On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 28th, 2017

Last June the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) empaneled an ad hoc committee whose stated purpose was to provide the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee a perspective from men’s basketball coaches and their teams regarding selection, seeding and bracketing for the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has in recent years become increasingly receptive to considering and making changes, and as this year’s event reaches its climax, we decided to offer some specific recommendations to bolster the best three weeks in sports. Let’s focus today on improvements to the selection and seeding process.

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Bye Bye, RPI

Whenever the subject arises of improving the primary metric that the Selection Committee uses, there is one recurring response: Either dump the RPI altogether, or dramatically limit its influence. The good news is that we may finally be headed in that direction. A month after the NABC formed its committee and began communicating with the NCAA, the following statement was made as part of an update on the current NCAA Selection Committee:

The basketball committee supported in concept revising the current ranking system utilized in the selection and seeding process, and will work collaboratively with select members of the NABC ad hoc group to study a potentially more effective composite ranking system for possible implementation no earlier than the 2017-18 season.

Moving away from the RPI as the primary method for sorting teams into composite tiers would be a huge step toward improving the balance of the field. We have heard committee members for years make the point that a school’s RPI ranking is just one factor of many on its resume. But then the same committee members turn right around and cite that team’s record against the top-50 or top-100 — or its strength of schedule rating — all of which, of course, are derivative of the RPI. That means that the outdated metric is still, even now in an environment of Big Data, a highly significant influence on how teams are judged. The real harm occurs when the RPI results in entire conferences being overrated, which leads to those member institutions likewise being over-seeded. Placing five to seven teams well above their proper seed lines can have a substantial negative impact on the overall balance and corresponding fairness of the entire NCAA Tournament. Here are three recent examples.

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In Hoops We Trust: Small Fries Eye Big Prize

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 25th, 2017

This week, let’s take a break from discussions of the nation’s top 15 teams and all their tribulations. They get enough coverage already. Each year, there’s a bevy of small conference schools that threaten to upend the postseason hopes of middle-tier power conference teams with resumes that are, frankly, often more deserving. For now, they toil away in relative obscurity, their only chance at an appearance on any of the ESPN networks generally as a for-pay beatdown victim or in the finals of their conference tournament.

UNC-Wilmington and Several Other Mids Have Work to Do to Go Dancing Again (USA Today Images)

When a team from a small league can escape the non-conference season with a few wins over the Alabamas, Colorados, Seton Halls and DePauls of the college hoops world, they set themselves up for a chance at a low NCAA seed. More importantly, these schools must dominate their conferences to have any shot at an at-large bid. At season’s midpoint, here’s a quick look at several of them. All records are through Tuesday, January 24.

With a strength of schedule ranking in the 130s, UNC-Wilmington (17-2 (8-0 CAA), KenPom rank: 45, RPI rank: 26) does not have a shoo-in resume, but the Seahawks could end up with more than 25 wins and a credible at-large case. The current leader of the Colonial Athletic Association lost close games to Clemson and Middle Tennessee State, another mid-major contender, but there really aren’t any bad losses on its resume to speak of. But this is the perfect example of a team that cannot afford to lose more than one or two more games this season — and road losses might not kill them, but home losses surely will. College of Charleston sits one game back of UNC-Wilmington in the CAA but and owns an RPI of 67 and really has nothing to speak of from the non-conference schedule. Rather, the conference’s best non-conference wins came from third place Northeastern, which shocked Michigan State and beat Connecticut but has not been consistent enough to be taken seriously.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 27th, 2016

In June the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) empaneled an ad hoc committee whose stated purpose was to provide the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee the perspective of men’s basketball coaches and their teams regarding selection, seeding and bracketing for the NCAA Tournament. With that in mind, we decided to give some specific recommendations of our own that would enhance an already great event. Let’s first focus on some improvements for the selection and seeding process.

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Bye Bye, RPI

Whenever the subject arises of improving the ratings system that the Selection Committee uses, there is one recurring response: either dump the RPI, or, at a minimum, dramatically limit its influence. The good news is that we may finally be headed in that direction. About a month after the NABC formed its committee and began communicating with the NCAA, the following statement was made as part of an update regarding the current NCAA Selection Committee: Read the rest of this entry »

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Should SMU Have Been Left Out of the Dance?

Posted by CD Bradley on March 18th, 2014

One of the biggest stories of Selection Sunday was SMU missing the field. The Mustangs, which hadn’t made the Tournament in two long decades, were widely considered a lock for the field in the closing weeks of the regular season, particularly since winning at UConn on February 23. And yet they’ll be hosting an NIT game versus UC Irvine on Wednesday night. Did Larry Browns’ team deserve its unkind bracket fate?

As one could imagine, Larry Brown (center) and his SMU squad didn't have the best Sunday afternoon. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

As one could imagine, Larry Brown (center) and his SMU squad didn’t have the best Sunday afternoon. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

Selection committee Chairman Ron Wellman said that SMU was the last team out of the tournament. “As we looked at SMU, they certainly passed the eye test,” he told a conference call of reporters on Sunday night. “They’re a very good team, had a very good year.” Wellman continued:

When you’re making these selections, you’re looking for differentiators. Is there anything that stands out, on the positive side or negative side of the ledger, that will cause you to absolutely take that team or really look at prioritizing and selecting other teams? In SMU’s case their downfall, their weakness, was their schedule. Their non-conference strength of schedule was ranked number 302 out of 350 teams eligible for the tournament. It’s one of the worst non-conference strengths of schedule. Their overall strength of schedule was ranked 129. One-twenty-nine would have been by far the worst at large strength of schedule going into the tournament. The next worst at large strength of schedule was 91. Really the glaring weakness about SMU was their schedule.

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Entering AAC play, League Divided Into Haves and Have-Nots

Posted by CD Bradley on December 31st, 2013

With the first AAC conference basketball games set to tip Tuesday night at 5:00 PM ET, the new league is clearly divided into the haves and have-nots.

Is Louisville Still the Prohibitive Favorite in the AAC?

Is Louisville Still the Prohibitive Favorite in the AAC?

Non-conference games are nearly complete – a few key ones remain (more on those below) and rankings both old and new draw a clear line right in the middle of the conference. The AAC has five teams in the top 61 of the RPI, and five teams outside of the top 136. KenPom.com agrees, with five teams in his top 44, and five at #96 or lower. As those numbers suggest, Pomeroy’s rankings have a higher opinion of the AAC, which it ranks as the seventh-best conference, than the RPI, which ranks it as the ninth. That reflects the realities of the overall weakness of AAC schools’ non-conference schedules, and a few missed opportunities. The vast divide is underscored by his projections of the conference records. Each of the top five teams – Louisvile, Memphis, UConn, Cincinnati, and SMU – is projected to win at least 11 AAC games, while the bottom five – Temple, UCF, USF, Houston, and Rutgers – are each projected to lose at least that many. Barring a massive change in fortunes – or a run to the auto-bid by some team – only the top five have a reasonable shot to reach the NCAA Tournament. Here’s a look at each of their chances heading into conference play.

  • Louisville (KenPom #1, RPI #38). The defending champs present the most interesting profile, and this is especially true given that Chane Behanan is no longer on the team. The computers love the Cardinals; KenPom projects an AAC title with a a 15-3 league record. The RPI, which plays a large role in the NCAA Tournament selection process, for better or worse, isn’t as bullish due to their lack of quality wins. They’re currently 1-2 vs. the RPI top 50, but the one win against Southern Miss, will likely evaporate as quality once the Golden Eagles get into the weaker C-USA portion of their schedule. So the Cardinals (along with SMU) have the most to gain against the others on this list.

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Big East M5: 12.30.13 Edition

Posted by Dan Lyons on December 30th, 2013

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  1. Big East teams have wrapped up non-conference play, and with the start of conference games on the horizon with five straight games scheduled throughout Tuesday, writers are beginning to file their mid-year reviews of the new-look league. IndyStar‘s Zak Keefer cites conference winning percentage, true road wins, and the current RPI numbers in defense of the Big East. Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard also finds value in that last statistic: “[We have] six teams in the top 50. Rankings [the Big East has just one team, #8 Villanova, in the Top 25] don’t really matter. The RPI does matter.”
  2. Not everyone is as high on the work that the Big East has done so far this season. USA Today‘s Nicole Auerbach digs into some of the same numbers and her findings aren’t too kind for the conference, especially without Villanova‘s impressive resume: “Just one of those 85 wins has come against a team with an RPI in the top 25. Even worse, Big East teams were just 5-19 against the RPI’s top 50. Villanova has done most of that heavy lifting on its own. Its sparkling 11-1 record — including a missed opportunity Saturday with a loss to Syracuse — features wins against Kansas and Iowa, ranked No. 3 and No. 38 in the RPI, respectively.” In the past, Big East teams could recover from mediocre Novembers and Decembers with big league wins against highly-ranked Syracuse, Connecticut or Louisville squads. Now, those opportunities will be much more fleeting.
  3. Doug McDermott checks in at number two on RTC alumnus and Cleveland.com‘s David Cassilo’s weekly Player of the Year rankings. Cassilo praises McDermott’s elite shooting and all-around scoring ability, while noting his attention to detail: “Being a coach’s son (his father Greg is the coach of Creighton) means that McDermott pays special attention to the little things too. He’s averaging just 2.0 turnovers per game, 1.5 fouls per game and shoots 89.3 percent from the line.”  McDermott is the only Big East player on a list topped by Duke’s Jabari Parker. Former Big East players Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, and C.J. Fair also appear in the top 12.
  4. Despite a setback in Syracuse over the weekend, Villanova enters conference play as the favorite to win the new league. The Wildcats were expected by many to return to the NCAA Tournament and finish among the top half of the conference this season, but just a few years removed from a 13-19 nightmare, few would have guessed that they would be the only Big East team in the Top 25 and have wins against Kansas and Iowa to their name. Wright credits a refocus in the philosophy of the program for the success that the team has recently experienced: “We got caught in a situation where we had guys that were coming in thinking about leaving early, so we were backing ourselves up in recruiting thinking they were going to leave. Then they didn’t leave. They were frustrated they were here and the guys behind them weren’t getting the playing time to develop. I think we learned a good lesson from that.” Now, Villanova enters league play stacked to the brim with talented guards, as well as strong frontcourt players like JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu, and their upcoming opponents can’t be too excited to see the Wildcats on the schedule.
  5. Big East commissioner Val Ackerman considers the Butler basketball program as a great model for what she believes the entire conference can achieve as a hoops-focused league in a college athletics landscape largely dominated by football revenues. She believes that schools can thrive in athletics without big time college football, and uses Butler’s recent Final Four runs as a strong example: “It was a bold move, don’t get me wrong, for all these schools to essentially say, ‘We’re not going to get into the football arms race’, but the commonality is what separates this league from others, and certainly from what the old Big East had become in terms of the division of interest between large and small, football and non-football.” Butler should reap the benefits of membership as well. As Zak Keefer notes, Butler’s conference schedule has been upgraded to include teams like Georgetown and Villanova as opposed to the Horizon League opponents it regularly faced, and increased exposure in places like New York City, where the conference will host its conference tournament, should help its recruiting take off.
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Missed Chances Leave AAC With Precious Few Quality Wins

Posted by CD Bradley on December 10th, 2013

The AAC has missed several opportunities for quality wins early in the season, which will increase the difficulty of getting four or five teams safely into the NCAA Tournament come March. As it is finals week for many schools, we get a bit of a breather at the one month mark before wrapping up most of the non-conference slate and opening league play over Christmas break. There are enough games left that team RPIs are still of little use as a comparison metric, but there is RPI value in examining where the conference stands relative to other leagues. After Monday’s lone AAC game, the league currently ranks ninth in conference RPI, with just the barest of leads over the West Coast Conference one spot behind.

Shabazz Napier's game winner over Florida gave the AAC one of its best wins in the season's first month. (AP)

Shabazz Napier’s game winner over Florida gave the AAC one of its best wins in the season’s first month. (AP)

“[T]here’s no question in my mind that six teams will come out of this league to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said at AAC Media Day in October – and he’s hardly the only coach who has overstated his conference’s prowess – but history suggests otherwise. Only once since 2000 has a conference ranked as low as ninth in the RPI sent even four teams to the tournament, but here’s the interesting part: Those four teams included Louisville and Cincinnati (along with UAB and Charlotte) from Conference USA in 2005, and Louisville made it to the Final Four that season.

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AAC off to So-So Start With Precious Few Shots at Quality WIns

Posted by CD Bradley on November 16th, 2013

Selection Sunday may seem far away just days after the start of the college basketball season. But since the NCAA tournament committee agreed four years ago to weigh all games equally – to consider each team’s whole body of work – wins and losses before Thanksgiving can be crucial for teams who end up on the bubble. As Eamonn Brennan of ESPN.com points out, it was the Cavaliers’ losses in November last year that probably cost Virginia a bid, and a November win at Creighton was certainly a major factor to Boise State being among the last four in. So how has the American done in terms of getting out of the gate?

Ryan Boatright led UConn over Maryland on opening night, the AAC's best win thus far.

Ryan Boatright led UConn over Maryland on opening night, the AAC’s best win thus far.

The good news is that the teams in the AAC are 21-4, and winning 84 percent of the time is better than, well, not. What tempers the good news is the lack of much quality among the wins. When we reviewed the AAC teams’ non-conference slates before the season began, we found there wasn’t much that impressed (except for Temple; more on the Owls in a minute). Because of the lack of power foes (with a few exceptions), the AAC will have to make up with quantity and by winning road games and avoiding home losses, and so far it has done an OK job. Louisville, Memphis and UConn — the consensus top three teams in the league, and the only three ranked squads – are a combined 7-0. UConn boasts the league’s best win, at least according to the criteria that matter to folks seeding the NCAA Tournament, by managing to hold off a middle-of-the-ACC-pack Maryland squad on a neutral court opening night, while Memphis and particularly Louisville have rolled vastly inferior competition. Every team schedules a few creampuffs, but Louisville risks a pretty severe tummy ache by filling up on all the wrong things. Not one of the Cardinals’ three foes has a KenPom ranking of better than #165. The defending champs should have done better and challenged themselves a bit more, but they’re hardly alone.

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Tuesday is Full of Opportunity for SEC Teams

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 12th, 2013

Mike Slive made crystal clear this offseason that SEC schools must schedule better non-conference opponents. One school’s weak slate not only hurts its own RPI, but also drives down the league’s RPI and overall profile. “One of the things that was eye-opening to coaches was how much every team’s schedule impacts the other teams,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. To guard against scheduling anvils going forward, Slive hired a scheduling consultant and each school must now get their final basketball schedules approved by the league. These won’t have much effect this season given how far in advance games with bigger conference schools have to be set. But the SEC has a huge opportunity this evening to put a smile on Slive’s face and grab some early season respect for the league. There are five “statement” games on tonight’s schedule:

#2 Michigan State vs. #1 Kentucky

It's not unfair that the college basketball world is treated to #1 against #2 matchup less than a week into the season.

It’s not unfair that the college basketball world is treated to #1 against #2 match-up less than a week into the season.

The season isn’t yet a week old and the first edition of the Game of the Year has arrived. John Calipari made waves last week by saying that it’s “not fair” his young team has to play an experienced team like Michigan State this early. Despite the ridiculousness of that tongue-in-cheek comment, the Wildcats will get about as stiff a test as there is at the United Center tonight. The Spartans have quick and strong perimeter athletes that Kentucky will have difficulty matching up with. On the flip side, Michigan State will have difficulty matching up the Wildcats’ interior size. If Kentucky were to lose this game, especially in close fashion, no one should bat an eye. But a win, though hardly surprising, would truly establish Kentucky as the team to beat this season (if they aren’t already).

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Evaluating AAC Non-Conference Schedules: The Good…

Posted by CD Bradley on October 29th, 2013

While major rivalries and national television match-ups get the most attention, the games against much lower profile opponents can make just as big a difference come Selection Sunday. Scheduling is with question an art, but it’s at least equally a science. Sports Illustrated‘s Luke Winn and Andy Glockner have both examined the equation for maximizing a schedule’s impact on RPI, and in turn the strength of an NCAA Tournament resume. Glockner succinctly summarized it thusly: “Don’t schedule terrible teams. Ever.” and “Don’t lose at home. Ever.” Simple enough. Expanding on that, he offered four guidelines for assembling a schedule designed to boost RPI: don’t schedule SWAC teams; play the best teams in small leagues; play neutral site games that really aren’t neutral; and remember that the consolation games in holiday tournaments can become much more important than they seem at the time.

Want to go dancing? Non-conference scheduling is crucial to punching your ticket.

Want to go dancing? Non-conference scheduling is crucial to punching your ticket.

Non-conference games account for roughly 40 percent of AAC teams’ regular season games, and closer to 35 percent of the games considered by the NCAA selection committee after the conference tournament. But these games play an oversized role because they largely determine the availability of quality wins within the league once conference play begins. Good performances against a solid non-conference schedule provides a strong RPI from the beginning, while a weak non-conference slate coupled with losses against bad teams can be very tough to overcome. If a schedule is bad enough, it can drag down the RPI of other teams in the conference, particularly in a league like the AAC with a true round robin schedule. If the league can avoid bad losses against decent competition, it can buoy the whole league, as the Mountain West showed last year with its top overall conference rating. As we will see, it’s unlikely that type of quality is present for the AAC this year.

With the elements identified by Winn and Glockner in mind, let’s take a look at the non-conference schedules facing AAC teams this season. First, the good. We’ll visit the bad and the ugly in a corollary post on Wednesday.

The Good

  • Temple: The Owls face what is clearly the best non-conference schedule of any AAC team. It lacks elite competition – unless a match-up against New Mexico materializes in the final or consolation game of the Charleston Classic, there’s probably not an RPI top 25 team here – but more than makes up for it by not including any terrible teams. Almost every team here is projected to finish near the top of its own league, and the ones that aren’t – Clemson and Texas – won’t hurt by virtue of their major conference affiliations. If everything breaks right, no team on this schedule should end up with an RPI above #200. There are winnable road/neutral games, too. It’s hard to envision a schedule more optimized to boost RPI, but can the inexperienced Owls take advantage this season?
  • Memphis: The Tigers take a different tack. Their schedule includes two Division II games, which won’t count toward their RPI; but they might have been better off scheduling a third rather than Jackson State, a second division SWAC team. They overcome some of the dregs with multiple elite opponents: at Oklahoma State, Florida in Madison Square Garden, Gonzaga at home, and a possible second match-up with the Cowboys in the Old Spice Classic final. All four seem likely to be RPI top 25 teams. At least two wins out of those four contests are key, because the Tigers will have so few additional opportunities; aside from those four games, the Old Spice semis against either LSU or St. Joseph’s might well be their only other top 100 foe.
  • UConn: More Temple than Memphis, the Huskies’ schedule features home tilts with probable top 50 RPI teams Florida, Stanford and Harvard. There are neutral court games against Maryland and Boston College (and possibly Indiana or Washington), as well as a home game with Patriot League favorite Boston University and a road game at Washington; all appear likely to end up in the RPI top 100. There a couple of 200+ types, but nothing so likely as to drag the whole ranking down. This is a solid non-conference schedule for Kevin Ollie’s first-NCAA Tournament eligible year.

That’s pretty much it for good non-conference slates in the AAC. More to come…

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