The NCAA Tournament selection committee, a 10-person panel of esteemed college administrators that doubles as a cathartic torture carcass for college basketball fans and media every March, has been short-changed in the past decade for its well-intentioned evolution when it comes to improving the NCAA Tournament bracket. And now, in its most tangible and transparent move yet, the committee is showing it is again committed to getting smarter about selecting and seeding teams.
On Friday the NCAA announced some optimistic and progressive news. On Jan. 20 the NCAA will bring in a posse of perceptive statistical minds in an effort to help the selection committee's process when it comes to building the tournament bracket. Who's going? Our own RPI expert Jerry Palm will be there, as will Ken Pomeroy (proprietor, KenPom.com), Jeff Sagarin (the long-famous Sagarin ratings) and Kevin Pauga (the fledgling KPI), among a few others. They'll convene to break bread and hold court on a common goal: Making the field of 68 as good as it can possibly be.
This has always been the NCAA's objective, but never before has the organization been so forward-thinking and openly willing to outsource part of its operation. These are smart people who deeply care about the game and are constantly trying to make it better. The NCAA should be commended for continuing to be reflective rather than haughty.
The impetus for the stats summit comes after years and years of haranguing the NCAA (I've unapologetically been one of plenty at the forefront) due to its stubborn default reliance on the RPI, an uncomplicated and easily manipulable metric. One that, when put under the microscope against the likes of Sagarin, KenPom and the underrated LRMC, comes out as archaic by comparison.
No system is perfect, nor will it ever be, but the long-argued point is that the NCAA should be taking many respectable and proven systems into account. It should be using a composite. The team sheets, which are available for public consumption, are built through RPI numbers. The point is, if it was a composite ranking that constructed the team sheets, the data therein would be more objectively accurate.
The committee also needs to establish more specific objectives for "best" teams vs. "most accomplished" teams (and those often overlap), but the metric hurdle is finally being cleared, and that's most important in the short-term.
We could be headed to a scenario where, instead of having a default with the RPI, the NCAA combines KPI, RPI, Sagarin, BPI, KenPom, maybe LRMC and more into a more-complete system. And the arbitrary "top 25," "top 50" and "top 100" measuring sticks should get an update too, because those data points don't necessarily show a team's best or worst outcomes. Truth is, generally speaking, winning a game against the No. 28 team at home is easier than winning on the road against the No. 51 team. Those distinctions need to be part of the committee's evaluative process going forward in a consequential way.
"They've got some pretty strong thoughts on what a composite metric could look like and maybe should look like," Gavitt says in the NCAA release. "I also think they recognize their fallibility in advanced mathematical and analytical areas, so they feel that it's important to engage experts in the field. I think it's very important because it's the way so many people engage with following sports these days, and in particular in this case, college basketball. In some ways, maybe young people are right at the top of that list."
By the way, there were signs of this last year. Want someone to thank? Look to the coaches. If you missed it last summer, the NCAA announced some changes to the selection process. There are fun small tweaks, like the No. 1 overall seed being able to pick where it plays the first weekend of the tournament, and a focus on rewarding regular-season conference champions. But the National Association of Basketball Coaches' ad hoc group, which put forth suggestions to the NCAA, included a recommendation for a composite ranking system.
"The basketball committee supported in concept revising the current ranking system utilized in the selection and seeding process, and will work collaboratively with select members of the NABC ad hoc group to study a potentially more effective composite ranking system," the NCAA said in July.
Now the NCAA is walking the walk. Because we're already more than halfway through the season, any changes to the statistical evaluation won't come until next season at the earliest.
Gavitt, along with the likes of David Worlock and others who are involved on an everyday basis with the NCAA, deserve credit for understanding that the NCAA needs to adapt as more information becomes available.
"You need to stay relevant in the age that you're operating in," Gavitt said. "Certainly relevant today is embracing analytics and technology to the appropriate level.
And of course, the results -- wins and losses -- should matter most. Take a minute to read Rob Dauster's piece over at NBC Sports. He makes a vital point. The common goal here should be getting a bracket that's as close to reasonable as possible, but not to let stats be the be-all, end-all tiebreaker every single time. The reason we love Selection Sunday is because there's a mystery element to it, one made possible because humans are making decisions based off debates that are supported by data -- but not exclusively.
We don't want this to be the BCS. We don't want a computer formula deciding the field of 68. There is little fun, and even less drama, in that.
The tournament's selection committee wants to be better, and we're now seeing action toward that end. In doing so, it will make college basketball not only better, but smarter and more transparent, which is what the public wants every Selection Sunday.
This will be a historic gathering, as it marks the first time so many people behind the mainstream ranking systems we all use will be in one room together. Most fans don't know or even care about metrics until it affects their team's seeding or inclusion in the NCAAs, so the get-together is significant. Years from now, we could look back and point to Jan. 20, 2017, as the day the NCAA once and for all changed its selection process for the better.