What the NCAA tournament selection committee got right and wrong

Jeff Eisenberg
·7-min read

It’s as much an annual part of Selection Sunday as Dick Vitale stumping for a snubbed mid-major or Seth Davis predicting a 14-seed will reach the Sweet 16.

First the bracket is unveiled. Then the nitpicking begins.

The routine was no different this year, even if we’re all happy to have the NCAA tournament back in our lives. Here’s a look at some of the things the selection committee got right and some of the things it got wrong, beginning with its controversial decision to leave Louisville out of the field:

What the committee got right: Drake in over Louisville

All too often, the biggest NCAA tournament snubs hail from outside the power conferences. The committee inevitably seems to pass on mid-majors with gaudy records but few marquee wins in favor of middling power conference teams.

Consider UNC Greensboro, left out of the 2019 NCAA tournament despite a 28-6 record and just a single loss to teams outside the top 15 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Or Monmouth, somehow snubbed in 2016 despite a conference title and non-league victories over Notre Dame, USC, UCLA and Georgetown.

That history was why it was a welcome surprise to see Drake make the field, albeit as the last at-large team selected. The Missouri Valley Conference runner-ups had exactly the sort of profile that has been passed over in years past.

Unable to schedule any power-conference opponents in non-league play, Drake’s only three Quadrant 1 games this season came against a formidable Loyola-Chicago team. The Bulldogs lost convincingly twice and won once by a single point in overtime.

Drake finished 25-4 overall and went 5-0 in Quadrant 2 games. Three of its four losses came without injured point guard Roman Penn, who is out for the season, and leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill, who is hoping to recover in time for the NCAA tournament.

Louisville, by contrast, played seven Quadrant 1 games. It lost six of them. It played seven games against NCAA tournament teams. It lost five. So it’s hard to feel too heartbroken for the Cardinals even if their exclusion from the field was a surprise.

Chris Mack throws his head back and covers his face with his hands in reaction to a play that went against his team.
Chris Mack and th Louisville Cardinals were left out of the NCAA tournament. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What the committee got wrong: Syracuse in over Louisville

If there’s a team that Louisville has a gripe with, it isn’t Drake. It’s the team in the Cardinals’ own conference that had a comparable profile yet somehow not only made the field of 68 but avoided the First Four.

Here’s Syracuse’s resume:

Syracuse (16-9, 9-7 ACC, NET: 40, KenPom: 41)

  • Q1 record: 1-7

  • Q2 record: 6-1

  • Best wins: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Clemson

  • Q3 and Q4 losses: 1 (Pittsburgh)

Here’s Louisville’s:

Louisville (13-7, 8-5 ACC, NET: 56, KenPom: 54)

  • Q1 record: 1-6

  • Q2 record: 6-0

  • Best wins: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke (2)

  • Q3 and Q4 losses: 1 (Miami)

Pretty similar, right?

If you really want to dive into the details, Louisville has a slightly better record against the top two quadrants, a slightly better non-conference strength of schedule and a slightly better winning percentage in league. Syracuse’s computer metrics are stronger.

Maybe, there’s an argument for Syracuse to make the field ahead of Louisville. Maybe. But the Orange avoiding the First Four and the Cardinals not in the field of 68 at all? No chance.

What the committee got right: Regional balance

Instead of being tethered to its antiquated principles of geographic proximity, the selection committee was able to bracket the field using a simple S-curve. The result, perhaps not coincidentally, were four unusually balanced regions.

Each of the four regions include two of the top eight teams in the most recent AP Top 25 and two of the top eight teams in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. The inability to pair Illinois with another Big Ten team contributed to the Illini getting maybe the weakest No. 2 seed (Houston) and No. 3 seed (West Virginia), but the committee made up for it putting loading Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Loyola Chicago and Georgia Tech into that half of the region.

There are four top-16 KenPom teams in the West and East region, three in the Midwest and five in the South. Loyola Chicago, USC, UConn and Wisconsin are the teams seeded sixth or below that are in the KenPom top 16. Each of those four teams were sent to a different region.

There’s a school of thought that Gonzaga got the easiest path to a Final Four with a No. 2, 3 and 4 seed the Zags have already beaten, No. 3 and 4 seeds going through COVID-19 issues and a No. 5 seed last seen being outscored 43-8 by Georgetown.

If that’s true, that’s fine. Gonzaga earned that. Too often we’ve seen No. 1 overall seeds rewarded with a gauntlet.

What the committee got wrong: Seeding blunders

The bracket may look great from a distance, but up close it has some flaws. The committee made a few curious seeding decisions, especially with teams in the Big 12 and ACC.

Oklahoma State had more Quadrant 1 victories than any team in the nation besides Illinois. How on earth were the fourth-seeded Cowboys seeded a line below a West Virginia team they’ve beaten twice in the past eight days away from home, once without future No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham?

Equally strange was the committee’s decision to have Clemson seven spots ahead of Georgia Tech on its seed list. The seventh-seeded Tigers and ninth-seeded Yellowjackets have very similar profiles, except Clemson was last seen losing to Miami in its opening ACC tournament game and Georgia Tech was last seen celebrating a championship.

It was also disappointing to see Loyola Chicago settle for a No. 8 seed despite being top 10 in KenPom and in the NCAA’s own NET rankings. The Ramblers (22-4) couldn’t have been a top-four seed — they didn’t have enough quality wins on their resume for that — but seeding them this low only penalizes their opponents, Georgia Tech and potentially Illinois.

Other bracket thoughts:

  • Drake coming in one spot behind Georgetown and Oregon State on the selection committee's seed list was very weird. Neither the Hoyas nor Beavers were considered NCAA tournament contenders before their respective conference tournament runs, so how could Drake make the field as an at-large yet be behind either of those two?

  • The Mountain West should feel pretty foolish for needlessly making its teams play COVID makeup games during the final week of the regular season. Losses from Colorado State against Nevada and Boise State against Fresno State contributed to both of those bubble teams not hearing their names called.

  • Villanova's resume was worthy of its No. 5 seed, but it was surprising the committee didn't take Collin Gillespie's season-ending knee injury into account more. In two games without the co-Big East player of the year, Villanova scored 52 points against Providence and lost to Georgetown. What a lucky break for 12th-seeded Winthrop, which will now be the first round's most popular upset pick.

  • The exclusion of both Louisville and Saint Louis from the field reveals exactly how the committee treated teams who suffered uncharacteristic losses after COVID pauses. For better or worse, those teams don't appear to have received any special consideration and those outcomes seem to have been evaluated like any other losses.

  • I normally prefer mid-major vs. power-conference First Four games, but I'm not going to complain about the committee pitting Michigan State and UCLA. That's good theater for the opening night of the tournament. This is a TV show after all.

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