Selection Sunday is practically a holiday for NCAA basketball fans. For some teams, entrance into the tournament is assured, and they must find out to which region they will be traveling, sometimes as soon as a matter of hours. They also await their potential opponent, and with the first round beginning only two days later there is no time to spare in preparing for the game. Other teams find themselves on the bubble, unsure if they will even be invited. There is a lot at stake for all involved, but for such a big day, there is little coverage given to how NCAA Selection Sunday actually works.
The committee themselves manage to remain surprisingly unknown for a group that often produces major controversy, such as when defending champion Kentucky was left out of last season’s bracket. The 10-person group is made up of a mix of athletic directors of universities and of conference chairmen. The group is picked from regions around the nation to ensure all locales are covered and to help avoid any bias against one region or another. Their job is on the surface quite simple, but the time constraints and mass of information needed make it thankless; they must be well-versed not only on all 68 tournament teams, but the several dozen others who were up for consideration.
Once Selection Sunday arrives, the selection committee works collectively and doles out 68 seeds to the teams they decide on, debating and shuffling as necessary until the NCAA Tournament has its complete field. That debate is the most difficult aspect. Obviously there is no way that each member could have watched or even researched every team. The hope is that at least one member will have information on a team, but there are other metrics considered at the table.
One of the biggest is Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a formula that ranks every team in the country on several levels of strength of schedule. The formula at its most basic is 25 percent team winning percentage, 50 percent opponent winning percentage, and 25 percent opponent’s opponent winning percentage. There are also adjustments made to team winning percentage for home and away wins and losses. This allows more leeway for road losses than home due to the very measurable home court advantage in college basketball.
Beyond the statistics, the committee is essentially discussing things based on the eye test or common knowledge, such as a team winning a game with its star player injured, or if a team got off to a poor start but has heated up at the end of the season. The whole idea is to provide the best basketball. When teams are snubbed, there is often a very good reason for it. Last year’s Kentucky squad, for example, lost to the far inferior Vanderbilt in their conference tournament at the end of the season before being left out of the field of 68.
While the NCAA selection committee deliberates on Selection Sunday in secret, how they work is a rather transparent process. The “selection sheets” they use–essentially a rundown of team record broken down with some of the aforementioned metrics like RPI and home vs. road record–are available online for anyone to look at. The process itself is as uncontroversial as sports can get, allowing the real drama to unfold as the teams are announced live on television.
Commentary by Brian Moore