Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

February 9, 2011

Just give me the damn field

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:40 am

Last year I offered tempo-free wisdom on a pro bono basis to the first mid-major to give me a ring. And in an NCAA tournament filled with upsets and surprises, the team that “won” my services served as foam padding to their major-conference opponent’s carpet gun. My mid-major got stapled into the hardwood in a matter of minutes, and the game was effectively decided before halftime. I consoled myself by saying that without my sage counsel my team might have lost by 60.

Fresh off that triumph I’ve decided to make another irresistible offer. At the risk of sounding uncomfortably similar to Andy Rooney, ever notice how the selection committee’s called the “selection committee”? It’s not called the “seeding committee.”

There’s wisdom in names. Selection and seeding pose two completely different challenges. And I favor tradition in selection and fairness in seeding.

When it comes to selection, there are two cardinal virtues inherent to tradition: it’s really easy to explain and it confers legitimacy. Want to be selected for the NCAA tournament? Win your games. The better your schedule/conference, the fewer games you have to win.

Hey, you ask, why not fairness in selection too? Because selection’s intrinsically unfair to the best team that’s left out. Awarding the final at-large bid will always come down to drawing a highly subjective line between two teams possessing more or less equal merit. Therefore selection’s a perfect task for a committee, the broader and more respected the better. When the team that just missed the tournament wants an explanation, the best we can hope for is that a group of hard-working and candid people will say to that team: You know, we deliberated on this at length and it was a really tough call, but at the end of the day we thought this was the best decision. A selection with a sound bite like that behind it will always have more legitimacy than: Sorry, Team X, you were one spot too low on our computer model. When selecting a field we should let tradition rule the day.

But once the field of 68 teams has been selected, an entirely different process needs to take place, one based on fairness. Currently teams are seeded according to the same criteria used for selection: how many games did Team X win, against whom, and where. We’ve known for some time now that this method is not the best way to predict how well a team will do in the future. What we owe to every team is a bracket based on the best knowledge we have. Right now that’s not happening.

I was drafting my annual think piece on reality-based seeding when I decided I’m really tired of annual think pieces on reality-based seeding. It’s time for more of a Keyshawn Johnson approach. It’s time to do reality-based seeding. Give me 68 teams and I’ll seed them based on a projection of their future performance.

And by give “me” the damn field, I of course mean simply give the field to any person, group, or procedure which understands that fairness for 68 teams requires avoiding another New Mexico. No offense against the Lobos, mind you, who were actually underrated in 2009. It’s not their fault last year furnishes a teachable example. I just want to make “New Mexico” a cautionary shorthand for blinkered groupthink, like “Munich,” “Vietnam,” or “Barton Fink.”

There was a time when I’d say “Team X is overseeded!” and I was shouting into the wind, and that was fine. But now when I say “Team X is overseeded!” I receive amens and disagreement, questions and retweets, kudos and criticism — from all over the place. This reality-based stuff is everywhere now, and that’s great. But while this stuff is used by all kinds of people, it’s not used in any substantive way by those charged with seeding the tournament in the fairest manner possible. And, pace my bud Ken Pomeroy, it does bother me that what I do is used by people who are trying to make money but not by people who are trying to craft a fair bracket. To quote Frozone, that ain’t right.

BONUS clarification! Who’s really the traditionalist and basketball purist here? The committee lays great stress on a mathematical equation introduced to the selection process in 1981. I lay great stress on a method of basketball analysis invented by a Hall of Fame coach in the late 1950s. Draw your own conclusions. 

John often says “Team X is overseeded!” on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. You can contact John by clicking hereCollege Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon. 

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