Column | How the pandemic will shake up the NCAA Tournament bubble


Mitch Doner | Wikimedia Commons

The south side of Lucas Oil Stadium for the 2010 NCAA Final Four Division I Men’s Championship game in Indianapolis. The NCAA will play all the men’s basketball postseason games in Indianapolis for 2021, with the status of fan attendance still unknown.

By Kyle Saxon, Staff Writer

Last season, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the NCAA Tournament — along with just about everything else around the world — from occurring. This year, it will alter the beloved March Madness festivities in unprecedented ways.

American sports have powered through the pandemic through the implementation of extensive testing and safety protocols, and the tournament will obviously be different in this way. The NCAA will play all the men’s basketball postseason games in the general Indianapolis area in a bubble-like capacity, with the status of fan attendance still unknown. But much more will change about the NCAA Tournament than merely optics.

While many teams enter each season with conference or national championship aspirations, essentially every team in the country engages in a constant pursuit of one common goal every year — to make the NCAA Tournament. History has shown that in college basketball, just about anything can happen in March, making the tournament one of the most unique and beloved traditions in the world of sport.

The stakes of punching a ticket to the Big Dance are astronomical by nature — dozens of programs find themselves sweating each Selection Sunday, when the NCAA officially unveils the field of 68 participating teams to the world. The programs that tread the fine line between making or missing the NCAA Tournament make up what is known as the “bubble.” “Bracketology” experts continuously evaluate the chances of these teams throughout the season, making every single game pivotal.

This season, many of these crucial games have not occurred on schedule. To this point, hundreds of games have been postponed or cancelled, many of which had presented huge opportunities for bubble teams with tournament aspirations. Scheduling in general has become a mess, forcing the NCAA Tournament selection committee to completely change the way in which it evaluates deserving teams.

Scheduling is always one of the most crucial components of building an NCAA Tournament- caliber resumé. Every team knows that the majority of its games will come against conference opponents and keep this in mind when scheduling non-conference games. When March rolls around, these out-of-league games in November and December become some of the most crucial components to a team’s resumé.

This year, many things changed. The number of non-conference games teams played got cut by about half, and the obstacles of travel and COVID-19 testing greatly altered the practicality of many games. Due to this decrease in non-conference opportunity, a large number of teams showed an urgency to make the most of them. Non-conference play provided perhaps the most marquee matchups that have ever been played in a single year, with top teams such as Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois and Iowa showing their willingness to schedule just about any team in the country.

But many of these games did not wind up occuring, namely the potential game of the year between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor, which both remain undefeated and have held those rankings for the entire season. Also, some teams did not schedule any truly challenging games outside of conference play due to the caliber of their conference. Therefore, two major factors will hold more importance than ever before — strength of schedule and the “eye test.”

Gonzaga scheduled opponents such as Baylor, Iowa, West Virginia and Kansas to increase its strength of schedule, primarily because it is frequently knocked for playing in a weak conference. On the other hand, teams near the middle of conferences such as the Big Ten and Big 12 did not follow the same logic, as their conference schedule alone provides roughly 20 opportunities to play against mostly top-tier opponents.

One of the main evaluation tools used by the selection committee is the NCAA NET Rankings. Within this metric for ranking teams, the committee importantly considers each team’s record against “Quad 1” opponents — teams within the top tier of the rankings. In the Big Ten, for instance, most of the teams sit in this top quadrant, therefore reducing the incentive for teams to schedule a grueling non-conference slate.

Ultimately, the point remains — bubble teams in better conferences will have an unprecedented advantage this year. Because most teams play a larger portion of their schedule against conference opponents this season due to the pandemic, teams in better conferences will inherently have a more impressive resumé due to the difficulty of their schedule. Penn State, for instance, has a record of just 7-9, but ranks first in strength of schedule, and therefore maintains a position right on the tournament bubble right alongside teams with more impressive records in weaker conferences.

A metric such as the NET, however, doesn’t properly convey how well a team actually stacks up against great opponents, regardless of a win or loss. This season, NET abandoned the consideration of scoring margin, meaning a one-point overtime loss to the best team in the conference serves essentially the same purpose as a 15-point loss to that same opponent. This highlights one of the main flaws of the metric and demonstrates why the eye test plays such a large role in selection this season.

Many teams have lost high-stakes games and opportunities for high-quality wins due to the pandemic. Therefore, their performance beyond a win or loss will play a larger role than ever in the selection process. With the nature of scheduling this year, the committee will have no choice but to critically evaluate how a team actually performed beyond its record, and how the committee believes a team can stack up against the nation’s best, as opposed to just a record and how a team stacks up in the standings. While this seems highly subjective, the committee members are hired to make these tough decisions and should comfortably handle this process.

All in all, the selection process will be unlike anything in years prior. Teams with less impressive resumés but highly difficult schedules will get a large amount of leniency, while teams with better records but weaker schedules will be penalized more than ever before. The way a team actually competes and performs against its opponents will also hold more weight than usual, forcing the committee to look beyond wins and losses more than ever before. The NCAA Tournament bubble will be more confusing and stressful than ever before.

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