NCAA TOURNAMENT: CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE STYLE

March 15, 2015
Nicholas Patrick

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee, comprised of several hard-working and knowledgeable athletic directors from various Division I institutions, received its annual dose of harsh criticism, from experts and casual fans alike, for the tournament bracket it developed and released on Sunday. But many casual fans might not realize just how difficult the process is, or all of the factors that must be considered when building the bracket. In addition to the relative performance of teams leading up to Selection Sunday (the primary factor, obviously), the Committee must also consider teams’ expected performance going forward (based on injuries, suspensions, etc.), geography, conference affiliation, previous meetings between teams, and even restrictions/obligations related to religion. What starts as a 1-68 ranking, which must be daunting to develop in itself, can turn into an absolute brainteaser by the time each team is placed on the bracket in a way that meets all of the NCAA’s conditions. No wonder the Committee never seems to please everyone!

But why does it have to be this hard? What if the Committee only had to focus on determining who is in, rank them purely on their performance to date, and leave the rest to the participating teams. I mean, sure it’s nice that Kentucky’s historic season has earned them the Tournament path deemed most favorable by the Selection Committee. But why shouldn’t they earn the Tournament path that Kentucky deems most favorable?

Let brackets and drafts combine, to allow the most-deserving teams to select the most desirable path for themselves. The process would take several steps: first, teams (proceeding in the rank order determined by the Committee) would select its preferred Round of 64 opponent (the Committee would determine First Four pairings, though this wouldn’t be necessary if the opening round were more robust). Now suppose teams trust Kenpom rankings more than the Committee’s rankings, and that each team selects the most inferior available team based on Kenpom rankings. Kentucky would select Texas Southern (#207 in Kenpom); Villanova would select Lafayette (#195 in Kenpom); and so on, until the following 32 pairings were made (number in parentheses indicates Kenpom ranking):

1 Kentucky/207 Texas Southern
5 Villanova/195 Lafayette
7 Duke/151 North Dakota State
3 Wisconsin/149 Belmont
4 Virginia/148 Coastal Carolina
2 Arizona/145 Manhattan/250 Hampton
6 Gonzaga/136 Eastern Washington
11 Kansas/131 Albany
13 Iowa State/127 North Florida/173 Robert Morris
15 Baylor/121 UAB
9 Oklahoma/120 Northeastern
10 Notre Dame/102 Wyoming
16 North Carolina/94 UC Irvine
33 Maryland/90 Wofford
18 Louisville/88 New Mexico State
22 Georgetown/78 Harvard
8 Utah/71 Georgia State
29 Arkansas/63 Valparaiso
25 West Virginia/54 Buffalo
12 Northern Iowa/53 Indiana
19 SMU/49 Purdue
28 Providence/46 Oregon
23 Butler/43 LSU
26 Xavier/42 St. John’s
17 Michigan State/41 UCLA
14 Wichita State/39 Boise State/40 Dayton
24 Iowa/38 North Carolina State
30 VCU/37 Oklahoma State
34 Cincinnati/36 Georgia
27 San Diego State/35 Stephen F. Austin
32 Davidson/31 BYU/44 Mississippi
21 Ohio State/20 Texas

Now we start back at the top, and teams (again, proceeding in order of the Committee’s rankings) select their desired potential match-up in the Round of 32, and the site for their first two games (I would say that no team can select its home site, but that an especially fortunate team could – however unlikely – be selected to play in its home site). Assuming that each team picks the nearest available site (which isn’t always advisable, if such a site is nearer to a potential opponent), and the safest possible Round of 32 match-up based on Kenpom rankings, 16 pods would be created like so:

LOUISVILLE
1 Kentucky/207 Texas Southern
34 Cincinnati/36 Georgia

PITTSBURGH
5 Villanova/195 Lafayette
33 Maryland/90 Wofford

CHARLOTTE
7 Duke/151 North Dakota State
32 Davidson/31 BYU/44 Mississippi

OMAHA
3 Wisconsin/149 Belmont
30 VCU/37 Oklahoma State

CHARLOTTE
4 Virginia/148 Coastal Carolina
29 Arkansas/63 Valparaiso

OMAHA
2 Arizona/145 Manhattan/250 Hampton
28 Providence/46 Oregon

SEATTLE
6 Gonzaga/136 Eastern Washington
27 San Diego State/35 Stephen F. Austin

LOUISVILLE
11 Kansas/131 Albany
26 Xavier/42 St. John’s

COLUMBUS
13 Iowa State/127 North Florida/173 Robert Morris
25 West Virginia/54 Buffalo

JACKSONVILLE
15 Baylor/121 UAB
24 Iowa/38 North Carolina State

COLUMBUS
9 Oklahoma/120 Northeastern
23 Butler/43 LSU

PITTSBURGH
10 Notre Dame/102 Wyoming
22 Georgetown/78 Harvard

JACKSONVILLE
16 North Carolina/94 UC Irvine
21 Ohio State/20 Texas

PORTLAND
18 Louisville/88 New Mexico State
19 SMU/49 Purdue

PORTLAND
8 Utah/71 Georgia State
17 Michigan State/41 UCLA

SEATTLE
12 Northern Iowa/53 Indiana
14 Wichita State/39 Boise State/40 Dayton

To this point, these pods are still kinda floating in space. They won’t begin to lock in until teams select their preferred potential Sweet 16 match-up:

1 Kentucky/207 Texas Southern
34 Cincinnati/36 Georgia
18 Louisville/88 New Mexico State
19 SMU/49 Purdue

5 Villanova/195 Lafayette
33 Maryland/90 Wofford
16 North Carolina/94 UC Irvine
21 Ohio State/20 Texas

7 Duke/151 North Dakota State
32 Davidson/31 BYU/44 Mississippi
15 Baylor/121 UAB
24 Iowa/38 North Carolina State

3 Wisconsin/149 Belmont
30 VCU/37 Oklahoma State
13 Iowa State/127 North Florida/173 Robert Morris
25 West Virginia/54 Buffalo

4 Virginia/148 Coastal Carolina
29 Arkansas/63 Valparaiso
12 Northern Iowa/53 Indiana
14 Wichita State/39 Boise State/40 Dayton

2 Arizona/145 Manhattan/250 Hampton
28 Providence/46 Oregon
11 Kansas/131 Albany
26 Xavier/42 St. John’s

6 Gonzaga/136 Eastern Washington
27 San Diego State/35 Stephen F. Austin
10 Notre Dame/102 Wyoming
22 Georgetown/78 Harvard

9 Oklahoma/120 Northeastern
23 Butler/43 LSU
8 Utah/71 Georgia State
17 Michigan State/41 UCLA

Now teams select their preferred potential Elite Eight match-up and site for the regional rounds:

CLEVELAND
1 Kentucky/207 Texas Southern
34 Cincinnati/36 Georgia
18 Louisville/88 New Mexico State
19 SMU/49 Purdue
9 Oklahoma/120 Northeastern
23 Butler/43 LSU
8 Utah/71 Georgia State
17 Michigan State/41 UCLA

SYRACUSE
5 Villanova/195 Lafayette
33 Maryland/90 Wofford
16 North Carolina/94 UC Irvine
21 Ohio State/20 Texas
7 Duke/151 North Dakota State
32 Davidson/31 BYU/44 Mississippi
15 Baylor/121 UAB
24 Iowa/38 North Carolina State

HOUSTON
3 Wisconsin/149 Belmont
30 VCU/37 Oklahoma State
13 Iowa State/127 North Florida/173 Robert Morris
25 West Virginia/54 Buffalo
6 Gonzaga/136 Eastern Washington
27 San Diego State/35 Stephen F. Austin
10 Notre Dame/102 Wyoming
22 Georgetown/78 Harvard

LOS ANGELES
4 Virginia/148 Coastal Carolina
29 Arkansas/63 Valparaiso
12 Northern Iowa/53 Indiana
14 Wichita State/39 Boise State/40 Dayton
2 Arizona/145 Manhattan/250 Hampton
28 Providence/46 Oregon
11 Kansas/131 Albany
26 Xavier/42 St. John’s

Teams would then select their preferred Final Four match-up, and the bracket would be set like so (notice there are no more 1-16 seeds, only 1-68 Committee rankings):

MIDWEST SOUTH
1 Kentucky 4 Wisconsin
61 Texas Southern 60 Belmont
  .           .
29 Cincinnati 28 VCU
40 Georgia 34 Oklahoma State
  .           .
15 Louisville 9 Iowa State
59 New Mexico State 65 North Florida/66 Robert Morris
  .           .
21 SMU 19 West Virginia
36 Purdue 48 Buffalo
  .           .
11 Oklahoma 7 Gonzaga
56 Northeastern 53 Eastern Washington
  .           .
23 Butler 32 San Diego State
35 LSU 50 Stephen F. Austin
  .           .
17 Utah 12 Notre Dame
55 Georgia State 47 Wyoming
  .           .
25 Michigan State 16 Georgetown
42 UCLA 52 Harvard
  .           .
  .           .
EAST WEST
2 Villanova 5 Virginia
63 Lafayette 64 Coastal Carolina
 .           .
14 Maryland 18 Arkansas
49 Wofford 51 Valparaiso
  .           .
13 North Carolina 20 Northern Iowa
54 UC Irvine 37 Indiana
  .           .
39 Ohio State 26 Wichita State
41 Texas 45 Boise State/46 Dayton
  .           .
3 Duke 6 Arizona
62 North Dakota State 67 Manhattan/68 Hampton
  .           .
38 Davidson 22 Providence
44 BYU/43 Mississippi 30 Oregon
  .           .
10 Baylor 8 Kansas
57 UAB 58 Albany
  .           .
27 Iowa 24 Xavier
31 North Carolina State 33 St. John’s

Of course, not every team would base their selections solely on Kenpom rankings, or select sites solely on distance. But that’s what would make a bracket draft so fascinating. Some teams would look for match-ups that maximize their own strengths and exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. Some teams would pursue match-ups with teams they’ve already faced (perhaps even conference rivals); others would steer away from rematches. Some teams would pick the nearest site, even if a nearer potential opponent was in line to play there; others might play the geography game more conservatively. Some coaches might pursue match-ups with former mentors or proteges; others might avoid such match-ups.

Just think of the narratives! Only these narratives would be legitimate, with match-ups hand-picked by the participants themselves. This format would turn up the heat on every Tournament game.

“You wanted us? Well, you got it.”

And the possibilities go way beyond the format described above (a format that could easily be implemented in our other favorite professional and college sports). Perhaps teams could redraft (proceeding in the order of the original Committee rankings) after every two rounds (which would indirectly place significantly greater importance on regular season play, but would directly change the way we conduct tournament betting pools). Or, instead of pre-determining a fixed number of teams to participate (whose overall qualifications vary from year to year), perhaps a pre-determined set of criteria could be established that qualifies a team for inclusion in the tournament (and the number of teams in the tournament would fluctuate slightly from year to year).

Maybe the draft rounds would be super quick, with the entire draft lasting only a couple hours on the evening of Selection Sunday. Or maybe it could be an all-day affair. In any case, letting teams choose their own path is a most sensible way to add to the Madness.

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