A defining term of the NCAA Tournament selection process -- "quality win" -- was just redefined. The men's basketball selection committee met in Chicago July 11-13 and voted to change its selection and seeding guidelines to balance neutral-site and road-game outcomes on the committee's team sheets. Those sheets comprise the data tree to build the bracket, so this is significant decision.
"Effective with the 2017-18 season, team sheets will place greater emphasis on where the games are played rather than the ranking of each opponent," the NCAA said.
Calls for more emphasis on road games have been made by analysts to the committee for years. The committee will be "placing greater emphasis on winning road games."
Team sheets have been highlighted by a four-column separation of wins, losses and location. Now those four columns will have overlapping rankings, depending on where games were played. Here's how it breaks down (all references to rankings are RPI numbers):
- Column 1: Home games against teams ranked 1-30, neutral games vs. top-50 teams, road games against top-75 teams
- Column 2: Home games against teams ranked 31-75, neutral games vs. 51-100, road games vs. 76-135
- Column 3: Home games against teams ranked 76-160, neutral games vs. 101-200, road games vs. 136-240
- Column 4: Home games against teams ranked 161-351, neutral games vs. 201-351, road games vs. 241-351
There are critics of having any type of cutoff in a ranking system (example: the difference between beating the 30th-ranked team at home vs. the 31st-ranked team at home is negligible). But with the new system, beating the 68th-ranked team on the road will carry as much weight as beating the 24th-ranked team at home and potentially could lead to more at-large bids, and better seeds, for smaller programs.
"We consulted with experts within the coaching and analytics fields who looked at historical data, based on winning percentages by game location, to come up with these dividing lines within each of the columns," Mark Hollis, Michigan State's athletic director, and the outgoing committee chair, said. "The emphasis of performing well on the road is important, as was the need for teams not to be penalized as much for road losses. Beating elite competition, regardless of the game location, will still be rewarded, but the committee wanted the team sheets to reflect that a road game against a team ranked 60th is mathematically more difficult and of higher quality than a home game versus a team ranked 35th. We feel this change accomplishes that."
It's a huge step for mid-majors, schools forced to play more road games than the majority of teams from conferences that annually land four or more tournament bids.
"It also puts an emphasis on losses," an NCAA source who was in the room in Chicago told CBS Sports. "If you look at Monmouth from a couple of years ago, they were dinged for losing games against teams in the 200s on the road. Now, in the current system, those teams would be in the third column now instead of the fourth. It's not just the wins, but where those losses -- which show in up red on the team sheets -- land in the columns."
Monmouth missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 despite owning many neutral and road wins over power-conference teams (including victories over Notre Dame and USC). Under these guidelines, it's the Hawks may have landed an at-large bid.
An NCAA source also told CBS Sports that KenPom.com's offensive and defensive efficiency numbers could be added to the team sheets this season. It's merely a matter of pinching the software to allow it to graft that data from KenPom.com.
There is one anticipated change that didn't happen in Chicago: removal of the RPI as the primary ranking source. It's the data point that builds team sheets, and has been criticized for as outdated and manipulated by savvy schedulers. The NCAA notes in its press release that there is a "likelihood of a new metric being in place for the 2018-19 season." The NCAA will attempt to run a composite ranking system, plus a separate, unique, independent formula next season as test run behind the scenes. Think of it like a dress rehearsal: the NCAA wants to see how a composite metric and how its individual ranking system performs vs. other established metrics before signing off on an overhaul.
"The bottom line is we recognize the need to continue using more modern metrics and the need to make those more front and center in the sorting of data for the selection and seeding process," senior vice president of NCAA basketball Dan Gavitt said. "However, it's also critical to have a long-term solution that is tested in real time, so we can roll something out that we have complete confidence in, is mathematically sound and is acceptable in every stakeholder's eyes."
The movement to introduce more modern metrics into the evaluation process. The NCAA is motivated to evolve its selection process, but wants to be certain it has an accurate metric (or composite) before it downgrades the RPI.