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TGS SPECIAL REPORT: BIG DANCE PREVIEW...IT'S ALWAYS THE "EYE" TEST!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Another March, another Selection Sunday. By now we have stopped trying to analyze, at least too much, the machinations of the NCAA Selection Committee. In the end, irrespective of seeding arguments, as long as the proper 68 teams are in the field, complaints should be few. And, with the exception of some angry SMU fans in Dallas, we suspect there were not many around the country who were too upset with the composition of the brackets when they were announced by Greg Gumbel this past Sunday on CBS.

(Seeding questions, however, were another matter, something we will discuss in a moment.)

If we have a problem, however, it's more of terminology, and transparency, perhaps, of the Selection Committee, which appropriately rotates in two new members for its ten-member club each season. Their job, however, is only made difficult at the edge of the proverbial Big Dance "bubble" when a handful of teams are in the mix for the final slots in the 68-team field. Most "bracketologists" (us included at TGS) can formulate a field that looks awfully similar to the one the Selection Committee produces every March. In many years we suspect that ourselves, ESPN's Joe Lunardi, and a few others have done a better job seeding the tournament than the Selection Committee itself.

Still, the perception that the process is anything other than a subjective act continues to be forwarded by the Selection Committee, when nothing could be further from the truth. Among the TV talking heads on Sunday, many, including both old (ESPN's Dick Vitale, for one) and new (CBS's Doug Gottlieb) voices, there was near unanimity that the seeding process needed further explanation. Questions of which were, as usual, adroitly avoided by this year's chairman of the Selection Committee, Wake Forest AD Ron Wellman, who delivered a TV performance worthy of praise from some of the smoothest politicians. (Come to think of it, a lot of ADs seem to have much in common with politicians).

Specifically, we heard the term "eye test" mentioned more times than we could count on Sunday. Wake Forest's Wellman, in particular, noted the "eye test" but suggested it was a superficial factor in the process.

To this, we say, as Gene Bartow once roared on a radio call-in show in Los Angeles before abruptly leaving the UCLA in 1977, "Hogwash! Hogwash! Hogwash!"

It's about time that the Selection Committee, and everyone else involved in analyzing this process, admits that the "eye test" is involved in every aspect of the process. That's because somewhere along the way, it is people who are entering, evaluating, rating, and categorizing the sort of data that supposedly are reflected in calculations such as the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), BPI (Basketball Power Index), and SOS (Strength of Schedule). The basis for all of those calculations is nothing more, however, than the old "eye test." It does not take a computer to figure out that the ACC is a stronger league than the Big South. But for the computer programs to supposedly see through straight won-loss records and divine the better teams and conferences, and to distinguish whether NC State is better than SMU or Minnesota, the calculations had to begin with a human opinion, or assumption, built into the program.

Moreover, when the Selection Committee gets into its "nitty gritty" phase, and suggests there is some formula, known only to them, that determines the proper entrants and their seeding position, it is strictly, as the late Gene Bartow might have said, "Hogwash!"

For once, we would like a Committee chair to admit that the selection process was a best-efforts, collaborative work by the ten people tasked with the job. And that a differently-comprised Selection Committee might have arrived at some other conclusions about seedings and such. It is a fact that past committees have often used differing criteria for not only seeding, but inclusion into the field; we can recall the Dave Gavitt-led committees of the early '80s stressing the last ten games of the season. Some committees put extra emphasis on road wins, or Strength of Schedule, or out-of-conference performance. But Selection Committee spokesmen never entertain the idea they might be in error, or inconsistent in their explanations.

We thought Wellman's response to some pointed questions by CBS's often-acerbic Gottlieb spoke volumes, as Wellman did not directly answer anything that Gottlieb asked, instead insinuating that only the Committee members had the proper formula. In a slight departure from past Committee chairs, however, Wellman was more than happy to discuss some of the specific topics, such as teams considered for the top line. Often in the past, we have noted that Committee chairs guard their internal discussions as if they are some sort of national defense secret.

And, as usual each March, the next time we see a Selection Committee chair admit to perhaps making an honest, best-efforts mistake, it will be a first.

Past committees have also often talked about "balancing" the field, distributing conference reps across the various regions (it has been decades since the tournament was conducted along straight regional grounds), yet the American Athletic Conference saw three of its four reps placed in the East Region. Which, while in the rights of any Selection Committee, is also very inconsistent with many past March decisions. Regular-season rematches at the top of the sub-regionals have also been a no-no for past committees, but for the second straight year we have one of those, too (last year UNLV vs. Cal; this year BYU vs. Oregon).

What we would like for future Selection Committees to address is that the numerical seeds are fluid, and that teams can be moved between lines, either above or below, based upon a variety of factors, usually keeping teams from the same conferences out of each other's way until at least the Sweet 16. Mostly, that the seeding process is a highly inexact science.

Still, those are mostly superficial complaints on our part. While a bit surprised that SMU was left out of the field, upon inspection we looked a bit harder at the Mustangs' body of work and saw where the Committee might have decided to bypass the Ponies, mostly because of a soft non-conference slate, a couple of bad losses (South Florida and UCF) in league play, plus an early exit in the American Tourney last week in Memphis. We thought the Mustangs probably had a better profile than NC State or BYU, but the decision to exclude Larry Brown's team is probably not as bad as we originally thought.

If we want to get really nit-picky about the seeds, we suspect that the Committee had slotted in sorts such as New Mexico (South-7), Providence (East-11), and St. Joe's (East-10) before each won their respective conference tourney titles, and simply decided that it wasn't worth the work and re-juggling to re-seed them all. That, of course, is something Wellman or any Committee chair will never admit.

As for the number of "mid-major" at-large bids, those were mostly limited to the A-10 (which chafes at that designation) as it placed a whopping six entries, five at-large, plus conference tourney winner St. Joe's, plus one from each the Mountain West (which had four at-large bids last season) and WCC. The Missouri Valley, sometimes a mid-major force in the past, was limited to just Midwest top seed Wichita State; it is worth noting that Creighton's move to the Big East robbed the Valley of one of its flagship programs, and replacing it with Loyola-Chicago was akin to New Mexico leaving the Mountain West for the Big 12 and being replaced by Idaho.

We also wonder if a league like the MAC, which hasn't had multiple bids for over a decade, is forever more to be a one-bid entity. Toledo, a loser to Western Michigan in the conference tourney finale at Cleveland, might have had the best MAC at-large profile in many years, but apparently wasn't ever in serious consideration at the cut line. Conference USA also had a couple of seemingly serious at-large candidates in La Tech and Southern Miss, yet the only calls received by each on Sunday were from the NIT. Next year, the league also loses Tulsa, which won the conference tourney last weekend and owns a rich basketball heritage, to the American, potentially weakening C-USA, which lost flagship Memphis after last season, even further.

In the end, there were only seven mid-major at-large bids after 11 each of the past two years, seven in 2011, and eight in 2010.

The bottom line? The Selection Committee is comprised of humans, and they--not machines--make the decisions. We just wish that more would confirm the selection process as the subjective exercise it is.

ANY FLORIDA GULF COASTS IN THE HOUSE?


The unexpected runs of mid-majors such as George Mason and Butler (and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011) to the Final Four in recent years, and surprise packages like Florida Gulf Coast storming the Sweet 16 a year ago, have prompted us to offer a "mid-major alert" each of the past few seasons, highlighting teams to watch that could emerge and deliver a similar run in the Dance. Following are a handful of those sides that we would watch closely...

Harvard (SUR 26-4; seeded 12th in East)...Been there and done that, as Harvard made noise last March as a 14 seed when KOing heavy favorite and 3rd seed New Mexico in the second round (which used to be the first round before the "First Four" at Dayton appeared a few years ago). Many of the same faces return from last season including fluid 6-5 swingman Wesley Saunders (14 ppg) and slick soph PG Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg). They are two of five DD scorers for HC Tommy Amaker, a group that also includes 6-7 PF Kyle Casey, who was suspended last season but started for Amaker's 2012 Big Dance qualifier and gives the Crimson a legit presence on the blocks. Also back from 2012 after missing last season due to suspension is G Brandyn Curry, whose contributions increased as the season progressed. There are five double-digit scorers on Amaker's roster, plus Curry at 9.3 ppg. The Crimson have experience, versatility, and are tough to speed up and force out of its comfort zone. We were not especially impressed with Amaker earlier in his coaching career, but have changed our tune watching him at work in the Ivy league, where he has tweaked the Duke offense he learned long ago from Coach K. The secret is out, however, on Harvard; sub-regional foe Cincinnati opened as only a slight 3-point favorite for their Thursday game in far-away Spokane.

NC Central (SUR 28-5; seeded 14th in East)...MEAC reps have caused trouble in March before (remember Norfolk State just two years ago dumping Missouri?), and NCC looks to be the best league entry in the Dance in quite a while. Played Cincinnati and Wichita State competitively in the non-conference slate and won in OT at North Carolina State. Top scorer, 6-3 senior G Jeremy Ingram, is a scary high-volume shooter tallying 20.6 ppg, and another sr., PG Emanuel Chapman, is a heady on-court pilot who has contributed mightily to the Eagles' very positive assist/TO ratio. NCC also enters the Dance on a 20-game win streak, and let's not forget how an Iowa State team once lost to a 15th-seeded MEAC rep, Hampton (remember little Pirates' coach Steve Merfeld being lifted off the floor by his players?) in the Dance. The Eagles' sub-regional foe on Friday in San Antonio? The Cyclones.

Stephen F. Austin (SUR 31-2; seeded 12th in South)...After blowing the Southland Tourney as a heavy favorite last year, the 'Jacks made sure of no repeat this March and survived upset bids by Northwestern State and Sam Houston State last week in Katy to qualify for the Dance. After 2013 HC Danny "Cool McCool" Kaspar took the job at Texas State, new HC Brad Underwood (who moved from South Carolina, where he assisted Frank "The Bouncer" Martin), plugged in three new starters, and SFA has not skipped a beat. Totally unselfish team led by 6-6 jr. F Jacob Parker, who has almost doubled his scoring output from a year ago to 14.8 ppg. But this team might be getting a bit more hype than it deserves (we're talking about you, Seth Davis). Non-conference efforts were not especially impressive, with the best wins in OT vs. Marshall and against Towson. Respectable in 10-point loss at Texas and also bowed by 8 at East Tennessee. Just in case, however, watch these guys.

Eastern Kentucky (SUR 24-9, seeded 15th in South)...We were a bit surprised to see the Colonels seeded at a 15, as we were thinking more on the 14 line for EKU. The Colonels have won 49 games the past two seasons and made it to the CIT second round a year ago with practically the same team for HC Jeff Neubauer. The team shoots the lights out (49% from floor, ranking 11th in the country) and owns maybe the OVC's best guard in sr. Glenn Cosey (18.8 ppg & 85.1% from the FT line). Beat dangerous Belmont twice, including an effective road game in Nashville's Municipal Auditorium to claim the OVC Tourney crown. Best non-league win was at expense of IPFW, which was whipped by 22. Took VCU to overtime in a 3-point loss, but was dealt heavier defeats at NC State (75-56) and Wisconsin (86-61). Seems a bit outmanned vs. Kansas, but likely minus C Joel Embiid on Friday in St. Louis, perhaps the Jayhawks will be a bit vulnerable.

Manhattan (SUR 25-7, seeded 13th in Midwest)...The new flavor of the month in coaching circles is animated Jaspers mentor HC Steve Masiello, who looks like a scaled-down version of Vince Vaughn and has roots in the Rick Pitino system, as both a player at Kentucky and an assistant coach. As for his Manhattan team, it avenged last year's Metro-Atlantic Tourney finale loss to Iona by returning the favor to the Gaels last week at Springfield. Interesting weapons, including a big backcourt paced by 6-4 G George Beamon (19.2 ppg), who missed almost the entirety of last season but returned to score 19.2 ppg, and rugged 6-7, 230-lb. sr. C Rhamel Brown, who led the MAAC in blocked shots with nearly 4 pg. As usual for Metro-Atlantic stars, we wonder if the likes of Beamon and Brown looked better against the likes of Marist and Siena, although the Jaspers won on the road comfortably at South Carolina and Illinois State, and almost beat George Washington, so they might not be terribly outclassed in the Dance. Ironically, Masiello gets a crack at Louisville and his mentor Pitino in the sub-regional at Orlando.

Mercer (SUR 26-8, seeded 14th in Midwest)...From the same Atlantic Sun that spawned Florida Gulf Coast last season, Mercer has been winning a lot of games in recent years and has some postseason pedigree, winning the CIT two years ago and still featuring a couple of key contributors from that team in srs. G Langston Hall (team-leading 14.9 ppg) and F Daniel Coursey (10.1 ppg). The Bears have plenty of offense and like to get up-and-down the court in a hurry, reflected in their 79.3 ppg (ranks 25th). Macon, Ga.-based Mercer, which defeated Tennessee in a first-round NIT game last March, also beat Seton Hall and Ole Miss in pre-league play and gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot at Duke in the Raleigh sub-regional on Friday. And at least one respected analyst, ESPN's Jay Bilas, believes the Bears have a puncher's chance against his alma mater.

Wofford (SUR 20-12, seeded 15th in Midwest)...The consensus on Wofford is that it is a bit more dangerous than most 15 seeds from recent years. The Terriers have some NCAA experience under HC Tom Young, participating in 2010 & 2011 Big Dances and covering numbers on both occasions vs. Wisconsin and Jimmer Fredette's BYU. The core of the current junior-senior laden squad underachieved a year ago and was off to a 3-7 break from the gate this season before the lights finally went on in mid-January, with jr. G Karl Cochran (15.7 ppg) flipping the switch with a series of 20-point efforts, fueling a 9-game win streak and a 13-2 SU run to close the season. No starter over 6-7, but Fs Lee Skinner and C.J. Neumann play a bit taller, and Skinner has clever post moves for a fellow standing only 6-6. Not embarrassed in pre-league losses at Georgia, Iona, Minnesota, Saint Louis, and VCU, though most SoCon observers believe regular-season champion Davidson (in the NIT instead) would have presented a much tougher hurdle for some higher seed in the Dance. ."The Woff" will face Michigan in the Thursday Milwaukee sub-regional

North Dakota State (SUR 25-6, seeding 12th in West)...The Bison won a crackling Summit League title game vs. IPFW and are being taken seriously as an upset threat in the sub-regionals. NDSU mostly steamrollered its Summit foes while winning nine straight to close the season and 18 of their last 20 overall, fueled by the nation's most-accurate shooting offense (50.9% from floor!). Hybrid 6-7 point-forward Taylor Braun (18 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.0 apg) is a 4-year starter and a matchup nightmare for foes. Another sr., bruising 6-8, 250-lb. PF Marshall Bjorklund (career-best 13.6 ppg), anchors the paint, while skywalking 6-7 sr. wing TrayVonn Wright wowed 'em with his high-wire act in the Summit Tourney and has scored double digits in six straight games. Won at MAC Tourney champ Western Michigan and at Notre Dame in pre-league play and also a 19-point winner at CAA champ Delaware, though lost by 13 at Saint Mary's and 17 at Ohio State. Has drawn Lon Kruger's Oklahoma in the Thursday sub-regional at Spokane.

Let's hope we're still talking about one or more of these teams next week for the Sweet 16; the tourney is always a bit more memorable when at least one Cinderella side emerges! Start the music...let the Big Dance begin!


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