been really helpful to the process,” said Gavitt. “Some good ideas have come from it.”
Even the mock selection itself – typically held to educate members of the media – was organized at the request of the Ad Hoc Committee.
“Part of making helpful and valuable recommendations to the process is really understanding it,” Gavitt said.
“We have our own ideas, but the biggest thing we wanted to do is understand the Committee’s thoughts behind the process,” added Self.
Dialogue between the parties remains ongoing. A working group representing the Selection Committee, the NABC Ad Hoc Committee, and NCAA and NABC staff are studying potential alterations to how data is utilized in the selection room. In January, the NABC was represented at an NCAA roundtable of the sport’s top analytic minds to evaluate how quality wins are defined and the feasibility of someday replacing the RPI.
A thorough review of the degree to which geography impacts competitive balance in the bracketing process also looms on the horizon.
It’s clear that as the championship continues to evolve, the NCAA values the NABC’s unique coaching perspective.
“I think the coaches feel very good that we’ve got a seat at the table, and that we do have a voice,” said Self.
“The more dialogue we can have with the NCAA, I think that puts our organization in a better place.”