If the thieves running the NCAA and its member institutions merely exploited labor for their own profit, that would be bad enough. But aging cartels trend towards hubris and sloth. Thus, these stupid, greedy bastards can’t even be bothered to hide the graft anymore. That’s the only explanation for, among other things, Syracuse. The Orange’s inclusion in this year’s field serves as both a giant middle finger to every basketball fan with eyes—for the love of your sight, look away—and a smokescreen to hide the selection committee’s more nefarious actions.
“Look at this terrible team. Make sure to drop your Syracuse take! Just do that and pay no attention to the asswipes behind the curtain.”
It’s while everyone is distracted by
mediocrity outright shittiness that the committee pulls its other tricks.
If you’re interested, there’s some background the whys and the hows of this scam later. But for now, I’d like to go ahead and provide one man’s list of the NCAA’s latest and greatest hits. Please note that RPI ratings are courtesy of cbssports.com (official corporate mouthpiece of the NCAA and the NCAA tournament) while KenPom ratings are courtesy of the excellent Ken Pomeroy at KenPom.com. As adjusted efficiency ratings, the KenPom stats will serve an inaccurate approximation of gambling power rankings.
Without further ado, here’s how you know these morons can’t even cover their tracks anymore:
- Syracuse closed out the season with a 1-5 stretch to finish with an RPI of 72(!) and a KenPom rating of 41. The usual arguments of RPI, record (19-14), closing the season well, or eye-test (Syracuse is shitty), don’t fly. Syracuse, somehow not only got in, but wasn’t even one of the last four at-large teams. I guess that’s what beating even a middling Duke team in Cameron gets you.
- The only reasonable explanation for an ACC team with an RPI that high to ever receive an at-large bid is if it was missing a player like Carmelo Anthony all year and had him back healthy in March.
- Meanwhile, Wichita State, with an RPI of 47 and a KenPom rating of 12(!), gets a play-in game against, wait for it…
- Vanderbilt. RPI of 63, KenPom rating of 27 (1). Both of these teams would be favored to beat Syracuse handily on a neutral floor. Wichita was double-screwed by being drastically underseeded and having to face a dangerous and well-coached Vanderbilt squad to even get in the tournament, but the Shockers proved my point by manhandling the Commodores by 20 on Tuesday.
- St. Mary’s (RPI: 38, KenPom: 34) and Valparaiso (RPI: 49, KenPom: 36) are not in the tournament. Both of these teams would be favored to beat Syracuse, and many other at-large teams, on a neutral floor.
- Stephen F. Austin has an RPI of 61 (their conference is… pretty bad) but a KenPom rating of 33 and gets a 14 seed. This is the second straight year the Lumberjacks have been severely under-seeded. As a Davidson fan, I’ve seen the “good team dominates a bad conference but gets a crappy seed because they’d go win on the road and see their RPI go down” narrative more often than I enjoy. No just rating system should function by punishing a team for a road win—winning on the road in-conference, even a bad one, is tough.
And that’s just the most egregious of the NCAA’s shenanigans. There are other and better ways to take out the good mid-major teams, but, like I said, they’re getting lazy or else this list wouldn’t exist and I could easlily be dismissed as a whiny mid-major apologist.
What other tricks do this cabal have up its sleeves? Think a power-conference team is under seeded? Look at their first two rounds and chances are good that the under-seeded team was put there to stop the Wichita States of the world from making a run. My other favorite trick is the first-round pairings which will often match a dangerous, well-coached mid-major vs. another dangerous, well-coached mid-major while simultaneously matching a .500 in-conference ACC team vs. a .500 in-conference Big-10 team. Nothing gets the juices flowing quite like waiting for Wisconsin to tip it off against Pitt, eh?
And remember the “good team dominates a bad conference” narrative? Because no one decent wants to risk losing to this hypothetical team, that team gets, according to the prevailing argument, a chance (the conference tournament) to play its way into the NCAA tournament. One chance. Meanwhile, a team like Syracuse gets around 20 chances to make it. Then, despite wiping their asses with 19, the Orange “play their way in” that one time and get in anyway.
The argument against the St. Mary’s of the world (hi, Jay Bilas), is that teams are being invited to compete for a national championship and St. Mary’s isn’t capable of winning said championship. This is probably true but neglects to mention that Pitt is less capable of winning a championship than St. Mary’s. If the NCAA were serious about “only inviting teams capable of winning it all”, the committee would shrink to field to what? 16 teams? At the most?
Which, if you’re still here, brings us to why the field isn’t contracting but will probably keep growing, and how we get turds like Wisconsin-Pitt rather than genuinely interesting potential “upsets” like Wisconsin-St. Mary’s.
The selection committee’s job is not to create a fair bracket. If it wanted to do that, it would let about five Vegas handicappers set the field. Who has a better handle on how good any of these teams actually are? A bunch of dipshit functionaries like ADs, or guys whose livelihoods depend on knowing how much Team X would be favored over Team Y on a neutral floor? With one pencil and maybe two erasers, the handicapper selection committee could make a fairer, and more exciting, bracket in about 15 minutes.
It doesn’t even need to be that complicated. And, also, there are good reasons to keep gamblers away from setting up a tournament upon which they will gamble. As John Feinstein pointed out in way back in 2007, fair brackets aren’t difficult.
Brackets are difficult to create, though, when you are mandated—as the committee obviously is—to ensure that about $740 million annually goes to the right places. And how does that money get divided? By how many NCAA tournament wins a conference gets each year.
Conferences get a tournament unit for every non-championship game played by a conference member in those six tourneys. A tournament unit is projected to be worth $250,106 this year, up 1.9% from last year’s $245,500 unit value. So if teams from the Atlantic 10 played a combined 35 tournament games over those six years, then the conference would receive $8.75 million in April. Forbes, 2014.
So that’s the why, and as usual the answer to that question is great big piles of cash. The how isn’t very complicated either. Instead of using, say, a gambler’s power rankings to choose at-large bids and set up the “S-Curve”, we get some unexplained combination of record, the RPI, and strength of schedule. And the RPI is basically being a combination of the other two.
While the RPI isn’t a great ratings system, at least it is an arbitrary ranking of some sort. But just look at how that number gets used. “We put Team X in because they have 3 Top 50 RPI wins and 5 Top 100. That’s pretty strong,” says the NCAA committee stooge on CBS every year. What they leave out is that Team X, by virtue of conference affiliation, has about 15-20 games vs. the Top 100 with half of those coming at home. Thus, they never mention the team’s record vs. the RPI Top Whatever. They just the raw victory total because the actual record is, at best, mediocre, and most likely hot garbage.
A good mid-major team, like St. Mary’s this year, usually has a dearth of RPI Top Whatever wins because A) None of the big boys wants to play and 2) None of the big boys will ever, ever, ever, play at St. Mary’s. It’s a rigged system designed to be used exactly as it is, which is to justify the inclusion of shitty name-brands like Syracuse—not only an ACC team but one that sells like a metric ton of T-Shirts (double bonus!)—while kicking an actually good team like Valpo straight in the junk.
All of this would be fine—just another example of a powerful cartel doing what powerful cartels do—except for two things: It rewards mediocrity over actually being good, and it robs fans of better match-ups.
Other than those things, good job, again, selection committee members. You put in another solid year of keeping the money train rolling right along. Thanks for just one thing: not even bothering to cover your tracks. No doubt your tournament will continue to thrive despite yourselves.