January 26, 2007

How to Project the Field of 65

For the past five years I've enjoyed trying to guess the 65 teams for the tournament. Usually I start around February 1st, by then major conferences have gone through round-robin play one time. I guess I am just not that clever, so without further adieu here are the rules.

First off, the Basketball Committee has a panel of 8-10 members on a selective basis. Each person gets assigned an area of the country to watch along with gauging the land. Near the time of the tournament, but before the conference tournaments begin, each member puts together a list of teams 1-34. These are supposed to represent the 34 at-large bids. Essentially, you are picking the 34 teams that would get in regardless of their conference tournaments. The 31 conferences each get an automatic bid, comprising the 65 teams selected.

There are several criteria used to determine one team versus another, for me I keep a spreadsheet with 11 columns of relevant categories.

Thank God for Ken Pomeroy. www.kenpom.com - click on "RPI" and then sit down and write a check to the man for having the site that will save you eons of time. The highlighted columns below are found directly on his site. The others are found elsewhere or by applying math formulas in your Excel sheet.

- Won/loss record (conference and overall), which omits wins/losses against non D-I teams.
- AP & Coaches polls ranking
- Strength of Schedule
- Record vs. Top 50
- Record vs. Top 100
- Total Record vs. Top 100 (just a simple addition of the two previous columns - so maybe I have 12 criteria)
- Losses vs. 101 and higher
- Last 10 record
- Record of road and neutral games

Most all categories are not stand-alone, sure fire ways to rank a team. Polls are biased. Won/loss records are inflated through easy games. Conferences are skewed to have a lot of members in the Top 50 whereas mid-major conferences don't, so the Top 50 wins will always be high for the Big Six (BCS) conferences. In short, you have to look at all criteria together as a whole picture.

In essence, you have to decide what is important and what are just stats. To me, the most powerful stat is a team's record in road and neutral games. The NCAA Tournament is played on neutral courts, teams that are tough at home but weak sisters on the road don't hold much appeal to me. All other criteria have a "yeah, but" quality to them. However, you win away from home and on a neutral court, then your doing something.

RPI and SOS are fairly reliable as well. Certain teams are known for loading up an easy non-conference and they get hurt in these ratings. They don't perform well in conference then they wind up on the bubble. Win big in conference and the gamble pays off with a high seed.

On the other end, my pet peeve are the polls. Yes, they are used to an extent, but I factor them in as the "human error bias" into the projection. Certain teams earn huge breaks thanks to the polls, while upsets happen every year by those teams overlooked by the polls. In the middle ground (trying to seed the 6-10 seeds) is where a ranked team will usually get the benefit of the doubt.

The Committee will also tell you that the Last 10 is very important. I say the record on its face is not enough. You have to delve into who they played in the last ten. Essentially, think of the college football season, there is a reason that Tennessee plays well in November, getting Kentucky and Vanderbilt on the schedule each year in the penultimate month.

While not a defined criteria, I tend to downplay the conference tournaments. They are good for teams on the bubble looking to get in, but realize that the upper echelon of teams are usually set by the committee before the tournaments. Flaming out early or running the table usually only improves or harms your seeding by one line either way.

To keep things moving, lets take a look at my current Top 34:

My list represents games through Thursday, January 25th. (The good part about college basketball season is that Friday is the weakest day for games, hence a good chance to take a snapshot of the country standing still.)

1. Wisconsin
3. North Carolina
4. Florida
5. Pittsburgh
6. Duke
7. Kansas
8. Ohio State
9. Oregon
10. Texas A&M
11. Arizona
12. Memphis
13. Oklahoma State
14. Clemson
15. Marquette
16. Washington State
17. Air Force
18. Kentucky
19. Indiana
20. Alabama
21. Butler
22. Nevada
23. Southern Illinois
24. Texas Tech
25. Virginia Tech
26. Vanderbilt
27. Boston College
28. UNLV
29. Michigan State
30. Villanova
31. Tennessee
32. Georgetown
33. Northern Iowa
34. Stanford

I could go into how and why, but really that is the point of the list and needing multiple people in the room. No two lists will look the same and what I think is important you might pass over.

Moving right along, the next task for the Committee is to fill out the bracket. 31 conference champions get automatic bids for winning their tournaments (only the Ivy League gives its bid to the regular-season champ). The best way to accomplish it for now is to determine that the lower conferences (SWAC, MEAC, Ohio Valley) will only get one team in the tournament. Seed your Top 34, then fill out the bottom of the bracket with the champions of the lower-ranked conferences.

Thank God for Ken Pomeroy, again. Write out another check.

Found in his spreadsheet is a whole other tab that ranks the conferences 1-31 by their RPI rank as a conference. Pretty much the conferences below the 12th or 13th are only going to get their conference champion in. To summarize, the highest ranked team out of a conference ranked in the conferences from 14-31 is Appalachian State at #44. Good luck boys.

What throws the committee into a topsy turvy is when you project a number of teams in a conference to win the tournament and they don't come through. There are only 65 bids, someone loses out.

Rank your 1-34, seed them, then rank your bottom 16-18. The hard part is filling out the last 10 or so teams. These are the teams that you see on your television on Selection Sunday waiting to be selected or screwed based on the opinions of eight people in a room since Thursday.

So you do it, you select the 65 teams. Take a big breath because your not done yet. You have to seed the teams, place the teams in one of eight pod sites (first and second rounds, first weekend) while assigning them to a region (four sites, second weekend) - all the while making sure that you don't put two same-conference teams in region before they could meet in the regional final, or likewise avoiding any kind of rematch between two out-of-conference teams before the same regional final.

You can check a team's entire schedule on Pomeroy's site. Who they played, where, the score, and their current RPI rank.

Write another check.

We'll venture into seeding and placement tomorrow.

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