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National Bracket Thoughts

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
- Howard Beale, Network
Craig Littlepage, the only man on the planet that could tarnish the ivy-draped reputation of the University of Virginia, has me really concerned about how the NCAA Men's Basketball Selection Committee is going about its buisness. In comments following the release of the Division-1 bracket, Littlepage provided the following:

"If there's a message [in these selections], the larger schools, the larger conferences, really do have a choice on who they play in nonconference."

I have a problem with this statement on two levels. First, it isn't the job of the committee to create messages in their selections. They are charged with selecting only the best 34 remaining at-large schools after the 31 automatic bids have been delivered. Second, if Littlepage actually believes in this statement, he failed to follow it himself.

My anger with this bracket, in terms of selection of teams, boils down to the inclusion of three teams -- Air Force, Alabama-Birmingham, and Utah State. How these three teams got into the tournament over clubs like Cincinnati, Michigan, and someone like Creighton/Missouri State is absolutely mind-numbing. Instead of going through an exhaustive analysis of each of the aforementioned triumverate of mind-scratchers, I'll highlight only Air Force, because they are clearly the most unworthy participant in this year's tournament.

Air Force
RPI: 50
Conference RPI: 8
Record: 22-6
SOS: 158
v. RPI Top 50: 0-1
v. RPI 51-100: 5-2
v. RPI 101-200: 10-3
v. RPI 201+: 7-0

Non-Conference
Record: 10-1
RPI: 57
SOS: 273
L10: 7-3
Rd/NT: 8-6

Commentary
Just a cursory look at this profile screams "NIT." Coming from a terrible conference and failing to advance out of the Mountain West first round, there is no way in hell Air Force should have even been remotely on the radar of the selection committee. The number of wins is nice, but it is inflated by playing one of the worst conference and non-conference schedules in the country. Granted, the RPI and SOS numbers can be deceiving, but when you take a qualitative analysis, the conclusion is the same -- Air Force beat nobody.

I just don't see the wins that would qualify Air Force for selection as one of the best 34 available teams. Georgia Tech? San Diego State? To quote Balki from Perfect Strangers, "Don't be ridiculous."

The only thing that could make the committee deem Air Force as a viable selection to this field is Air Force's record over their last ten games and its positive record in road/neutral games. However, the bare numbers here are deceiving. In its last ten games, Air Force beat: Colorado State (W-H), Brigham Young (L-R), San Diego State (L-R), Wyoming (W by 1-H), Texas Christian (W-R), Utah (W by 1-R), New Mexico (W-H), Nevada-Las Vegas (W-R), Colorado State (W-R), Wyoming (L-N).

Not exactly a murderer's row.

Even though Cincinnati went 5-5 down the stretch, I am much more impressed with wins over Syracuse, West Virginia, Louisville and tough losses to Villanova and Syracuse on a miracle heave than some questionable performances against the dregs of the Mountain West Conference.

Maybe the biggest problem I have with Air Force's selection is that Littlepage and his committee all but threw their criteria out the window when they put Air Force on the board. In a March 8, 2006 interview, Littlepage provided the following:

Well, I think it's been pretty clear that the committee over time has sent the message that it will not be impressed by records that are artificially built on the basis of scheduling lesser-quality opponents. If a situation is tight, if we're comparing six to eight teams, and two of those six to eight teams have put together a schedule with rigor, and they've been balanced in terms of playing games both home and away from home, the tiebreaker in that kind of situation is going to go with the teams that have scheduled and have challenged themselves.

And, with respect to resumes and conference tournaments:

That all depends on the resume they have at that point in time. There may be teams that are already locked in, in some committee members' minds as far as having done enough to be included in the field at this point in time. There are other teams that may have to win a game or win two games. Some teams may have to go all the way through to the championship and win a championship.

Speaking about the "Big East Rule," Littlepage dropped this nugget:

The discussion about any one league will not go into our discussions when it comes time to select the at-larges. We are going to look strictly at teams, what teams have done. Certainly there's a level of discussion as it relates to the conferences only to the extent that they're playing within a family, if you will, a family of colleagues.
And, the importance of the "Syracuse Rule":

It may be that it is a matter of who went out and scheduled a better-quality, non-conference schedule or who played the other better teams in that particular conference, whether they played the better teams in that conference one time or twice, or in some cases maybe they didn't play one of the top teams in that conference at all.
So, using this criteria, how is Air Force a more attractive selection than Cincinnati or Michigan? Granted, Cincinnati, Michigan, and Air Force all lost in the first round of their conference tournaments, but the scenarios are not all the same.

Cincinnati had to go 8-8 in the toughest conference in the country just to make the Big East tournament; Air Force was invited just on the basis of its membership in the Mountain West. Furthermore, Cincinnati lost on a last second heave to Syracuse, a team that ultimately won its conference tournament. Air Force lost to a terrible Wyoming team that had no business advancing to the Mountain West final.

Michigan, similar to Cincinnati, went toe-to-toe with a game Minnesota club in the Big Ten playdowns. If the basketball bounces another way, the Wolverines advance. It seems ridiculous to give Air Force a free pass on losing in their conference tournament opening game and capitalizing on a weak schedule down the stretch while Michigan and Cincinnati should be punished for keeping its heads above water and barely getting bounced.

Moreover, Littlepage provides the ultimate head-scratcher in that he says performance in a conference tournament may not be important if a team already has a profile that merits inclusion as an at-large. Given the fact that Air Force lost in the first round of the Mountain West tournament, that necessarily implies that Air Force was in the tournament as early as last week.

How is that possible?

As illustrated earlier, Air Force barely has an NIT profile, nevermind an NCAA one. I cannot be convinced that Air Force was a NCAA invitee before the start of the Mountain West tournament. It just does not make any sense. Especially when you consider that Cincinnati and Michigan had more notable wins and a tougher road to get to the position they finished.

Finally, I have a huge problem with Littlepage punishing Michigan and Cincinnati for having what is perceived as a "soft" non-conference schedule. Cincinnati played the 22nd most difficult non-conference schedule in the country. Michigan played the 147th toughest, but its non-conference RPI was a respectable 36. Most importantly, each club went out and won those games, with Cincinnati going 10-3 and Michigan going 10-1.

So, what's the problem, Littlepage? When you combine those numbers with each team's conference profile, that should be enough to garner selection as an at-large invitee.

Air Force played only the 273rd toughest non-conference schedule in the country. And while Littlepage seems to be indicating that this non-conference rule applies only to the power conferences (which is a violation of equal protection, if you will), Air Force failed to balance its poor non-conference schedule with a bruising or terrific conference slate and record. That's is uncessingly troubling.

It appears quite clear that Littlepage & Co. violated the cardinal rule of the selection committee -- not choosing a college or university based on the number of invitations already delivered to other members of the same conference. There is no way to reconcile Cincinnati and Michigan's exclusion from this tournament on any other basis other than to believe that the committee did not want nine teams from the Big East and seven from the Big Ten.

The at-large process was not created to give everyone a fair crack at making the tournament. The at-large process was created to give big schools from big conferences the opportunity to join the Dance even though they may have been demolished in their brutal conference slates. To include a couple of teams from the Western Athletic, Mountain West, and Missouri Valley Conferences just because an individual thinks that the Big East is getting too many teams is ludicrous and a blatant affront to the responsibilities of the selection committee.

The rule is the 34 best teams, and the selection committee this year failed miserably in achieving this goal.

2 Responses to “National Bracket Thoughts”

  1. # Anonymous paulwesterdawg

    thanks for the link on the blogroll.

    I agree this was a cluster of a bracket. Air Force over Cincy is just as far out into right field as any single blunder that I've seen.  

  2. # Anonymous Matt Glaude

    To be honest, the seeding is actually more confusing than the selection of some of these teams.

    But that's something for another time.  

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