The Madness Before Madness

Ah, the NCAA Selection Committee. The one group of individuals that can unite fan bases near and far in vitriol. There’s not quite human sacrifice, but you do get Dawgs and Cats moaning together, and it can seem like mass hysteria at times.

Typically, this unenviable group of men and women do not incur the wrath of college basketball fans and pundits around the country until after the brackets have been released.

Typically. This year, they have outdone themselves.

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On Sunday, Utah State Athletic Director and Selection Committee Chairman Scott Barnes (in what was likely a preemptive strike against the impending collective outrage of a nation) sat down for a little on-air Q&A session with the good folks over at CBS Sports. It went reasonably well until Doug Gottlieb posed a question about the potential for a Kentucky/Wisconsin pairing as the 1 and 2 seeds in the Midwest Regional. Cue the mass hysteria.

Barnes suggested that the committee was bound by the principles and procedures put into place prior to the season, and that geography would carry the day. Thus, heavily implying that, if the projected seeds hold, presumed No. 1 overall seed Kentucky would be paired with Wisconsin, the strongest of the projected No. 2 seeds. Suddenly a Twitterverse once divided by the mere color of a dress (it’s black and blue, for the record) had been brought together as one in their disdain for this man’s assertions.

Mixing college sports fan bases, self-important talking heads and the internet is the perfect cocktail of overreaction. Except this time. The reaction was justified. Having the No. 1 overall seed and possibly the top No. 2 seed in one region is an incredibly stupid idea. People were livid at the notion that in 2015 the Selection Committee would be bound by the principle of geography when setting the tournament field.

So being a college sports fan, a quasi-talking head (although definitely self-important) and possessing an internet connection, I set out to determine how in the world this could actually be true. Here’s what I found: it’s not true.

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee operates under a document titled 2014-15 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Principles And Procedures For Establishing The Bracket. The guy who came up with that title will definitely be going pro in something else other than marketing.

In reading this document, I learned that the committee approaches the process in three phases: select the at-large teams; seed the teams and, finally, place the teams. Select. Seed. Place. Got it. Seems simple enough. Let’s just skip over the “Select” portion of the process because if we discuss that now, then we’re stealing next week’s column from the Murray State beat writer. Let’s move right on to Seed and Place.

Seed. I learned as I perused this riveting piece of modern American bureaucracy that each team is assigned a true seed. Teams not assigned a true seed are sent to the Wall to live out their days as members of the Night’s Watch. So the teams are seeded 1-68. True seeds 1-4 are the one seeds, 5-8 the two seeds and so on. Pretty simple stuff. If you can count to four, you should have a fairly decent grasp on the entire concept. I’m assuming if you’ve managed to read this far that you can count to four.

Place. Here’s where geography rears its topographically unappealing head. Buried in the middle of the right hand column on page four of this document is the following, “Teams will remain in or as close to their areas of natural interest as possible. A team moved out of its natural area will be placed in the next closest region to the extent possible.” OK. Seems reasonable. It also is not a black-and-white rule.

“As possible” creates a little something called wiggle room. And it is absolutely clear that is the intent of the document – to create some flexibility. In fact, the very next sentence sets out the exact procedure for how to deal with a team that needs to be moved from its natural area. That team goes to the “next-closest region… to the extent possible”. Again more wiggle room. More flexibility. And I’ve said, all this without even mentioning that the term “areas of natural interest” is intentionally vague. The area of natural interest for Kentucky or Duke is the Western Hemisphere. For a team like Belmont it probably means up to five miles west of campus.

If anyone attempts to make a case against the flexibility of the principle of geography as this document is written just point them to the left hand column of the same page of this document. There they will find other procedures. Inflexible procedures. Procedures that are not qualified with “to the extent possible” or “as possible,” but are rather set out as things that shall or shall not be done.

These procedures govern issues such as when teams from the same conference can meet and prohibiting a team from playing on its home court. The Selection Committee is certainly beholden to those procedures and its hands are tied. It’s the reason Louisville does not open play at the Yum Center or why there is no Kentucky vs. LSU game in the second round. The committee is prohibited from doing these things. They are not prohibited from moving teams from their “area of natural interest.”

Oh yeah. There’s one other thing I have neglected to mention. Page 1. Principle 1. The committee endeavors to achieve reasonable competitive balance in each region of the bracket. This principle even comes before the document sets out that the committee will select the 36 best at-large teams. It’s that important. Why, one might be inclined to define it as a guiding principle. The first and fifth best teams in a 68 team field being placed into the same region is the very definition of “unreasonable.”

So there you go. Reasonable Competitive Balance vs. Area of Natural Interest. One is the very first principle listed on the very first page. The other is buried in a paragraph halfway down page four and is followed by instructions on how to proceed in the event it cannot be followed. Which seems more important? More controlling?

The Selection Committee very clearly can move teams and should move teams to achieve competitive balance within the field. Scott Barnes was either misrepresenting the truth or does not fully understand his own process when he implied that geography was the overriding principle in building the bracket.

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