Key Factors

"Bunching". "Separation". "Differentiation". Those are some of the key factors in selecting this year's NCAA basketball tournament field, according to Gary Walters, Director of Athletics at Princeton and Chair of the Division I NCAA basketball selection committee.

Those aren't new aspects of the RPI, or a new way of measuring the relative strengths of teams. Instead, they serve to describe much of the field competing for spots in this year's NCAA tournament.

"Overall, the parity trend continues, and there's a real lack of differentiation among different teams," Walters said as he described the biggest challenge facing this year's selection committee. "It makes picks more difficult. Because of that conference tournaments could take on increasing significance this year. A team could either burnish or bruise its reputation this year in their league tournaments.

"The unbalanced schedules and the divisional alignments many conferences now have complicate the process," Walters continued. "Two teams in the same league might have the same record, but that could disguise significant differences. We will have to eyeball that pretty closely."

Simply put, it means that the committee will likely have to delve deeper than ever into which teams played which opponents, and when, and where, than ever before. There are razor thin margins that separate a number of candidates for this year's at-large field, and trying to pick the most deserving group will require days of analysis, which is already underway, although the committee doesn't meet in Indianapolis for another three weeks.

"In my role as chair I am glued to the TV set, as other committee members have been," Walters said. On Saturday I watched 12 games, on Sunday I watched five games, and on Monday I watched four or five games. That's the kind of commitment we are making at this point.

"In past years, we might have been trying to put four or five teams into the last two spots. This year, we might be trying to shoehorn ten teams into the last four spots. There is just lots of bunching in the middle of conferences. Hopefully, there will be some separation as this month goes on. If not, the conference tournaments will help us discern what to do."

Walters also attempted to dispel several commonly held beliefs concerning the selection process, including: RPI: "As I have stated over and over, and has everyone in the past, the RPI is a tool, a useful tool, but not the only tool. It is a general indicator of relative strength. It is not a precise indicator of absolute strength."

  • 20 Wins: "The notion is that achieving 20 wins is a precursor to getting in, and that's not the case. You have to evaluate teams separately, and compare and contrast them."

  • Signature wins: I don't think there is any simple answer to any of those types of questions [as to whether signature wins mean more, or if their location matters]. You can't pit one variable against another. We are trying to evaluate all the teams. Certainly if you have a team getting stronger as the year goes on, it will be noted by the committee.

  • Timing of wins: "We do look at how the teams are doing now, at the end of the season, because that is more the team we would see in the tournament. But we still take the out of conference and all of the schedules into account. Subjectively speaking, finishing strong is one thing we look at, but I am not sure if I can say it's weighted more heavily."

  • Other factors: "We look at the sequence of games, injuries, performances at different times of the year. All of these factors are taken into account."

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