What with the growing interest in bracketology and the NCAA sponsoring an annual mock bracket exercise for reporters, light has been shined on what had been a dark mystery.
The NCAA Tournament selection process.
Most college basketball fans understand the basics: The Division I men’s basketball committee spends most of its time sweating over the final at-large teams, then ranks the field 1-68. At this point, the bracket comes together quickly.
Over the last few years there have been some major surprises, but nothing in recent years that reaches the level of former analyst Billy Packer digging the selection committee chairman.
But this year provided more than the usual share of eyebrow raising, and the questions involve the top seeds and one of the final at-large teams.
Starting at the top, Virginia came off the pace to become the fourth No. 1 seed. The Cavaliers finished impressively, beating Duke for their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title since 1976 on Sunday. Virgnia has won 16 of its last 17.
Virginia apparently was rewarded for that finish because little else about its resume says top seed — not the 4-4 record against the RPI top 50, No. 10 RPI and a No. 38 nonconference strength of schedule.
Compare that to other candidates: Michigan (10-4 vs. top 50), Villanova (No. 5 RPI) or Kansas (No. 3 RPI, No. 1 opponents’ schedule strength, 12-7 vs. RPI top 50).
Selection committee chairman Ron Wellman, the Wake Forest athletic director, said the group went into Sunday with three possibilities. Michigan would have been the fourth No. 1 seed with a victory over Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Had Michigan and Virginia both lost, the nod would have gone to Villanova.
But Virginia had a fast finish. So did Louisville, which won 12 of its final 13 and rolled to the American Athletic Conference tournament title. The defending national champion Cardinals got a No. 4 seed. That was mild surprise No. 2.
Louisville seemed to have the profile of a No. 2 seed, and no worse than a No. 3. But the No. 4 line was the place to be last year, when two of those teams reached the Final Four. Wellman went with the vague, “We looked at the entire body of work,” to explain the Cards’ position.
The bubble supplied the final surprise. It’s always dicey projecting at-large teams that will fall on the No. 11 and No. 12 seed lines.
North Carolina State has to feel especially grateful today. The Wolfpack finished sixth in the ACC, but a late four-game winning streak that included a league tournament quarterfinal victory over Syracuse pushed N.C. State in. The Wolfpack was the last at-large team selected.
And it pushed SMU out, spoiling the party on campus.
Some 1,000 fans, cheerleaders and band members joined SMU coach Larry Brown and the players for a celebration at Moody Coliseum in Dallas.
They were crushed. The Mustangs had come a long way in Brown’s second season, but a late three-game losing streak, coupled with a nonconference schedule strength of No. 302, doomed SMU.
“Really, the glaring weakness about SMU was their schedule,” Wellman said.
Brown said he had a sinking feeling when he saw Louisville, from his conference, announced as a No. 4 seed.
“I feel bad for our team and you fans,” Brown told the crowd. “I feel like I let you all down.”
Florida State and Wisconsin-Green Bay were among others that felt the cold chill of exclusion on Sunday. There are examples of this every year. But this March Madness is setting sail with more questionable calls than usual.