Tinkering by NCAA Tournament selection committee a great sign

20 March 2016: The NCAA March Madness logo on the court during the Villanova Wildcats game versus the Iowa Hawkeyes in the second round of the Division I Men's Championship at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

The NCAA Tournament selection committee released a statement revealing that the people in charge of creating Cinderellas each season would go about it slightly differently in 2017-18. Moving forward, at least for one season, there will be a much bigger emphasis on road victories.

Basically, the committee decided it is high time more big-boy programs hit the road in the non-conference portion of their schedules.

Semantics out of the way first: The timing of the news isn’t ideal. Most power conference programs already have their non-conference schedules locked in. Letting it be known after athletic directors could have adjusted accordingly isn’t great.

It isn’t the worst, either. If a change is/was ever going to made, it will almost always come at inopportune times. There is no “right” time tinker with rules of impact.

“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.” Mark Hollis, head of the committee, said in the release.

“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.”

What Hollis touches on is debatable. Is beating the 60th team in the nation on the road really more difficult than toppling the 35th at home? It probably depends on the year, as the gap between the 35th and 60th best teams in the nation might be massive one year, but minimal another.

The RPI will still play a hand in aiding the selection committee’s process. The aforementioned 35th and 60th ranked teams will be determined via the RPI.

It will all be set in tiers — quality home wins in the RIP top 30, neutral location victories in the top 50, and then road wins in the top 75 will all help in determining the value of a win on the resume.

To also help determine how hard it is to win, and where it is the hardest to do so, the selection committee turned to actual history.

“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,” Hollis relayed in the statement.

It isn’t perfect. A combination of the RPI, history and coaches — apparently — telling the committee where it is hard earn victories, is a bowl of strange criteria to mix together. The committee seems to want to get away from the RPI being such a heavy factor in the process, yet it is still a relatively huge part of determining the value of a road victory.

This is a good start, however. We can still dislike parts of the formula and scream about imperfections, though that would be undercutting the positive aspects as to what is happening.

More important than the emphasis of increasing the value of road wins is the committee’s willingness to tinker with its formula when it deems it necessary. The people tasked with slotting No. 1 seeds and knighting future potential Cinderellas won’t be hampered by tradition or some misguided marriage to analytics.

Rather, they will use a lit a bit of everything at their disposal — from analytics to the fancy eyeball test — to make such determinations.

“The committee decided to use the upcoming season to study how different composite rankings would perform, and explore other options, as well. 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.” Hollis added.

Even when making a change to how it goes about business, all while letting the college basketball community know about it, the committee also acknowledges their work is far from over. That they, like the teams they will evaluate, will be judged off the strength of their performance this season.

If it fails, they will pivot. If it works, they will look to improve.

So, yeah, the timing and the formula is a work in progress. But it is better than no work being done at all, or a group of people refusing to change because they’re being marred by tradition.

If this works, and it works well (enough), it will be interesting to see the schedules for the 2018-19 season. With coaches and athletic directors long trying to game the more heavily favored RPI system in the past, we might actually see a few more blue bloods play high-level mid-majors on the road.

Joseph has been covering basketball for nearly a decade. He is the host of the Relatively Speaking Podcast and a columnist for FanRag Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.

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