Will the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee follow its own bracketing principles and send UConn to Norfolk and Notre Dame to Bridgeport? Or will the profit motive yield a virtual home-court advantage for the Huskies that none of the other top seeds will enjoy? (Bracket image courtesy NCAA)
Will the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee follow its own bracketing principles and send UConn to Norfolk and Notre Dame to Bridgeport? Or will the profit motive yield a virtual home-court advantage for the Huskies that none of the other top seeds will enjoy? (Bracket image courtesy NCAA)

Will principles or profit guide NCAA bracketing?

March 17, 2013 - 8:55pm

There will be tension aplenty this Selection Monday evening for the bubble teams and their fans gathered for viewing parties across the country as the NCAA Selection Committee announces the brackets for the 2013 Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. There will be a little bit of drama, as well, as teams higher in the bracket discover their seedings, where they’ll be sent and whom they must play in their quests to survive and advance through the postseason.

But this year, it would be a surprise to nearly everyone involved in women’s basketball if the top four seeds are not Baylor, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Stanford in pretty much that order, as they have been the consensus top four for most, if not all, of the season.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there won’t be a very big question mark surrounding the bracketing of the four heavyweights. Because while most assume that UConn will be holding court in the Bridgeport, Conn., Regional, just as they have played at or near their home floor in the early and regional rounds for the past several years, it will take a major piece of legerdemain for the Selection Committee to get them there this year.

A few years back, I had the opportunity to participate in one of the Mock Selection exercises conducted by the NCAA in Indianapolis for college coaches and members of the media. Many times prior to that, I’d scratched my head in bemused wonderment, perplexed as to how, for example, UCLA might be dispatched to a pod in Philadephia feeding into a “West Regional,” or teams wound up seemingly arbitrarily seeded beneath opponents they had defeated in head-to-head competition, to cite just a couple of the inevitable annual anomalies.

The Mock Selection is an impressive, and highly educational, exercise from which one can’t help but come away with several deeply etched impressions, the foremost of which is that the system is nowhere near as chaotic as the annual bracket announcements would lead the uninitiated to believe.  Each step of the process -– from selecting the at-large invitees, to seeding the entire 64-team field, through placing the teams into the championship bracket -- is governed by  a meticulously specific set of principles, procedures and even “additional considerations,” the last to be applied when the principles and procedures alone don’t provide guidance enough.

Despite a veritable goldmine of statistical data and other information available to the Committee during its deliberations –- including the personal observations of both Committee members and conference representatives tasked to report back on hundreds of hours of live and taped game action, an element of subjectivity will invariably creep into the application of those principles. When all other factors are equal, one participant might, for example, be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to a small school who hasn’t had much opportunity for national tournament exposure or another Committee member might weigh the absence or injury of key players in a given loss more heavily than another. But should a participant even be tempted to stray from the dictates of a selection, seeding or bracketing principle –- or even to propose considering those guidelines in the “wrong” order –- they will quickly be brought to heel by the Committee chair and/or one or more of the participating administrators from the various conferences.

You may agree or disagree with some of those rules, many of which seem designed to avoid teams from the same conference knocking one another out of contention any sooner than necessary, even at the expense of fostering peak competition or putting a team with a better record at a relative disadvantage. But love ‘em or hate ‘em, these are the rules the institutions that make up the NCAA chose to govern their tournament, and they do provide a certain order to that seemingly chaotic universe that is March Madness.

Which is why it will be interesting when the brackets are announced this evening to see whether the Committee adheres to its own rules in bracketing the top seeds. It will be easy to tell if it does, because if so, you can expect to hear Geno Auriemma's howls all the way from Storrs to Spokane, complaining loud and long about his Huskies having been shuffled off to Norfolk, Va., while Notre Dame usurps UConn's virtual home court in nearby Bridgeport, Conn.

The attention of many –- especially of Big East fans -– will likely be elsewhere. In this last year for the power conference as we have come to know it, many would like to see UConn and the Irish on opposite sides of the bracket. For the past three seasons, the two teams have met in the national semifinals, taking turns at knocking one another out of championship contention. This year, some would like to allow for the possibility of their meeting in the championship game –- if, that is, one of them can pull off the seemingly impossible feat of bumping off Baylor, the presumptive repeat national champs.

There’s a legitimate argument by which the Committee could achieve that result. Baylor, with just one loss, plus head-to-head wins over both Notre Dame (73-61) and Connecticut (76-70) -– both of them on the road, by the way -- and the nation’s best RPI and strength of schedule, is certainly the number one of the number one seeds. Only Stanford could even make a case for the spot, having beaten Baylor, 71-69,  in an early-season tournament in Hawaii, but that win has an asterisk attached to it, due to the early-game injury of the Bears' All-American point guard Odyssey Sims. The Cardinal have dropped two games since then -– blown out by the Huskies on their own home floor, 61-35, and then falling to Cal, again at home, 67-55. And though the Committee claims not to consider scoring margins, it would be hard for them not to have noticed that Stanford had to survive two close calls to win its conference tournament this year, while Baylor has blown away all comers.

So you don’t need a pencil to write in Baylor as the No. 1 of the No. 1 seeds, nor the Irish as the No. 2 of the No. 1s.  Notre Dame’s only loss of the season was to Baylor, and though they haven’t faced Stanford in a head-to-head, they’ve now thrice beaten UConn, which did beat Stanford.  They also own the No. 2 RPI in the country, according to realtimerpi.com, and although their strength of schedule is just No. 5, that’s still better than the Cardinal at No. 6.

Which means the only question mark relating to the top seeding is whether Stanford or UConn gets the third of the No. 1 seeds (and with it, the dubious privilege of facing Baylor in the national semifinal, if form holds and all the top seeds make it to the Final Four).  In Connecticut’s favor, of course, is that drubbing the Huskies dished out in Palo Alto, and UConn also owns the second toughest strength of schedule in the country. But it’s been nearly three months since the Cardinal’s loss to UConn, and in the interim, Stanford has suffered only one other loss while racking up 32 wins, while UConn is “just” 29-4 after three nip-and-tuck dust-ups with the Irish. Stanford, which ranks No. 3 in RPI, also won its conference, tying for the regular-season championship and taking the tournament crown outright, while UConn, No. 4 in RPI, won neither this year. So while Stanford might not be looking forward to a semifinal rematch with Baylor, no one should be too worked up about precisely that result in the seedings.

But there’s no way the Committee gets to send UConn to the Bridgeport Regional with a straight face and still claim, as it always does, that they've been assiduously following their own rules. That’s because the bracketing principles provide (in bold face, no less) that:

“The committee will attempt to assign each team to the most geographically compatible regional and first-/second-round site, by order of the s-curve.”

As if that weren’t quite clear enough, the principle goes on to state:

“When multiple teams are a similar distance from a site, the team seeded higher in the s-curve will be assigned to the closest geographical proximity site.”

There's no question that Bridgeport is geographically compatible with UConn, but the rules require that the Committee bracket and site Notre Dame, the higher seed on the s-curve, first. And guess what? Bridgeport, Conn., is 39.2 miles closer to South Bend, Ind. (757.3 miles), than is Norfolk (796.5).

Baylor, as the topmost of the No. 1 seeds, will undoubtedly go to Oklahoma City, the closest regional venue to Waco. Stanford, whether it winds up as the No. 3 or the No. 4 of the No. 1 seeds, will wind up in Spokane, which is closer to it than to any of the other three top seeds. But it doesn’t really matter whether UConn ends up seeded No. 3 or No. 4 amongst the No. 1 seeds.  It doesn’t even matter whether Notre Dame would rather play in Norfolk than venture into “enemy territory” in Connecticut. Unless the Committee can figure out some way to seed Connecticut above the team that has beaten it not once but three times this season, Notre Dame must be bracketed first, and sent to the site that is closest to it. And that is to Bridgeport, not Norfolk.

There’s an exception spelled out in the rules when an institution is hosting the site. But that exception applies only in the first and second rounds, and not to the regionals, where a team is not permitted to be assigned to a site where the institution is hosting.

Nominally, at least, UConn would have been able to circumvent this restriction had they prevailed over the Irish at the Big East Tournament or in regular-season play.  While Bridgeport would have indisputably been home court to the Huskies versus any team reasonably anticipated to still be playing by the Sweet 16, on paper, at least, the Bridgeport Regional isn’t hosted by Connecticut, but by a consortium of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Fairfield University and the Webster Bank Arena. But try telling, say, UCLA or Michigan State, should they be slotted in the same bracket as the Huskies that Bridgeport isn't home to UConn in just about everything but name.

Which puts the Committee in a bit of a bind. Quite apart from peeving Geno by putting his Huskies on the road, the Bridgeport promoters will undoubtedly be disappointed to find themselves playing host to an assortment of out-of-state interlopers, when they no doubt expected to have the local drawing card of one of the best-followed teams in women's college basketball. Of course, even with UConn on the marquee, attendance (4,563) in Bridgeport was a disappointment last year. But that was the opening round, not the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight, with the Huskies facing 16th-seeded Prairie View A&M, not a third or fourth seed. There’s little question that a UConn appearance in Bridgeport would be more likely to put butts in the seats than will Notre Dame -- or, for that matter, a Connecticut-anchored Norfolk Regional.

And that’s no small consideration. While regional-round attendance at the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament was reportedly up in 2011 over 2010, regionals and early rounds are rarely the sell-out affairs that the Final Four has become. Across the board, the NCAA reported that 2012 tournament attendance figures averaged 4,852 fans per sessions (with the Final Four providing a big bump to those averages), but that is still well off the peak average attendance of 7,966 set in 2003.

Still, as much as the Committee might wish to boost the popularity and profitability of the tournament, the rules are the rules and they do not allow deviations for such purposes.

“Principles must be followed by the committee during selection, seeding and bracketing of the championship field,” the selection rules declare. (Emphasis added.) “All principles must be adhered to throughout each of the three processes. The committee will make every effort to apply ‘additional considerations’, provided they do not cause a violation of the principles,” the rules continue.

Now some might question whether this all isn't much ado about nothing -- or about 40 miles to be precise.  Were we talking about a difference of 400 miles, the equities would certainly be more clear, but isn't packing UConn off to Norfolk, at a possible cost of thousands of dollars to the Bridgeport promoters, just to save the Irish an additional 40 miles of travel (or about four minutes in transit at an average passenger plane's air speed of approximately 600 knots) the ultimate in elevating form over substance?

Not so, it was explained to us at the Mock Selection in 2010, when the interaction of seeding rules, the geographic principle, rules prohibiting meetings between teams from the same conference before the regional final and a glut of very good teams from the Big East conspired to send Ohio State, a two-seed, to Dayton, on a collision path with UConn, then in the midst of its historic record-breaking winning streak and the odds-on favor to win it all (as, indeed, the Huskies ultimately did that year). Wouldn't it be more fair, some wondered, to ask Jim Foster whether he'd rather have his Buckeyes play close to home or give them at least a prayer of avoiding near-certain annihilation by sending them pretty much anywhere else? Or at least to send teams, in order of seeding, to the site common sense would tell you they would prefer to go if asked?

No, came the answer. The rules, which the Committee has relied on to justify any number of unpopular results over the years, had been crafted in a Locke-ian vacuum, before any particular team or conference knew how those rules would affect their lot in a given year. Start tinkering with those principles in the interest of doing "rough justice" in a now-known situation, and any semblance of neutrality flies right out the window. What's more -- pretty much any adjustment you make to the rules in the interests of one team will result in a comparative negative impact on other teams similarly situated but not so advantaged.

The point here is not to make a case as to why the Huskies should be be catching a flight to Norfolk. I personally don't give a hoot where any of the teams play. As a journalist, I don't have a dog in the race, and on a practical level, it's unlikely to make much difference anyway, as absent an untimely injury, the safe money is on Baylor repeating even were they to be shipped off to East Timbuktu to play their early rounds.

And neither is the point to defend the rules that require the Huskies to hit the road for the regional. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of some of the bracketing rules, particularly those that not only allow but require a team to be moved up or down a line in either direction (that's as many as 12 seeding positions) from the true seed originally assigned to it based on its record through the Committee's arduous voting process, simply in order to avoid two teams (either or both of which might have much worse records than the team being shifted) from the same conference encountering one another before the regional final. Make me queen for the day, and there's a lot I might change, though the geographic principle is not likely the place I would choose to start to clean house.

Rather, the question is whether the Committee is willing to adhere to principle, even when the results are unpopular or unprofitable, or whether it will put its thumb on the scale to achieve the result at least some of the players would like to see. The rules are the rules, and they were adopted in an effort to ensure if not complete consistency, at least a norm of neutrality. And if the Committee feels free to ignore them at its pleasure, then perhaps it should consider refunding Kim Mulkey the fine imposed two years ago when she dared voice her displeasure with having to meet Texas A&M for a fourth time in the same season, with only one of them able to advance to the Final Four.

What's more, if the Committee ignores the geographic principle to let UConn play (yet again) in its own backyard, how is that fair to the other one-seeds, all of whom must travel -- some of them for substantial distances -- to arrive at their likely regional sites? The Bears, for example, start their NCAA campaign at home (as do all of the presumptive one-seeds other than the Irish) and, as befits the team with the best record in the country, have the shortest drive (287.6 miles) to their regional (unless, of course, the Committee contrives to send UConn to Bridgeport which is just 77.5 miles from Storrs). Nonetheless, Baylor doesn't get to play at or near home, but must head out-of-state to Oklahoma City. That's enemy territory for a Texas team, as anyone who saw rabid Sooner fans vying to snare Elite Eight tickets from the scalpers outside what is now called Chesapeake Energy Arena in the middle of a snow storm the last time the Big XII hosted a regional in Oklahoma City can tell you. There, Baylor will likely face the higher-seeded of OU or Oklahoma State, which will be the home team as far as the fans are concerned, or in a potential matchup that undoubtedly features high on Kim Mulkey's list of nightmares, might even run into its one-time Big XII nemesis, Texas A&M, who could be shipped north instead of east to avoid a three-team SEC mash-up in Norfolk.

Stanford, too, will have to travel -- indeed, they will travel the farthest, more than 900 miles, to Spokane, where they will likely confront all-but-in-name-homestanding Gonzaga on its home turf, assuming both teams make it out of the first and second-round games they'll be hosting in Palo Alto and Spokane, respectively. And Notre Dame will have to travel a substantial distance was well, whether the Irish get shipped to 796.5 miles to Norfolk, where they'll likely take on the Maryland Terps in their own backyard, or fly 757.3 miles to Bridgeport, where, with the Huskies out of the picture, they would be playing on the closest thing to a neutral court in this year's regional schema. (Once the Huskies are taken out of the Bridgeport, equation, there would be no obvious claimant to "home team" status, with the closest Top 25 teams to Bridgeport are No. 8 Penn State, No. 15 Delaware and No. 22 Syracuse, none of which claim a huge following in Connecticut.)

So, even if it's just a 40-mile difference in travel for the Irish, why should UConn -- the team with the worst record among the four presumptive No. 1 seeds -- be the only one given the privilege of playing on its home turf, in-state and just a little over an hour's drive away from Gampel Pavilion even if you account for all the stopping for tolls on New England's much-beloved turnpikes? If home-court advantage means anything -- and you'd be hard-pressed to find a coach or player who will tell you it does not -- how would it be fair for the Committee to wink at the rules in order to give one team and one alone that advantage, while denying it to all the other teams who are similarly situated?

In the end, the entire question would be moot or nearly so if the women's tournament, like the men's, were played on truly neutral floors. Which is how a major tournament really ought to be played. But until women's basketball becomes sufficiently popular to fill, as does the men's game, neutral-floor arenas not just for the Final Four but also for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, if not the first and second rounds, there will always be tradeoffs implicit in the bracketing and siting of the field. We all know the time it will take to grow the women's game to that level is more likely to be measured in decades than years. In the interim, the question is: What will govern those tradeoffs: profit or principle?

Which is why it will be interesting to see tonight whether the Committee has adhered to its own principles -– which would leave Connecticut racking up some frequent-flier miles en route to Virginia and Bridgeport promoters casting about for some high-octane halftime entertainment to boost crowds –- or whether the Committee chair has a good enough two-step to convince skeptics that Norfolk has somehow moved at least 40 miles closer to South Bend.