Column (David Cassilo): Selection committee should look beyond the numbers

David Cassilo

With just three days remaining until each “bubble” team across the country finds out its fate for the NCAA Tournament, the selection committee is once again faced with an almost impossible job. Just selecting 34 teams to fill the at-large bids takes hours, and once they finally finish that, they need to seed them 1-65. During the process, a lot of numbers will be thrown around. They will look at the team’s RPI, strength of schedule, record on the road and even the collective record of their opponents’ opponents. Doing so undoubtedly offers a variety of perspectives to judge whether a team should make the field, but in the process, the goal of selecting the 65 best teams for the NCAA tournament can sometimes be lost. While the numbers can help, it just takes a little common sense to realize that the games themselves are what should be judged.

This year that common sense is needed fast or else the tournament committee is about to make a major gaffe. Imagine this. There is a team right now with a record of 18-13 that be consider a lock to make the NCAA tournament. Teams have gotten in with similar records, but what really stands out is that in conference games, this team has won just eight of 18 games. How could any team two games below .500 in conference play be considered a lock to make any tournament besides the NIT?

The team referenced above is the Arizona Wildcats. Despite their mediocre record and awful performance in conference play, it would shock many to see them left out of the NCAA tournament. The reason for this is that even though they have lost more games than they have won against conference teams, the Arizona Wildcats have “great numbers” as experts say. Their RPI is in the low 30s, and they have played the second hardest schedule in the nation. When discussed as a bubble team, the expert analyst on TV usually says something like, “The Arizona Wildcats are 18-13, but they have played a tough schedule, so they are better than their record.” Better than their record? As Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”

College basketball is different than college football when it comes to schedule. It is not decided who you play years in advance but instead just months before the season starts. A team like Arizona will play the same teams every year in the Pac-10 conference, while it chooses who it plays in its non-conference games. No one picked the second hardest schedule in the nation for the Arizona Wildcats but themselves. A difficult schedule should not be a proper excuse for the fact that when it came to the most important time of the season, conference play, Arizona lost more than it won. Any team that cannot win in its own conference definitely cannot win in the NCAA tournament.

Across the country, another team is anxiously awaiting the committee’s decision. In the SEC – year in and year out one of the most difficult conferences in all of college basketball – this team went 12-4. In its final 13 regular season games, it won 11. By looking at those facts, this team not only appears to be a force in its conference but also one of the hottest and most dangerous teams in the nation. However, with Selection Sunday just days away, this team will need to win its conference tournament to feel any sense of security about its tournament hopes.

Once again another team of Wildcats is being referenced, but this time they are the ones from Kentucky. The boys from Lexington had an entire state depressed when they began the year with an awful 7-9 record. The adjustment time to Billy Gillespie’s new coaching style proved too long for many experts as they left Kentucky for dead by January. Even after turning things around and finishing with the second-best conference record in the SEC, many still feel that Kentucky lacks the resumé to make it to the NCAA tournament due to its early season falters.

The team’s slow start hurt it in the one place it is hard to improve: the numbers. The Wildcats may look like one of the best and hottest teams in the country right now, but bad losses four months ago make their resumé more cloudy than bright. Their RPI currently hovers around 50, and a number like that does nothing to help the case of the Wildcats. What may hurt them even more is that when analyzing their record in SEC play, an analyst will most likely say something like, “Sure Kentucky has won 12 conference games, but the SEC is in a down year, so those 12 wins are not as strong as they would have been in past years.” As far as I am aware, time travel has not been invented yet, so I see no other option than the ’08 SEC season for Kentucky to win its 12 games. In Kentucky’s off-year, it still has staged a comeback, and won important road games. Just because it is a “down year” for the conference on a whole does not mean teams like Arkansas, LSU, Florida and Tennessee become easier places to play. Excuses like RPI and strength of conference should not be obstacles for a Kentucky team that has performed at an elite level in the past two months.

As I said before, selecting the 65 teams for the NCAA tournament can be an impossible job. No matter which teams are selected, someone somewhere will not be happy. The discussion of why this team got in and this team got snubbed is what makes the selection process fun to follow. The NCAA tournament selection committee usually does its best to explain why certain teams were included and excluded from the Big Dance, but if members cite RPI and strength of schedule instead of wins and losses, they are the ones making their own jobs impossible.


David Cassilo is a sophomore communication major from Chatham, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]