Selection Committee could tweak rules to curb surprises

By Chris Puzia / Contributing Editor

Every Selection Sunday, some teams and fan bases will inevitably call foul on why their squad misses its shot to, well, take more shots.

Part of this frustration likely comes from the NCAA Selection Committee’s explicit, yet complicated, method for selecting teams. While the committee has spruced the formula up a bit, the criteria still has serious flaws — I’m looking at you, Valparaiso and Syracuse.

Those two teams — Valparaiso missed the cut and Syracuse barely snuck in — show that we need more overhauls to avoid more discrepancies. The committee primarily uses the Ratings Percentage Index, which prioritizes team records and home versus away splits, but there are other ways to cut down on the yearly outcry against its selections.

One suggestion I would give the committee is to focus less on the RPI and more on advanced metrics, such as KenPom.

The RPI is an outdated formula, which teams can easily manipulate by scheduling high-achieving, mid-major programs sprinkled between a handful of heavyweight matchups to balance a perfect RPI. Kansas has long perfected this trick, and this year it again has the country’s top RPI.

The committee claims to use a well-rounded, composite picture to compare teams by reviewing common-opponent results, strength of schedule, road and neutral court records and the all-important eye test.

I’m sure popular snubs Monmouth and Saint Bonaventure, who posted breakout seasons as mid-major teams but still missed the tournament, would disagree. It seems RPI still rules the room, and some deserving teams won’t get a seat at the table.

Syracuse had an RPI of 71, the worst of any at-large team to ever make the tournament. Apparently, the committee looks at more advanced stats than just the RPI, but Committee Chair Joe Castiglione keeps pointing to the Orange’s multiple top-50 wins, showing the RPI can matter when the committee wants it to.

Now, the committee says it considers other formulas, such as KenPom, which includes offensive and defensive efficiency, and Sagarin, which accounts for recent play and actual game scores.

Still, it may not be enough to reward deserving teams. Saint Mary’s missed the cut ranking 34th on KenPom, while Syracuse made it at 41.

So the annual tradition of arguing about teams for hours after Selection Sunday will continue, but here are a couple of buzzer-beating suggestions: The committee should use the College Football Playoff model and release mock seedings early, and phase out RPI almost completely using KenPom instead.

With these two changes, the inevitable future arguments would be less subjective.

Release tournament seeds early

Part of the surprise on Selection Sunday lies in the distinct difference between media bracketologists and the actual Selection Committee.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’s Jerry Palm may insist in weeks leading up to the tournament that Pitt is a No. 7 seed, for example, only for the Panthers to miss the field.

Almost no one thought Tulsa would make the cut — including its own players. If they knew they had a shot, their final games would have had more gravity.

It is not the Selection Committee’s job to please everyone. But the needless surprises don’t help anyone.

The College Football Playoff released its first rankings this past season on Nov. 3, about two months into the season. The Selection Committee had enough time to evaluate teams’ performances, and its subsequent weekly rankings became the standard accepted ranking to replace the AP Poll.

It is a little more complicated in college basketball, as automatic bids for mid-majors only come after conference tournaments in March. While Holy Cross has already secured a bid by winning the Patriot League Tournament, there would be no way for the Selection Committee to know early.

Without the tournament win, Holy Cross was nowhere near the top 68 overall teams in the country.

Still, the committee could release the top at-large bids — usually to major conference teams — and fill in the mid-majors with whatever team tops its standings. That way, there would be a weekly, working bracket for teams and fans to see where their team currently stands. These could debut in early or mid-February, after the committee has seen conference play.

Weigh KenPom more heavily than RPI

When the RPI was introduced in 1981, it revolutionized the way the Selection Committee and analysts judged teams.

“By modern standards, however, this is a remarkably simple formula and one that can be easily manipulated,” SB Nation’s Mike Rutherford said last year.

A quarter of that formula is the team’s winning percentage, half is the opponents’ winning percentages and the final quarter is the opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage, with road wins valued over home ones.

But that method ignores a number of valuable criteria, such as margin of victory and team efficiency.

That’s where KenPom comes in.

With a premium on offensive and defensive efficiency — looking at points per possession rather than points per game — in addition to strength of schedule, KenPom is harder to manipulate than RPI.

The numbers often do line up: Kansas is tops in both KenPom and RPI. But KenPom should outweigh the RPI when major differences arise.

Vanderbilt is No. 27 in KenPom and No. 60 in RPI — and it just narrowly made the tournament.

So the Selection Committee should flip its priorities and make KenPom the main evaluation metric, using RPI as a supplementary tool.

The best way to cut down on the annual tradition of bashing poor seedings and omissions is more transparency. The committee has been open about its willingness to use deeper statistics, but that should phase out the RPI. And by publishing earlier brackets, Monmouth will know why it doesn’t make the cut instead of facing total heartbreak next Selection Sunday.

These two changes would rectify any dispute over the committee’s selection process. If implemented, we could all focus more on actually enjoying the games and less on fighting about snubs and seeds.

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