Sunday, March 13, 2011

From 345 to 68, Epilogue

My reaction to the release of the 2011 NCAA tournament field was surprise.

My reaction to the reaction to the release was disgust.

With the lowered bar for entry -- 37 at-large teams, the most ever -- and the absolutely brutal set of performance characteristics for the 20 or so teams in line for the last spots in the field, there is simply no defending a team that didn't get in. I missed on two teams, and whereas in past years I have felt that I was right and the committee was wrong, there's no such reaction this time. The committee swapped my last team in (Colorado) and first team out (Southern California), and they chose the regular-season champion of a good conference (Alabama-Birmingham) over the fourth-place team in a somewhat better one (Virginia Tech). I had UAB as my sixth team out, largely because I didn't think the committee would value the conference championship highly enough relative to the lack of top-50 wins and the tournament quarterfinal bad loss. UAB was on my board all week and

My only question about the UAB pick is the contrast to the USC one. The two are dissonant, and serve only to further cloud the issue of what exactly the committee is looking for. UAB had a good record and a high RPI, a dearth of great wins but a lot of good ones, and performed well in its conference. USC had a mediocre record and a low RPI, a lot of great wins and a lot of terrible losses, and was T-4, with a 10-8 (11-9) record in its conference. I can understand putting either in, but to put both in is baby-splitting -- UAB paired with Harvard or Missouri State would have been consistent, as would USC and Colorado.

Committee Chairman Gene Smith wasn't helpful in explaining this oddity, and in fact, came off as delusional in post-game interviews, saying to ESPN: "This year there are a lot of good teams out there, moreso than in previous years for me."

The treatment of Virginia Commonwealth was shameful, with the collected experts in Bristol showing a complete ignorance of their resume. Despite Jay Blias' assertions, VCU was in the discussion. I had them in. Jerry Palm had them in. Andy Glockner had them as one of his last few out. Joe Lunardi had them as one of his top eight out, and I believe they were higher earlier in the week. From my last piece yesterday:

"The thing is, I'm not sure VPI is the best Virginia school in the discussion. Virginia Commonwealth has a better tournament resume, based on all the criteria listed by the committee than the four ACC teams in toto. They have a higher RPI (49) than all; they reached their conference final; they were just fourth in their conference, and the #3 team is not under consideration -- that hurts. VCU was 8-6 in true road games (the non-FSU ACC teams only played 10 road games each and none was above .500) and 12-8 in R/N. VCU had as many top-25 wins (2-3) as the four ACC bubble teams combined, and nearly as many top-50 wins (3-6) as the group (four). Echoes of William and Mary. VCU also had an 8-8 mark against the RPI top 100, which matches VPI and trails only Clemson (9-8).

"Unless the argument comes down to 'was Duke forced to play a game in your building,' I don't see how VCU ranks below any of these teams save perhaps Florida State, and then only if you give them full credit for a healthy Chris Singleton. This isn't a William and Mary argument, which relied on some key pieces of data -- ALL the data has VCU ahead of this group of teams.

"I don't know what the committee will do. I just know what the data says. I might be able to get one or two of the ACC bubble teams in ahead of VCU, but I can't see three or four."

It wasn't just that the panel thought VCU didn't belong, which is a case you can make with the last 12 teams in and the first 12 out. It's that they seemed to have no idea that they were part of the discussion. That's not a difference of opinion. That's being ignorant of what is nominally your area of expertise. How hard could it possibly be to look at a Nitty Gritty report and notice that VCU has all kinds of markers in its favor, especially relative to the ACC teams in the discussion? VCU did things they did not do. Disagreeing with their inclusion is fine; from the tone of the conversation, I just figured they were all getting VCU and VMI mixed up.

VCU was in the discussion. UAB was in the discussion. I don't think it's at all a coincidence that the two teams ESPN's staff was most offended by were from conferences that their networks rarely, if ever, televise. Nor do I think it's a coincidence that the two teams they defended most aggressively -- Virginia Tech and Colorado -- are from conferences they have deep ties to. No memos are out there, no policies are in place, but the people employed by the network are part of the established power structure, the same one that thinks it's OK to never play road games against good teams out of conference.

The call for more basketball people on the committee…I have no idea what this means other than more code, like the use of the "eye test," for "we need something that elevates that with which we are familiar with over that which we are not." I don't need more people to tell me that the BCS leagues have better athletes, maybe even better basketball players, than the rest of Division I. I need more people familiar with what the committee is trying to do and the standards they're attempting to apply in doing so. I need people who can look at Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Tech and craft an actual argument, rather than act offended that their friends are going to the NIT.

None of the above was the real problem with the reaction. No, the most counterfactual, offensive, damaging assertion was that UAB and VCU were able to get into the tournament by gaming the system. The idea is that their high RPIs -- and this is a UAB thing more than a VCU thing -- are somehow not legitimate, achieved by playing easy-to-win games that nevertheless pump up the numbers.

First, Digger Phelps launched into a point that implicitly accused the committee of counting mid-majors that concluded, "I think it really hurts the power conferences."

Then Hubert Davis got involved: "I haven't looked at their their numbers. I haven't looked at their RPI numbers, strength of schedule numbers. I hope that's not the reason that they got into the NCAA tournament."

How can you be involved in this discussion and not know what a team's numbers are? You want to weight them differently, fine, but I'm astounded that you can go on the air, for money, and advertise that you don't know critical information.

More Davis: "I'm not saying UAB and VCU did this, but there are a number of programs, a number of teams that know this system, and they will schedule, make their schedule out to make their numbers look good."

The idea that the current system favors the mid-majors, that it's being exploited for their gain, is not only laughable, it's demonstrably untrue. Maybe the biggest problem in college basketball is that teams in the mid-tier conferences can't get games against the ones in the top six, and they absolutely can't get home games. Mid-majors have been screaming at the top of their lungs for years about wanting to play up, and the better those teams have gotten, the less access to games they've been able to get. Teams in the BCS leagues refuse, out-and-out refuse to play road games at teams in the #7-#18 conferences.

In fact, the RPI gimmickry cited by Phelps and Davis is actually the purview of the power leagues, who have taken to playing road games against bottom-100 teams in an effort to gain "road win" points in the new version of the RPI. (They understand that there's a concept in play, but don't quite grok the details.) The ACC played as many road games at Elon (2) and UNC-Greensboro (4) as they did against mid-major schools in the top 200 (6), and one of the latter games was in an exempt event hosted by one. Miami played at Florida Gulf Coast. Florida State played at FIU. Wake played at UNC Wilmington. You think Conference USA is trying to game the system? Really?

Florida State, Georgia, Penn State and Illinois are in the tournament because they got to play home games against highly-rated teams. I submit that without that opportunity -- the league forcing good teams to play at their place -- none would be in the tournament. All their cases rested on one big win at home in conference. Alabama, Virginia Tech and Colorado were similarly situated, with a single home conference win buoying the entire profile. You think UAB or Harvard or Missouri State wouldn't like to be able to play home games against Duke and Kentucky? You think they have scheduling advantages relative to the teams that choose to play a lot of bad games and never go on the road against the #7 to #16 conferences in the country? The entire ACC played six road games against mid-majors!

RPI gimmickry isn't playing better-quality competition, it's going on the road against terrible competition. If you can't tell the difference between teams 150-200 and teams 250-300 on the RPI, just looked at the damned performance of both. There's a significant gap. One set of teams is much, much better than the other. Playing the former instead of the latter is the choice teams make because teams 1-100 on the RPI -- 73 of them in particular -- won't play them, and they damned sure won't come to their place to play them.

And then their friends at ESPN go on TV and make it sound like they're getting screwed over it.

You want to be ignorant about why the selection committee would pick a team that won a top-10 conference outright, went 10-7 against the RPI top 100 and posted the highest RPI of any bubble team, fine. You want to ignore road record and top-100 wins and schedules within a conference, fine. But if you go on the air in front of millions of people and lie -- just flat-out lie -- about who has the advantages and disadvantages in scheduling in college basketball, you should be ashamed of yourself. What Hubert Davis and Digger Phelps did last night was no less embarrassing to themselves and their network than what Billy Packer did five years ago when he showed such incredulity over the selection of George Mason, a perfectly-qualified Colonial team, to the field.

You'd think everyone would have learned.

I could probably write 15,000 words on the "Bracketology" show. There were more erroneous, easily-disproven assertions crammed into two hours than I can every remember seeing on live television. There were more bad ideas about what a tournament resume than I could hope to summarize -- Digger Phelps was particularly productive on this score. I've pretty much stopped watching baseball studio shows because I couldn't take the "analysis"; this show made "Baseball Tonight" look like Yalta.