March Madness: What the NCAA men’s tournament selection committee got right and wrong

By | March 18, 2024

It’s as time-honored a Selection Sunday tradition as Charles Barkley picking Auburn to advance to the Final Four.

First, the selection committee unveils the men’s NCAA tournament bracket. Then the nitpicking and stomach ache begins.

This year’s committee did a respectable job of choosing which 68 teams belong in the field, but some of the seeding decisions were baffling, to say the least. Below you can see what the committee did right and wrong:

What the committee got wrong: Only 3 Big East teams in the field

Conference affiliation, the NCAA always emphasizes, is not part of the selection process. You do not select conferences. You select teams.

That’s fine, I guess, but it still doesn’t feel right that the Big East, KenPom’s second-ranked conference in the sport this season, only picked up three NCAA tournament bids. The conference that produced the overall No. 1 seed and two other top three seeds sent one more team to the NCAA Tournament than the Atlantic 10.

Perhaps the most blatant criticism was Seton Hall, the first team in the Big East’s 45-year history to finish five games above .500 in league play and still miss the NCAA Tournament.

Seton Hall (20-12, 13-7) defeated both UConn and Marquette, winning three of five games against fellow bubble teams St. John’s and Providence. Predictive stats hovering in the 60s hurt the Pirates, but this team could have — no, should have — replaced Virginia in the NCAA tournament field.

St. John’s and Providence also had a problem, mainly that they weren’t even among the committee’s final four teams to come out of the field. The Johnnies (20-13) lacked any major wins other than a lone win over Creighton, but they had the best KenPom ranking (25) and second-best NET ranking (32) of all non-NCAA tournament teams. Providence was an NCAA tournament-caliber team before Bryce Hopkins’ ACL tear in January, beating Creighton twice even in his absence.

Again, the committee will tell you that it followed its process well, that the tournament cutline fell right above where three of the Big East bubble teams stood. But there’s a reason this is only the second time in Big East history that the league has settled for just three bids. The Big East deserved better.

March 3, 2024;  Storrs, Connecticut, USA;  Seton Hall Pirates guard Dre Davis (14) and center Elijah Hutchins-Everett (4) on the court against the UConn Huskies in the second half at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion.  Mandatory credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY SportsMarch 3, 2024;  Storrs, Connecticut, USA;  Seton Hall Pirates guard Dre Davis (14) and center Elijah Hutchins-Everett (4) on the court against the UConn Huskies in the second half at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion.  Mandatory credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Seton Hall was among the trio of Big East bubble teams left out of the NCAA tournament field. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

What the committee got right: the rest of the bubble

Shortly before midnight on Saturday, people in the selection committee room began sending out some telling tweets about the process of choosing the final teams.

“I’ve been doing this since 2006,” wrote NCAA media coordinator for March Madness David Worlock. “It has never been so difficult for the committee.”

Jamie Pollard, Iowa State athletic director and veteran committee member, added, “This year is more difficult than all my previous years combined.”

This was the rare year in college basketball when there were more deserving NCAA tournament bubble teams than spots in the field of 68. Bubble teams from across the country made valiant last gasps, while a handful of bid-stealers came from across the country. nowhere to win their conference tournaments and reduce the number of available spots at major venues.

Ultimately, criticism of the Big East aside, the committee did a reasonable job of at least fielding the right 68 teams.

Are you saying Oklahoma deserved better? Maybe win more than four of the 16 Quadrant 1 games. Porter Moser even made the mistake of resting key players with injuries in what turned out to be a must-win conference tournament game against TCU.

Want to push for Pittsburgh? Maybe better collecting than the NET’s 343rd non-league schedule. Jeff Capel couldn’t have known that West Virginia or Missouri would be so bad when he set up those games, but he probably had an idea that Canisius and North Carolina A&T weren’t good.

The one omission that hurts to see is Indiana State, which would have made the First Four more entertaining if it had been given a chance to prove itself against a power conference opponent. Still, it’s understandable that this was the committee’s second team to drop out, considering the spots stolen by bid thieves during conference tournament play.

What the committee got right: the No. 1 seeds

It had been a foregone conclusion for months that UConn, Houston and Purdue would be three of the four No. 1 seeds.

Thanks to the committee for not screwing it up – and for putting it in the right order.

UConn (31-3) earned the No. 1 overall seed after becoming the only power conference team to win the regular season and conference tournament on Saturday night. Houston (30-4) earned second place overall after winning the sport’s strongest conference outright and collecting the most Quadrant 1 wins in the country. And Purdue (29-4) earned no worse than the No. 3 overall ranking after posting the most wins at the top level, 11 wins over NET Top 25 opponents.

I thought Iowa State deserved more attention for the final No. 1 seed, but I have no real problem with the committee picking North Carolina. Both teams had identical 27-7 overall records and 16-7 records in Quadrant 1 and 2 matches. The Tar Heels had the higher winning percentage in Quadrant 1 games. The Cyclones had slightly more wins at the top level and had overtaken North Carolina in the most NCAA-approved advanced metrics.

What the committee got wrong: So many other placement decisions

It may be time for the committee to reexamine how much time it spends selecting the field versus seeding the bracket.

There were so many egregious placement decisions that it feels like the committee spent too much time on the bubble and didn’t have time to spend on the rest of the bracket.

  • It’s one thing to pick North Carolina over Iowa State as the final No. 1 seed. It’s another thing to see Iowa State as the worst No. 2 seed. Did anyone in the committee room see the Cyclones destroy Houston by 28 points on Saturday night? Has anyone noticed that their resume and North Carolina’s are almost identical? Having Iowa State behind Arizona and Marquette is an indefensible decision.

  • The lack of respect for the strongest Mountain West in more than a decade was also baffling. While the league earned six bids as expected, the committee unexpectedly sent Colorado State and Boise State to the First Four in Dayton, even though both had resumes superior to other bubble teams. Committee Chairman Charles McClelland also described 11th-seeded New Mexico as a “bid stealer,” suggesting the Lobos would not have taken the field had they not upset San Diego State in the Mountain West title game on Saturday.

  • So much for the idea that Gonzaga was a bubble team until the big late-season wins at Kentucky and Saint Mary’s. The committee awarded the Zags a No. 5 room for teams with stronger resumes like BYU, Texas Tech, Florida and South Carolina. The committee’s seed list has Gonzaga at No. 21 and BYU at No. 17. So perhaps the Zags and Cougars switched places in the bracket to accommodate BYU not playing on Sunday.

  • Michigan State a No. 9 seed? Florida Atlantic a number 8? That’s very generous for one team with fourteen losses and another with losses to the likes of Bryant, Temple, Charlotte and FGCU. The Spartans and Owls should have been closer to the bubble, maybe even in the First Four.

  • And finally, the most baffling seeding decision: Atlantic 10 bid thief Duquesne as the No. 11 seed. The Dukes (22-11) lost to Fordham and Davidson, among others, this year. They have results-based stats in the 70s and predictive stats in the 80s, well behind some teams that received 12 or 13 seeds. It feels like the committee placed the winner of the Atlantic 10 tournament as an 11 seed regardless of who was actually crowned champion. This is a gift of a first-round draft pick for BYU.

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