10 questions for the committee: NC State deserves more to understand NCAA selection system
I understood the NCAA selection process would be a close call for NC State. Even with 22 wins, a 9-9 record in America’s best conference, a win over SEC Champion Auburn, and a NET ranking of 33, it seemed to me the Wolfpack would be a bubble team, whose NCAA status was vulnerable to a rash of upsets in conference tournaments. And upsets did occur. But two developments absolutely shocked me:
If NC State coach Kevin Keatts was looking for guidance on what he needs to do differently next year, he didn’t get much help from the chair of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Bernard Muir, athletic director at Stanford, said the decision had to do with quadrant one wins.
“They had so many great opportunities and did not win them,” Muir said of State, presumably referring to strong ACC opposition.
Credit to CBS for asking Muir specifically about NC State, the highest rated team in the NET that did not make the field. But it seemed to me this interview with the committee chair was somewhat shorter than what I have seen on CBS in past years. Also, as a media friend of mine said of Muir’s answers, “He was skillfully opaque.”
Through the years I have seen committee chairs speak on both CBS and ESPN at length about the factors that separated the teams that got in from the teams that missed out. I have not seen that kind of clarity this time around, and given that the NCAA and the committee are using some new tools in selecting the field, including the NET, it would seem to be incumbent upon the decision makers to make it clear what all the factors were in this new approach to picking at large entries. For example, in the two interviews I saw, Muir did not say anything about these potentially significant issues:
These are the types of issues past committee chairs have addressed. And again, with a new system, it seems to me we should be hearing more from the committee on these and other questions that played a part in which teams made the NCAA Tournament and which teams got left out. Let me add, I was not reassured when Muir’s second interview – with Holly Rowe of ESPN – lasted all of two minutes. I believe ESPN has had more time for questions with the committee chair in previous years.
So, after seeing Bernard Muir for about eight minutes on CBS and two minutes on ESPN, I have even more questions today than I did yesterday. The biggest: Why did so many teams with lesser records get in ahead of NC State? Syracuse, for example.
The Orange won 20 games, compared to NC State’s 22. Syracuse also has a limited number of quad one victories. Looking at the Syracuse resume, I count four quad one wins: Ohio State, Duke, Louisville, and Clemson. The ’Cuse lost non-conference games to Connecticut (NET #95), Old Dominion (#100), Buffalo (#15), and Oregon (#51). Oregon had in fact played its way out of NCAA contention before winning the PAC 12 Championship last weekend. Syracuse in the ACC finished 10-8, but lost in head-to-head competition with NC State, 9-9, by 15 points. Both Syracuse and NC State beat Clemson, #35 in the NET. However Syracuse finished 1-1 against the Tigers. NC State went 2-0 vs. Clemson.
The main difference between the teams as far as I can tell is that Syracuse won in overtime against #3 Duke while NC State lost in overtime to #1 Virginia. I would note that Duke did not have point guard Tre Jones the night the Blue Devils lost to Syracuse. Virginia was at full strength when the Cavaliers nipped the Wolfpack. Also, credit to Syracuse, the Orange did defeat Louisville, #22 in the NET but also 10-8 in the rugged ACC. On the other hand, Syracuse’s best non-conference win came against Ohio State, which makes the NCAA Tournament as a #11 seed. Again, NC State beat the SEC champs, Auburn, in the NCAA’s as a #5 seed.
Much has been made been of NC State’s worst in the nation non-conference strength of schedule. I guess computer findings can’t be questioned, but it’s not like the Wolfpack played exclusively low ranked teams. In addition to Auburn, #18 in the NET, State whipped Penn State, which is #50. State also beat Vanderbilt. The Commodores were a good team when the Wolfpack played them, but lost a key player and have now plummeted to #155 in the rankings. The price Syracuse paid for escaping strength of schedule purgatory-playing Georgetown (#82), Northeastern (#78).
Don’t get me wrong. Syracuse should be in the NCAA. But the fact that ’Cuse is a No. 8 seed while NC State is in the NIT requires some explaining.
Also, what really blows my mind is that NC State, #33 in the NET, was not among the first four teams out. Those included UNC-Greensboro #60, Alabama #54, TCU #52, and Indiana #54. The committee rated NC State lower than those four teams.
When you have a ranking system, especially a new system, the expectation is that those rankings will be highly influential. For example, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee makes its choices strictly on the basis of the CFP rankings. So, for me (and, based on Twitter, many other ACC fans), it was a shock when #33 NC State and #35 Clemson did not make the field, while #42 Syracuse, #57 Seton Hall, #61 Minnesota, #63 Arizona State, and #73 St. John’s all got in. As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas put it: “The NET is a mess.”
Oklahoma is another difficult case to understand. The Sooners finished 19-13. They lost by 20 at home to Wisconsin, a team NC State very nearly defeated in Madison. OU barely slipped past Notre Dame, the ACC’s #15 seed in last week’s tournament. The Sooners finished 7-11 in their own conference, and it’s a down year for the Big 12. Oh, and Oklahoma lost in the first round of its conference tournament to West Virginia, now #105 in the NET. The Sooners have dropped eight of their last twelve games. Playing well in late February/early March used to be a priority with the committee. But now apparently that doesn’t matter. Iowa is in the field despite having lost five of its last six games.
Outgoing NC State Athletic Director Debbie Yow felt sufficiently aggrieved by the selection process that she released a statement about the Wolfpack’s post-season credentials. Some highlights:
To be sure, NC State played some cupcakes in its non-conference schedule: Mount St. Mary’s, Maryland Eastern Shore, Maine, Saint Peter’s, Mercer, Western Carolina, USC-Upstate, Loyola-Maryland and UNC-Asheville. Ironically, UNC-Asheville Athletic Director Janet Cone is on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Duke’s Kevin White is also on the committee, although by rule, he cannot vote on ACC teams and actually can’t even be in the room when ACC teams are discussed. Let me also say about NC State, the Wolfpack clearly could have pushed its way into the field with a win over one of the ACC’s top dogs. And State did hurt itself by losing to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, although to me the Wake loss should be discounted because star Markell Johnson was injured and the Wolfpack with Johnson whipped the Deacons by 20 later in the year.
Ironically, two of the last teams in both have ties to Duke. Arizona State is coached by Bobby Hurley, star point guard of Duke’s 1991-1992 championship teams. St. John’s athletic program is run by Mike Cragg, a longtime sports administrator at Duke. Cragg is now the Red Storm’s athletic director.
The committee did many things well for 2019 in my view, especially the seedings at the top.
Also, it’s great to see some mid-major at large teams make the field, like Belmont. ESPN’s Bilas told me Friday he was concerned the committee would spend so much time so much time worrying about who gets in, that not enough time would be spent on seeding. In fact, the teams at the top are the teams at the top. Duke deserves the No. 1 overall seed after winning the ACC Tournament and beating Virginia twice. The Cavaliers deserved their No. 1, having beaten every team but Duke (and Florida State Friday night). UNC certainly earned the third No. 1 seed with its late season push. The Tar Heels defeated Duke without Zion Williamson twice and went undefeated on the road – a rare achievement in the ACC these days. And of course they beat the other No. 1 seed Gonzaga decisively. But Carolina lost to Virginia and couldn’t quite get past Duke Friday with Williamson in the lineup.
Maybe these ACC giants will meet again? If not, this achievement is still special. Only once before – the Big East in 2009 – have we seen three number one seeds from one conference.
The largest issue going forward is communication. Yow, in her statement noted: “the NCAA NET calculation was introduced as the new ranking system to replace the RPI as the primary sorting tool for evaluating teams. Per the press release, it relies on ’game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses.” Other metrics in the press release that would be used included the Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin rankings, as well as ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, along with the Kevin Pauga Index, and ESPN’s Strength of Record.”
That’s a lot of stuff there. Bernard Muir should not be doing short, “skillfully opaque” interviews. He should be spending long hours explaining how the committee arrived at its conclusions. Yes, that means he’ll take a lot of heat now. He’s going to get that anyway. But if he goes into detail maybe players, coaches, media and even fans will know what to expect next year. Muir should be giving clear examples of why some teams get in while others are relegated to the NIT. He should also show how the new tools are being used.
Otherwise we will conclude that they are just tools of convenience to be used discriminately when the committee wants to move in a certain direction and seeks some numerical reinforcement for its decision. And it does appear that the committee was at least as concerned about geographical and conference representation in the 68 team field as getting the actual best teams.
Ultimately I think former analyst Seth Greenberg, who certainly knows a thing or two from his time coaching at Virginia Tech about being spurned on Selection Sunday, best described the committee: “In the end they are all independent contractors in how they vote. Each one decides which metric matters to them. The makeup of the committee has as much to do with selection as metrics.”