What the NCAA tournament selection committee got right and wrong

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It’s as much an annual part of Selection Sunday as Charles Barkley picking Auburn to go to the Final Four.

Once the brackets are unveiled, the complaining begins.

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The NCAA tournament selection committee unveiled its bracket Sunday evening to mixed reviews, especially in East Lansing, Michigan. Here’s a look at some of the things the committee got right and some of the things it got wrong:

WHAT THEY GOT WRONG: MICHIGAN STATE IN DUKE’S BRACKET

When Michigan State rallied to defeat rival Michigan in Sunday’s Big Ten title game, many thought the Spartans might have done enough to secure the NCAA tournament’s final No. 1 seed.

Not only did they have to settle for a No. 2 seed, they also landed in the worst possible spot on that seed line.

Michigan State is the No. 2 seed in overall No. 1 seed Duke’s bracket, maybe the most baffling decision the selection committee made this year. For the purpose of balancing the regions, the Blue Devils should have been awarded the worst No. 2 seed, and it’s difficult to rationally argue the Spartans are that.

In addition to winning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and its conference tournament, Michigan State (28-6) amassed 13 Quadrant 1 victories, more than any other team in the nation. The Spartans swept three games from rival Michigan, defeated Wisconsin twice and won single games against the likes of Purdue, Maryland and Florida.

Was that enough to claim a No. 1 seed? No. Michigan State’s case was hampered by a trio of surprising losses at the hands of Illinois and Indiana.

Was that enough to not be the worst No. 2 seed? You better believe it. After all, one of the other No. 2 seeds was the Michigan team the Spartans beat three times this season.

The most confounding part of all this is that the selection committee apparently agreed Michigan State was not the last of the No. 2 seeds. The Spartans were sixth overall on the 1-to-68 seed list the NCAA released, yet they still got stuck with Duke.

Ultimately, the fact that Michigan got a more favorable draw should be especially galling for Michigan State.

The Wolverines landed in the West with Gonzaga, apparently the last of the four No. 1 seeds. Meanwhile the Spartans were paired with Goliath, the Duke program that is 11-1 against them during Tom Izzo’s tenure.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game against Michigan in the Big Ten Conference tournament, Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game against Michigan in the Big Ten Conference tournament, Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

WHAT THEY GOT RIGHT: PUTTING BELMONT IN

Belmont shouldn’t have been the only one celebrating its surprise at-large bid Sunday night.

It was important for the sport of college basketball that for once the selection committee chose to award a deserving mid-major bubble team instead of allowing teams from the big conferences to gobble up the last available at-large spots.

For the past few years, the committee has valued the number of top 50 or Quadrant 1 victories teams have above all else during the selection process. That inherently hinders mid-majors who play in weaker leagues and can’t cajole marquee teams into scheduling them in November and December. And it inherently favors power-conference teams who face many top opponents each year and only have to beat a few of them.

Of the 36 NCAA tournament bids awarded to at-large teams in 2018, all but three went to programs hailing from the five football power leagues, the Big East and the American Athletic Conference. Same with the year before. And the year before that.

Belmont’s being sent to the First Four certainly doesn’t halt that trend, but it at least counts as incremental progress. The Bruins had the strongest résumé among a group of mid-major bubble teams that also included UNC Greensboro, Furman and Lipscomb.

While Belmont didn’t get many chances for marquee wins, the Bruins took advantage of the few they did have. The Ohio Valley Conference co-champs went 26-5, including a win at UCLA, a sweep of fellow mid-major bubble team Lipscomb and a road win at Murray State.

Another mid-major would have made the field had Oregon not made an unlikely run from the sixth seed to a Pac-12 tournament title. UNC Greensboro was the last team in the field until the Ducks’ stole their spot Saturday night.

WHAT THEY GOT WRONG: IGNORING SUNDAY’S RESULTS

For years, coaches have complained that the results of conference tournament title games played on Selection Sunday never matter in how teams are seeded.

This year’s committee only fueled that narrative.

Cincinnati was projected as a No. 6 or 7 seed, upset Houston in Sunday’s American Athletic Conference title game and … got a 7 seed.

Auburn was projected as a No. 5 seed, routed Tennessee by 20 in Sunday’s SEC title game … and got a No. 5 seed.

And then there’s the aforementioned Big Ten title game, where Michigan State completed a season sweep of Michigan … and somehow wound up with a worse draw than the Wolverines because of it.

Sunday conference tournament title games certainly put the selection committee in a difficult spot, but they’re not going away anytime soon. CBS and ESPN demand college basketball inventory in order to have a proper lead-up to their respective selection shows.

In the past, the committee has built multiple brackets as a contingency so it can quickly take into account the results of Sunday’s biggest games. Maybe this year’s committee did that as well, but you’d never know it from the bracket they unveiled.

WHAT THEY GOT RIGHT: THREE ACC NO. 1 SEEDS

The last time one conference landed three teams on the top seed line before Sunday, Big East powers UConn, Pittsburgh and Louisville all claimed No. 1s in 2009.

The ACC became the latest to do it a decade later, and the selection committee was correct to show that league such respect.

Duke and Virginia had by far the strongest résumés of any teams in the country and were the only two realistic contenders for the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The Blue Devils rightfully edged the Cavaliers for that honor by virtue of their two head-to-head victories, their superior collection of marquee wins and the fact that national player of the year favorite Zion Williamson was injured for three of their five losses.

North Carolina’s inclusion on the No. 1 seed line was more debatable, but in the end it was also the proper decision. The Tar Heels had far more quality wins than Gonzaga, fewer questionable losses than Michigan State and a similar but slightly stronger résumé than Tennessee.

The respect for the ACC didn’t stop with the No. 1 seeds either. While bubble teams Clemson and NC State were left out of the field, the seven ACC teams who did make all received No. 8 seeds or better.

WHAT THEY GOT WRONG: WASHINGTON’S SEEDING

For a team with a largely empty résumé, Washington was treated very generously by the selection committee.

The Pac-12 champion Huskies were the highest-rated No. 9 seed, according to the 1-to-68 seed list the NCAA released.

While Washington belongs in the NCAA tournament and is even capable of winning a game if it rediscovers its January form, the Huskies’ résumé suggests they should have been much closer to the at-large cutline. They were seeded ahead of the likes of Minnesota, Seton Hall and Baylor even though they haven’t beaten an at-large-caliber NCAA tournament team all season.

Washington’s most impressive win came against an Oregon team that defeated the Huskies two out of three times including a 68-48 rout in Saturday’s Pac-12 title game. Beyond that, the best team Washington has beaten is ... Colorado? Oregon State?

Credit Washington for playing a tough non-conference schedule, for winning a down Pac-12 by three games and for getting to its conference tournament title game. That’s enough to make the Huskies worthy of inclusion in the NCAA tourney field.

But their résumé is too similar to Belmont’s for there to be nine spots between the two teams on the seed list.

WHAT THEY GOT RIGHT: LEAVING OUT NC STATE

There were two good reasons for the committee not to select NC State as one of the final at-large teams in the field.

Not only did the Wolfpack not have a résumé worthy of being included, it also would have set a dangerous precedent awarding a bid to a team that played the 353rd toughest non-conference schedule out of 353 Division I teams.

Eight of NC State’s non-league games this season came against teams rated 275 or below in the NET rankings. Given the committee's longtime emphasis on teams challenging themselves out of conference, that was always going to leave the Wolfpack vulnerable to being snubbed unless they did something special in their remaining games, which of course they didn’t.

NC State went a pedestrian 9-9 in the ACC, fattening up on the teams in the bottom half of the standings. The Wolfpack only beat two NCAA tournament teams all season — Auburn and Syracuse.

Some NC State supporters have argued that strength of schedule is baked into the NET rankings and shouldn’t be evaluated on its own, but that’s missing the point in a way. The Wolfpack showed a blueprint for how to game the NET rankings by blowing out bad teams.

NC State’s ranked 33rd in the NET ranking, which takes margin of victory into account. The Wolfpack were 97th in the now-defunct RPI, which does not.

If you reward NC State for a soft non-conference schedule and punish fellow bubble teams Texas and Indiana for taking too many losses against challenging slates, that sends a message to coaches that playing cupcakes pays. That’s not good for the sport and that’s not a statement the committee should want to make.

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