If you watched any of ESPN’s coverage the night the NCAA tournament pairings were announced, you know that Jay Bilas laid into the selection committee and some of their decisions. It was great TV as few analysts, no matter what issues they had with the teams that made and did not make the tournament, have attacked the committee so directly. Nearly two weeks later, some of his criticisms seem silly, especially with VCU winning three games and still being alive. But in other areas, he was right on target.

He posted some thoughts on how to improve the selection process on ESPN.com. You must have an ESPN Insider account to read the entire article, but one point that was especially interesting was moving the selection of tournament teams up a week.

He wrote:

We need to move Selection Sunday up one week to the Sunday before Championship Week begins. By doing that, we would make selection about the regular season and not about performance over one weekend in a conference tournament.
Right now, conference tournament play is skewed to the majors and hurts the mid-majors. Missouri State could not help its at-large bid profile in the Missouri Valley tournament, but Penn State could really help itself in the Big Ten tournament with a few big wins over top RPI teams.
Move Selection Sunday, select the best teams and rank them on the S-Curve, and then the automatic qualifiers would knock out the lowest-ranked teams on the curve, one by one. It would be tremendous, and we would have more interest and more weight on the regular season.

Hmmm, interesting. One of my big problems with how the tournament is selected is the weight that conference tournament performance gets. It’s less an issue than it used to be, when neither the Big 10 nor Pac 10 had tournaments, but I still think the tournaments count for too much.

His idea is both reasonable and fun. I love the idea of having teams at the bottom of the list being knocked out by others that earn their way in. Crappy State Tech could be the #65 team in the field and spend the week sweating whether four teams outside the tournament would win their tournament and knock them out. It would be terrific drama to have them play their conference championship game on Friday night, knowing there were three teams still could still knock them out on Saturday or Sunday if they didn’t win.

But there are still problems. This only addresses who is in and who is out. Can teams that are safely in the tournament change their status? What if the highest #4 seed in the initial rankings won three games over the weekend while the lowest #3 seed lost the opening round game of their conference tournament? Are you locking everything in and only knocking out the lowest teams, or will the seeding still be fluid?

Some might argue that this would cause teams safely in the NCAA tournament to half-ass it during their conference tournaments to avoid injury, gain a few extra days’ rest, etc. I don’t think that would happen any more than it does now. Some of the best games in the big conference tournaments are between teams that are safely in the tournament and reasonably sure of their seed. That one last chance for bragging rights can often bring out the best in teams, before the extra pressures of the NCAA tournament weigh them down.1

Bilas also suggests that we need a better measure than the RPI, a subject I wrote about a week ago, need to add more “basketball people” to the committee, and have more transparency about the selection process, including in-season updates of where every team is. All fine suggestions.

It will always be an imperfect system. With the age of the megaconferences dawning, it’s a perfect time to revisit how teams for the NCAA tournament are selected and seeded. The answer is more complex than just letting another 30 teams in.

  1. The most obvious example, at least to me, have been recent Big 12 tournament title games between KU and Texas and KU and K-State. They were all great games, but did little to affect the seed each team earned the following week.