Crunching the numbers at the beginning of the week yielded an interesting NCAA Tournament path for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Going by Monday morning’s updated projections on BracketMatrix.com — a website that ranks teams from a composite of several different Bracketology boards — and applying the NCAA Selection Committee’s seeding and bracketing principles, the Cats would be playing the first weekend in San Diego, the farthest first-weekend site from Lexington.
That same bracket scenario put UK as a No. 5 seed in Los Angeles — again, the farthest region from Lexington — and within a region that also included Kansas as the No. 1 seed, North Carolina as the No. 2 seed, Michigan as the No. 3 seed and Arizona as the No. 4 seed.
That’s two bluebloods (Kansas and UNC) that many UK fans perceive as rivals. Another team (Michigan) that is among the hottest in the country and happens to boast a player (Charles Matthews) that used to be a Wildcat. And a fourth team (Arizona) that just might feature the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft (DeAndre Ayton) and was seen in the preseason as a national title favorite.
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If that setup were to actually happen on Selection Sunday, the cries of “Conspiracy!” from certain Cats’ fans would surely be deafening.
Don’t be that type of fan. There’s no conspiracy here.
Back in January, the NCAA held its annual convention in Indianapolis, and one of the more interesting workshops on the schedule was the “Mock Selection Process” — a four-hour, here’s-how-we-do-it tutorial on the method used to create the NCAA Tournament bracket.
Many of the major players who are in the room and make the decisions during the selection process — including Committee Chair Bruce Rasmussen — were there. There were Power Point slides and computer program demonstrations.
Like many followers of college basketball, I went into that meeting room a skeptic who had been left scratching my head far too many times over past tournament matchups that seemed to good to be true. I listened. I asked questions. I cornered Rasmussen and other officials after the demonstration.
I walked out of that meeting room a believer in the system.
If the NCAA took that show on the road, offering up the same demonstration to disbelieving fans across the country, allowed those fans to air grievances and take a deeper look into the process, there’d be a lot fewer complaints on Selection Sunday.
Since they’re not going to do that, here’s a stab at boiling down several months of work into a few paragraphs.
The 10-member Selection Committee, which currently includes UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, arrives in New York on Wednesday to start the bracketing process, though they also meet once before the season to go over assignments — each AD on the committee is assigned several conferences to pay particular attention to, should questions about teams from those leagues arise during the selection process — and once in February for a “dry run” of sorts.
The principles behind the process that begins on Wednesday — the start of five days of intense discussion, voting, and more discussion and more voting — are available on the NCAA’s website for everyone to see.
On the first day, each member offers a list of no more than 36 teams they think should be in the tournament as at-large selections, and a second list of teams that should be under consideration. Any team that receives all but two votes on the first list is moved into the tournament field as an at-large selection. Others go on an “under consideration” board that results in more votes as the week moves on.
For this process and the seeding process that follows, committee members have access to “team sheets” that feature pertinent information on every team in the country, as well as something called the “nitty gritty” page, a document showing every college basketball team that is sortable by such subjects as RPI, strength of schedule and quality wins.
The committee members have a laptop and four monitors in front of them, and they can call up whatever information they want at any time.
Once the field of 68 teams is set, the process of seeding teams begins.
That involves another painstaking process of votes — the guidelines for such are also explained in the NCAA’s bracketing process document online.
Once the 1-68 seed list is created from those votes, committee members look at it and can then discuss moving teams up and down the rankings. To flip two teams in the rankings, a committee member must call for a vote, and it takes a majority to make the flip.
Rasmussen, the committee chair, compared the process to arguing a court case. The evidence — the official “team sheets” — can be placed side by side and committee members make their points for which team is better.
“Sometimes these discussions can take three seconds, and sometimes they can take 10-15 minutes,” Rasmussen said.
And anyone affiliated with the school being discussed cannot be in the room for those discussions. So, if UK is part of the debate, Barnhart must step outside. When he returns — there’s an actual door buzzer to signal that the AD waiting outside is allowed to come back in the room — he’ll get a rundown of what was discussed from top NCAA basketball official Dan Gavitt, who is not a member of the committee but is one of the handful of officials in the room for the selection process.
Gavitt also has the authority to call for a break if debates get a little too unruly.
“We’ll have arguments,” acknowledged BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe, who is on the selection committee. “Sometimes it gets heated.”
It’s important to note that all of the actual votes related to the selection process, from choosing the at-large teams to seeding them, are silent. Ultimately, no committee member knows how another committee member voted. The results are tallied, the decisions are made, and then it’s on to the next vote and discussion.
Many fans of teams perceived as slighted by the committee’s decisions picture a smoke-filled room where deals are agreed upon and matchups to drive ticket sales or TV ratings are made. That’s simply not the case, and — given the voting structure of the committee — would be next to impossible to manage.
Quite simply, there’s too much going on in the process — and too many decisions that can affect other decisions and more decisions beyond that — to fudge the numbers to try and get a “favorable” outcome.
That brings us to the actual placement of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament bracket. And that’s the relatively easy part.
Once the teams are seeded 1-68, their position on the bracket itself is almost entirely up to math and technology.
The top 16 teams are placed, in order, in the four regions closest to their campuses — keeping in mind the rules that prevent conference foes from meeting early in the tournament. Then, the first weekend sites for those 16 teams are selected, again based on proximity to campus.
After that, the teams seeded 17-68 are assigned spots based on the corresponding first-weekend sites’ proximity to campus.
To complete this process, the NCAA has a computer program that basically tells the committee exactly what to do.
The program divides the field into the four regions. When the next team up to be placed is selected, it shows the mileage from that team’s campus to each available tournament site. If one of those sites can’t be selected due to a conference (or some other) conflict, the program shows that mileage number in red and specifies the nature of the conflict. The committee then slots the team in question in the best available site. And, then, repeat for the rest of the bracket.
“You see with this software, our thoughts are out of it,” Rasmussen said. “There’s no ulterior motives in these matchups.”
The “Mock Selection Process” workshop at the NCAA Convention used the 2016 tournament as an example, and it included a demonstration showing how the committee filled out the entire bracket. That’s the tournament where — much to John Calipari’s chagrin — UK was matched up with Indiana in the second round. The UK coach openly complained at the time, but the logic for how it happened checks out. It was a matter of math and geography, not a ploy to boost ratings (or slight the Cats).
Barnhart was also a noted skeptic of the process before joining the Selection Committee last season. That Selection Sunday came up with a doozy for UK.
It started with a game against in-state foe Northern Kentucky, then a rematch from three tournaments previous with a very tough Wichita State squad. Then a game against UCLA, which had defeated UK earlier that season. And then a game with rival North Carolina, which ultimately bounced the Cats from the tournament.
But after seeing it from the inside, Barnhart was a skeptic no more.
“There is no easy path,” he told the Herald-Leader a few days after the tournament ended. “You’re going to play someone. So if you’re expecting something less than that, that’s probably not reality.”
Even Calipari, who traditionally approaches the NCAA Tournament selection process the way Oliver Stone approaches his movie subjects, toned down his they’re-out-to-get-us calls of conspiracy following last season’s show.
“I can honestly look at my basketball coach and our team and people on my staff and our fans and say we were treated very fairly,” Barnhart said after that process.
Calipari did question the lack of emphasis placed on conference tournaments, especially those that wrap up on Sundays, and called for a move to a true S-curve in seeding as opposed to placing schools closer to home.
Fair enough. Those are issues with the system itself, not shots at any perceived ulterior motives by the committee members.
“We’ll focus on this first weekend, hope that we can be the best of that group,” Calipari concluded last season. “And if we are, we’ll move on.”
Whatever happens on this Selection Sunday, fans who don’t like a potential opponent or faraway site should trust the system, follow Calipari’s last two words from last season, and just move on.