Monday, March 17, 2014

From 351 to 68: Epilogue

I thought this bracket was maybe the best I've ever seen the committee put together. They picked the right teams, the seedings were mostly reasonable -- hold that thought -- and they managed to create a terrific set of first-round games.

That's not to say they were perfect. Well, i wasn't, anyway. I missed on one at-large slot, having Southern Methodist in the field and leaving out North Carolina State. It's a reasonable decision by the committee. Had I pulled SMU -- and remember, I had them as a lock when the week began and never moved them -- I would likely have landed upon Wisconsin-Green Bay as their replacement. The Wolfpack were my third team out; I understand why they were selected, as they had some very good wins away from home. As I said on Twitter, there was a pool of about 12 teams around the cutline that all had cases either way. Some pair of teams had to be #36 and #37.

With few inclusion issues to be angry about, the focus was on the seeding of Louisville. The Cardinals, defending champions and winners of the American Athletic Conference tournament, were bizarrely spoken of as a possible #1 seed in some corners. They ended up a #4, which many -- especially ones who work for a network that broadcasted most of the AAC's games -- disagreed with. I thought it made perfect sense, and the discussion illustrated the point that we come back to time and time again: the committee isn't evaluating what you are, it's evaluating what you did, and at that, it's evaluating what you did using some fairly rudimentary tools. So the fact that Louisville looked very impressive in beating Connecticut and Connecticut and Connecticut, or had the #2 rating in Ken Pomeroy's system, is meaningless in this context.

Louisville was the co-champion of the seventh- or eighth-best conference in the country, and won that conference's tournament, beating one postseason team in doing so. Louisville beat UConn three times and Southern Methodist twice. They split a pair of games with Cincinnati. I've just summed up their entire body of work. Their next best win was over Southern Mississippi, at home. Then it's Louisiana-Lafayette, also at home. The American was five deep, giving credit to SMU that it may not deserve, and Louisville's visceral and statistical edges were in no small part a function of that lack of depth. Louisville may be one of the top 12 or top eight teams in the country, but over the course of the 2013-14 season, they didn't build a top-12 or top-eight profile. They beat UConn three times and SMU twice (with those teams' ratings inflated by the same AAC imbalance blowing up Louisville's numbers), Cincy once and did nothing out of conference.

You may argue against that point by citing that #2 Pomeroy ranking. I absolutely take that seriously, and if I'm having a conversation about Louisville's quality, that's an important data point. I'm not having that conversation; I'm having a conversation about tournament seeding, and it's clear that whatever happy talk has occurred about the committee having access to non-RPI data, that data is not driving any decisions. Louisville was a #4. Tennessee is in the damned play-in game. Utah is nowhere to be found. Massachusetts is a #6.

You can criticize the committee for their loyalty to the RPI to the exclusion of other, better information. That criticism, however, is better saved for June, or September, when it's not about LOUISVILLE ANGRY SMASH but about making the process better, building a better bracket, building a better tournament. They weren't using that information last week. Based on the information they were using, Louisville was a #4 seed. Sorry you guys got stuck in Conference 2SA, best of luck in the ACC. It's not about what you are, it's about what you did.

I'll probably continue to guess the field for years to come, but it's definitely not as much fun as it used to be. I don't mean that in a hipster sense -- it's great that so many people do it now, and I think the democratization of the process has forced the committee to be more open about what they do. No, it's just that there are no longer interesting storylines to follow. We're eight years removed from Billy Packer's George Mason rant, three years past VCU and UAB getting in, and the game of college basketball has changed to chip away at the core conflict that made this so interesting -- big versus little. Between realignment that has pushed "mid-majors" upward into major conferences, and a lack of performance (in part due to a lack of access to games) by schools outside the top tier, there's no meat to the discussions. Wisconsin-Green Bay had a case, but it wasn't one you could really get behind, hanging mostly on a single win. Southern Mississippi didn't even have that. And that was pretty much it for the mid-majors.

There are nine true multi-bid conferences in the new college basketball landscape. The six that used to form the BCS, the Atlantic [$NUMBER], the American and the Mountain West. There's a sharp division between them and the Missouri Valley -- what will it be in a post-Creighton world? -- and the West Coast -- will the bottom of the conference improve to support the top as a multi-bid conference? Then, there's everyone else. (The current WAC Belt version of Conference USA is a one-bid league.) Those two had just the two champs and BYU tournament-caliber teams. Everyone else, produced a couple of bubble teams -- Green Bay, Southern Mississippi, maybe Louisiana Tech -- and nothing else. The MAC, the MAAC, the Colonial (destroyed by realignment, along with the WAC), the OVC…nothing. There were no good arguments to be had this year because that central conflict, between the haves and have-nots, has been won by the haves for a few years running.

I imagine there's some kind of one-and-done effect here, and it may be that the repeal of the 2-in-4 rule has been a net negative for mid-majors rather than a positive, leading to the rise of fakeaments that protect Big Six schools from themselves. I know that the true middle tier still can't get home games against the top tier, and nothing is going to change that.

In doing this, though, I miss being able to advocate for a George Mason, an Iona, a VCU or a William and Mary. I miss watching Manhattan or Northern Iowa or South Alabama squeeze out an at-large bid by taking advantage of the few chances they got against good competition out of conference. The past few years, those teams haven't had opportunities, haven't taken advantage of the limited ones they've had, and it's turned Selection Week into a bore.

Nothing can touch the tournament itself, though. I am psyched for Oregon/BYU and Gonzaga/Oklahoma State and the ridiculous 8/9 game being played on Wednesday, Iowa/Tennessee. For all of the arguments about who belongs and how they should be picked, we could probably take the next 68 teams left out, stick them in a bracket and be just as riveted come Thursday afternoon. With all due respect to great players past, present and future, it's the tournament itself that's the star.