When this Sunday rolls around, we will be a mere four weeks from Selection Sunday. It is the most wonderful day of the year for bracketologists like me. There will be a few head-scratchers, like Louisville as a 4-seed last year or New Mexico's inclusion in 1999, but the end result will be a championship bracket that will result in the crowning of a champion on April 3rd. No computers, no BCS, no home court advantages (sort of), no debating about who is the "real" champion; it all happens on the court in grand style over the course of three weekends.
Most of what I believe about bracketology stems from RPI king Jerry Palm. I served with him on a mock selection committee in 2002 and came away with a whole new perspective on the selection process. A lot of what I am about to say is going to sound like Jerry. There are lots of bracketologists out there, but I happen to line up with him more than any of the others on all things bracket.
WHAT REALLY COUNTS
So, as the conference season turns for home, what do teams have to do to ensure that they get one of the coveted 65 slots in the NCAA Tournament bracket? It is not easy, as some 265 Division I teams will be left out, but here are some sure-fire ways to make certain that you get to wear your tux to Le Grand Waltz.
Win your conference tournament.
Ah, yes, the old-fashioned way: earn it. Regardless of what unforgivable losses a team may have piled up, all is forgiven if said team can win three or four games in a row at the end of the year. The pain of mid-season slumps, player injuries, season-long underachievement, chemistry issues, poor RPI, or any other team weaknesses can be healed by this Miracle Max-quality Miracle Pill - even if a team is "mostly dead." Win the conference tourney and all questions about a team's inclusion are answered, save one: what seed are they? That, my friends, is a wonderful feeling.
Conference tournaments are also extremely important for teams that reside on the Bubble. Bubble teams root for teams that have already done enough to gain entry into the Dance. For example, if Loyola Marymount were to win the West Coast Conference tourney this year, the number of Bubble slots would be reduced by one, because Gonzaga is virtually a lock for the NCAA Tournament. LMU has no chance for an at-large. That is why you heard a collective groan from Notre Dame, Maryland, Buffalo, and Miami-OH fans when Pacific lost in the Big West tourney last year. The Tigers were a lock anyway, and no other Big West club had an at-large shot.
There are thirty-one automatic bids to the Dance. Thirty are decided by conference tournaments, and the Ivy League sends it regular season champ.
Win your regular season title.
This only applies to the ACC, Big East, Pac-10, Big Ten, SEC, Big XII, and the Missouri Valley conferences. No regular season champ of these leagues has been left out of the NCAA Tourney for at least a dozen years. In a just world, the WAC and Colonial regular season champs would get bids if they were to stumble in their conference tourneys this season, but there are no guarantees for those two leagues. Most, if not all, other regular season champs will sweat it out on Selection Sunday, save Gonzaga, Memphis, and probably Bucknell.
Finish with an RPI better than #33.
There are no guarantees that a great RPI alone will get a team into the bracket, but no team better than #33 has ever been left out (Oklahoma, 1994). Of course, this was before the "new RPI" went into effect last season. The weighted road game adjustments changed the nature of the RPI a little bit. It will be interesting to see what the selection committee does with teams like Arizona or UW-Milwaukee who have maintained high RPI's, but have gaping holes in their at-large profiles.
Avoid a losing conference record.
Since 1994, only eleven teams with sub-.500 conference records have received at-large bids. That is a little less than one per year, so it takes a pretty exceptional case to make it in with a losing conference record. Iowa (7-9) did it last year by winning five in a row before losing to Wisconsin the in semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. NC State also made it in (7-9) after finishing 6-3 to end the season with those losses coming to Duke, Wake, and North Carolina, but they also beat the Deacons in the ACC Tournament. In other words, if a team backs into a losing conference record, their chances are very slim.
Be ranked in the polls.
The AP, Coaches', nor any other poll is listed as part of the selection criteria, but only two ranked teams have ever been left out of the NCAA Tourney: UNLV (1993) and Utah State (2004). To my joy, it does not appear that the polls are terribly important to the selection committee, because they correctly awarded Washington a 1-seed last year, and the Huskies were a far cry from the top four on the AP and Coaches' polls. Some Smart Suzies will accurately point out that the final AP Poll is a better predictor of seeding than the RPI. However, the final AP Poll comes out after the bracket is revealed. Is it the chicken or the egg? Furthermore, the AP Poll is not a better predictor than serious bracketologists.
Good wins/bad losses
It is difficult to get into the Dance without some top 50 RPI wins. It is also difficult to get in with multiple sub-100 RPI losses. I wish I could say that there is a magic number for both criteria, but this changes from year to year based on the successes and failure of other bubble teams. Winning on the road always helps, too, especially with the new weighted RPI. The Mr. Obvious rule of thumb is that quality wins always help and bad losses always hurt. Brilliant, eh?
Every selection committee seems to favor one particular criteria more than others. Last year, it was clear that late season momentum played a huge role when selecting Bubble teams. Aforementioned NC State and Iowa got in despite having losing conference records by playing well in their last ten games. UAB, a team that probably did not deserve to get in based on their total profile, had some late momentum that got them a bid, and they proceeded to dismantle LSU in the first round. Georgia Tech went from Bubble team to 5-seed with a strong run in the ACC Tourney. Will momentum be as key this season? That is a question that cannot be definitively answered until the bracket is released.
PERCEPTION ISN'T EVERYTHING
The above are some of the most important factors that will get teams into the Tourney. It is also important to understand that there are some perceived factors that the committee claims are not important.
Perceived television marketability or fan following
Most fans probably think that if Kentucky or Syracuse wind up squarely on the bubble that their drawing power will push them over the top. However, some recent exclusions suggest that the selection committee does ignore this factor to some degree. Last year, many felt Notre Dame and Maryland were right on the bubble. The committee took UAB and Northern Iowa and left both ND and MD out in the cold. In 2002, Syracuse finished 20-11 and was left out in favor of fellow bubblers Southern Illinois and Wyoming. In 2001, UConn went 18-11, including 6-4 in their last ten, and stayed home while Xavier went to the Dance. This is not suggest that no biases exist, but most manifest themselves in the form of seeding, not team selection, in this writer's humble opinion.
Specific number of teams from a conference
As RPI guru Jerry Palm often states, "teams get bids, not conferences." No conference "deserves" a certain number of bids. A number of teams from a conference may earn their bid, but the Pac-10 is not guaranteed five bids. The Big East is certainly not guaranteed nine or ten, although nine is quite possible. They may only get seven. They may get ten; it depends on the individual teams' profiles.
Friends on the committee do not help.
This is the one that I doubt the most. New Mexico's AD chaired the committee in 1999, and the Lobos happen to get in with one of the lowest RPI's and worst at-large profiles in selection history. Still, this committee seems to have good balance.
Here is the 2006 selection committee.
Craig K. Littlepage, AD, University of Virginia
Keep these criteria in mind as we approach Selection Sunday and when poring over the bracket. Sometimes (though not every time) it helps in understanding why certain teams appear to receive preferential treatment or why others seem shafted.