Spent some time this afternoon on a national media teleconference with Jeff Hathaway, former Connecticut athletic director who is chairman of the Division 1 NCAA basketball committee. Annually, the committee chair does this teleconference, plus another one when the committee is beginning to convene in Indianapolis March 7, and another one after the bracket is revealed on Selection Sunday.
Among other observations, Hathaway noted that the bracket process is more transparent with the publication of team sheets on the NCAA website.
Some of the highlights, per Hathaway’s responses, especially pertaining to Washington and the tournament (there’s rarely any specific comment on any one team, but you can extrapolate some of the observations):
Placement within a conference isn’t a factor in at-large selections.
In other words, if Washington finishes second in the Pac-12 regular season and Cal wins the regular season and conference tournament, the Huskies don’t necessarily rate a nod over third-place Arizona in the at-large reckoning (but other factors, such as two head-to-head wins over the ‘Cats, would help).
“The bottom line is, when viewing an individual team sheet, they’re an independent,” Hathaway said. “They are not conference-affiliated.”
When I pressed Hathaway on that issue, broaching the eventuality that two teams within a league could be vying for one of the final bubble spots, he said the committee would look to assess performance against common opponents, head-to-head results, player-coach availability (the injury factor), etc. “Quite frankly,” Hathaway said, “it doesn’t matter if they’re from the same conference or two different conferences.”
That makes sense, because with the Pac-12 now playing an unbalanced schedule for the first time (teams seeing some opponents only once), looking merely at standings can provide a skewed view.
Saying that, I think the Huskies’ game Saturday against Arizona is significant for two reasons aside from viability for the league title: It could give Washington a sweep over the Wildcats, and a head-to-head benefit there if push comes to shove; and with Stanford sinking out of the RPI top 100, the Huskies’ record against the RPI top-100 now stands at 2-8. That’s awfully skimpy, and might not be balanced by Washington’s bonus of not having a bad loss on its resume. And there are no more top-100 teams on the UW schedule until the Pac-12 tournament.
Finishing kick is not a factor in selection or seeding.
As Hathaway points out, when he was first on the committee, a team’s final 10 games were considered as a key separate element. Then that was expanded to the final 12 games. In the past couple of years, that was thrown out altogether, probably because it became apparent there was little correlation in getting hot late and performance in the NCAA tournament.
“The season starts in November, and it goes all the way through the conference tournaments,” says Hathaway. “A big win is a big win. We look at the total body of work.”
Still, I’m guessing a strong finish could help, if only subconsciously in a committeeman’s mind. There comes a point when members vote on inclusion into the field, and if it’s a dead heat between two teams in somebody’s mind, maybe an 8-2 run down the stretch weighs, if ever so subtly.
Is the bubble getting ever softer?
You heard it last year and you’re hearing it again. The bubble is “soft,” meaning there’s really a lot of mediocrity in the race to make it as an at-large team.
Since Hathaway opened with the statement that “There are more better [sic] teams out there than ever before,” I asked him if he bought the notion that it’s indeed a soft bubble.
“A bubble team is a bubble team,” he said. “At the end of the day, a soft bubble . . . I’ve always been kind of fascinated by that term. I’m not even sure what a soft bubble is.”
Hathaway contends there’s deeper quality than in the past couple of years, and that it’s a continuing trend – which I think is a questionable assumption.
“The bottom line is, in our meetings in January and thus far today, nobody has used the term,” he said.
Do margins of defeat or victory matter?
Hathaway says no. But I didn’t get the feeling that was a hard-and-fast guideline. Seems to me if you’re consistently pounding teams, or your losses take on a blowout pattern, it might weigh in the minds of a committee member. If that’s true (and I’m making an assumption here), the Huskies don’t need any more 82-57 defeats like the one at Oregon.
About that eyeball test . . .
I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that (a) it takes basketball people to properly evaluate the potential field, and (b) they need to see the teams to reach an educated conclusion.
Ask yourself: Doesn’t everybody have an off-night? If, for instance, you watched Washington against St. Louis early in the season and Oregon in their second game, you’d say “no way” to the Huskies. But that’s clearly not the body of work. So as sterile as the numbers and the nitty-gritty process (the NCAA’s breakdown of each team’s resume) might be, I’d contend the eyeball test is vastly overrated. (If you’re still not convinced, remember all the TV analysts’ howling about the inclusion of Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia Commonwealth in last year’s field? How’d that work out?)
Still, Hathaway says the eyeball test is a key. “I think it’s important to watch the teams,” he said. “The bulk of us (committee people) see teams play on multiple occasions, and certainly on television. How a team looks is crucial. We get out and see games non-stop. We need to go beyond the numbers. (And) each committee member needs to assess what the eyeball test means to them.”
The “First Four” mechanics will be refined this year
Last year, Clemson, one of the last four at-large teams in the field, won in Dayton, flew that night to Tampa and got to its hotel about 5 a.m., then lost to West Virginia in a 12:15 p.m. game the next day — little more than 36 hours after its opener. Since 2011 was the first year of the 68-team tournament, there was heavy scrutiny on the mechanics of the First Four games, and that should result in a better outcome this year. (And it could impact a Pac-12 team, with the league’s potential bubble prospects.)
Hathaway said there won’t be a repeat of a first-round play-in winner having to be ready for a first-game-of-the-session date somewhere away from Dayton, the First Four site. And he points out that there are some relatively close sub-regional sites where those winners will end up, like Columbus, Pittsburgh and Louisville.
How much weight do we assign the BracketBuster?
Does this weekend’s ESPN BracketBuster event, featuring a passel of the nation’s mid-majors, carry any added impact on the committee? Not any more than the singular impact of the outcome of the games.
“That game carries the same weight as every other game you’ve played,” Hathaway said.
Lose the Oliver Stone theories.
Conspiracy theories seem to be especially popular these days on message boards, but I’ve never been a believer in the idea that the committee conjures up diabolical matchups or includes or denies a team for some untoward reason. There’s so much spotlight trained on the work of the committee, it’s hard to imagine it would leave it itself open for less-than-defensible reasons.
Asked what was the biggest misconception about the committee’s work, that was what Hathaway chose.
“Examples I’ve heard in the past are that we had UCLA playing Belmont because both of them (were nicknamed) Bruins,” Hathaway said. “Or that one team is playing another because the assistant coach used to work at the other school. That’s the one thing I can unequivocally say no to: There are no conspiracy theories.”
For a complete look at the selection process, here’s the NCAA link: