Bracketology: What data is relevant and what isn’t

As you might imagine, I hear from a lot of fans making the case for why their team should be in the tournament or seeded higher than I have them in my bracket. A lot of those arguments cite all kinds of metrics, partial records, and other positive aspects of their team’s resumes, some of which are relevant, but many are not.

Recently, the NCAA has started posting almost daily updates of their team sheets. A team sheet contains all of the data the committee looks at about a team when evaluating it and comparing it to others.

Keep in mind that selecting and seeding the tournament is a subjective process guided by objective data. Individual committee members will interpret this data differently. Everyone on the committee has their own opinions as to which pieces of information are more important to them than others. I’m often asked what the committee considers more important, good wins or bad losses? My answer is that they are both a part of who you are as a team, and that often it depends on who you are being compared to and what stands out in those comparisons. If you asked the ten committee members that same question, you might get ten different answers.

So, if you want to make your team’s case for selection or seeding, you need to stick to the data that is on those sheets. I want to point out a few things that are specifically missing.

1. RPI is the only metric. You may love KenPom, Sagarin, whatnot. Doesn’t matter. The AP and coaches polls? Not a factor. Until one of those other ratings shows up on these sheets, they aren’t relevant to the process. That said, RPI alone is never decisive. The committee never, ever compares two teams and picks the one with the higher RPI because it has a higher RPI.

2. Conference records/standings. Neither appears. Teams are being judged on their entire seasons, not their conference seasons. The only conference-specific data that appears is the strength of schedule within the conference. Also note that unlike football, head-to-head is not a major factor either. It can be if two teams are relatively equal (nothing is ever totally equal), but again, teams are judged on entire seasons, not one, or two, or sometimes even three games.

3. How a team finishes. There is a common perception that how a team is playing at the end of the year is more important. Many people feel it should be. None of those people are on the committee. That used to be a factor, which is likely why many people still think it is. They used to track how teams performed in their last 12 games, but got rid of that several years ago. Now, it’s hard to look at those team sheets and even determine how a team has done lately in your head because the dates of the games are not prominently displayed, or even formatted like a date. The committee is committed to the concept that every game counts equally no matter when it’s played.

There are also a couple pieces of relevant information that don’t appear on the sheets. One is information about roster issues. Injuries, suspensions, and things of that nature are reported separately, but rest assured, the committee knows all about whatever problems a team has had over the course of the season. It’s not terribly important, though. In general, a team’s profile is its profile. The committee will not assume a team would have won a game it lost had it been at full strength. They also will not ignore the game. There may be some slight seeding consideration given, but sometimes that doesn’t even happen. Those adjustments tend to happen more to teams that have lost key players for the season rather than for a few games.

Another relevant, and important, piece of data that will never appear on the sheets is the team’s record against teams already in the field (by either winning their conference or having been voted in by the committee) or under consideration (teams on the committee’s at-large consideration list). They don’t appear on the sheet because they don’t even exist until the selection meeting starts, and it can change frequently during the meeting. It’s important though because only one team in the last 21 years has received an at-large bid without a win against a team in the field, and only about one team per year gets in with just one such win.

We have a tool on the site to help you compare two teams showing much of this data. Have fun playing with that. Draw your own confusion.

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