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April 12, 2021
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Debunking NCAA tournament myths, and why the committee doesn’t really care about you playing your rival

This excerpt of “Bracketology: March Madness, College Basketball, and the Creation of a National Obsession,” by Joe Lunardi, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy, visit Triumph Books, Bookshop, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Perhaps the most common Bracketology myth is that the Selection Committee wants to see rivals, who won’t schedule each other during the regular season, play in their tournament. Think Kansas vs. Missouri, Texas vs. Texas A&M, or a current rivalry that wasn’t played for years like Kentucky vs. Louisville. I don’t know what it was like in the really old days before the 64-team field came into existence. There’s not much of a historical record of the committee process from those years, and there was certainly no Selection Show. The athletic director got a call from somebody saying his school was in the NCAA Tournament, playing so-and-so at fill-in-the-blank arena. If the team won, it advanced, and someone informed the school who it was playing next.

That’s pretty much how the NIT was administered until the NCAA took it over in 2005 and gave it a bracket of its own. Before that the NIT process was literally: let’s see who wins and figure out the best matchups for the next round. It wasn’t even seeded. It was kind of based on geography. And gate appeal was paramount as an attempt to get the most attractive teams to Madison Square Garden.

Before the regions were balanced in the NCAA Tournament, geography ruled the pairings. Teams that played during the season would be matched up if it made sense. In some cases close rivals were matched to sell more tickets. Competing with the NIT was also an issue along with media coverage. Most of the coverage of the early tournaments was nuts-and-bolts stuff, featuring game stories and not much analysis. Nobody would have thought to ask in, say, 1958 why Oklahoma State was paired with who-knows-who. It just wasn’t thought about, at least not in a broad way. You played who it made sense to play, where it was most convenient, and that was that.

I remember in 1983 when Louisville and Kentucky were first matched up in the tournament. The schools hadn’t met since 1959, but they didn’t have a choice. The NCAA forced their hand, and everyone lived to see another day. And the two programs began to realize it was good for business to renew a series — even if they claimed to loathe each other. Regardless, once the field expanded and the teams were seeded in each region — not to mention the committee’s power to send any school to any region in the country to balance the bracket — the NCAA pairings ceased to be about storylines. Of course, when we look at a bracket — even my mocks — there are always “I see what you did there” comments.

But I haven’t done anything intentionally, nor does the committee, when implementing its numerous principles and procedures. Someone will write to me and say something like, “You have Seton Hall playing Louisville. That’s Kevin Willard against where his dad was Rick Pitino’s assistant.” Well, I actually didn’t think of that. I was probably just trying to make the seeds line up correctly or avoid having a Big East team slotted in a sub-regional where it can’t go. Or keep Louisville from the KFC Yum! Center, its home arena, in a year where it’s a host institution.

Over the years the committee has added more bracketing rules, not less. So the notion of trying to make Kansas play Missouri in a possible No. 1 vs. No. 8 game in the second round is pretty ridiculous. For every reason you might want it to happen, there could be more procedural reasons why it can’t. Look at it another way. Think of all the possible rivalries that haven’t been arranged by the NCAA. When Xavier went to the Big East, the Musketeers decided not to play Dayton anymore. That was an annual rivalry game, and there are so many others. UConn and UMass had something going for a few years, but they stopped playing. Boston College won’t play UMass either. The same goes with Georgetown and Maryland in D.C. For years John Thompson wanted no part of local rivalries.

It’s hard enough to follow all the bracketing rules without manipulating matchups. If you try to manipulate, you’re almost invariably going to break some of the committee’s rules. I would say to the average fan: whatever you think you know — and I’m talking about bracketing and pairings not selection and seeding here — you’re probably wrong. This proves itself every time I’ve taught Fundamentals of Bracketology as a class either online or at St. Joseph’s University. My students, who are bright, hard-core fans, realize there are only so many ways to place their seed list onto an empty bracket sheet.

Bracketology, at least the science of it, helps to bridge this gap. In laying out all the data, some matchups simply fall into place. Having said that, I think a little more common sense could be applied to bracketing at times, cutting down on travel and adding interest without compromising balance. But at the end of the day, all the tickets are pretty much sold, so it’s not about gate. It’s also not about ratings because the television contract is signed years out, and that money is guaranteed. An argument could be made that if the TV ratings dramatically tank, the next rights renewal would be significantly reduced. My answer to that is, “I’ll believe it when it happens.”

Another thing to consider: is Kansas vs. Missouri going to drive up ratings anywhere but those states, where fans are going to tune in regardless of who their teams play? No. We’re not talking North Carolina and Duke, who have never met in the tournament. That will happen someday, by the way, most likely very deep in the tourney. There have already been Final Fours featuring both schools, but their regions didn’t connect. Whenever it happens, it will be a ratings bonanza.

One of the most exciting championship games ever was in 2010 when Duke beat Butler. Butler’s Gordon Hayward hit the rim from half court at the final buzzer. Had it gone in, the Bulldogs would have won the whole thing. But no one said ahead of time, “That would be a great final. It’s a great matchup.” Yet it was inches from being the greatest ending in the history of sports.

All the tickets are pretty much sold before the pairings are announced. The rights fees are negotiated years in advance. There are 67 total games in the tournament. You can’t help but get every type and size of market, historical storylines, and just plain drama. No one ever calls it March Meh. Team selection and bracketing should be as neutral and sterile an enterprise as possible, leading to the fewest competitive advantages for anyone. When No. 9 seed Northern Iowa took the court against No. 1 overall seed Kansas in Oklahoma City in 2010, the Panthers should have had as fair a chance as the Jayhawks. Obviously, Kansas has more highly regarded players. Bracketing isn’t ever going to change that, nor should it. But the bracketing rules for the most part are designed so that when the pregame clock hits zero and the ball goes up, nobody has a head start.

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Joe Lunardi breaks down what Duke needs to do in order to get a bid to the NCAA tournament.

This concept now includes a prohibition of playing on your home court. I don’t know the last time somebody hosted a tournament game in the main bracket. I do remember being in the Carrier Dome when Syracuse lost to David Robinson and Navy in 1986. That was a huge deal. When Villanova won its first title in 1985, the first year of the 64-team field, the Wildcats played a No. 8 vs. No. 9 game against Dayton at the UD Arena. They won 51-49 to start their run. Dayton also played a home game in 2015 in the First Four, the last time it happened for anyone because the Flyers were one of the last four at-large teams. That was unavoidable.

Most of these rules have been made to provide the fairest competition possible and — to a lesser extent — avoid rematches, especially among teams from the same conference. One of the things that made Major League Baseball cool before 1994 was that the teams from the National League and the American League never played each other except in the World Series (or maybe spring training). That has been eroded over time. Interleague play was a big deal when it first started, but now there’s an interleague game every night because both leagues have an odd number of teams.

Another myth is the supposed desire of the committee to match up coaches with their former schools. It does happen but not by design. Coaches move around a lot, but today’s players move around even more. In a year or two, nobody will pay as much attention to coaches meeting their former teams as they will players competing against former teammates. What was once the coaching carousel could soon be more like the point-guard carousel. The growing number of transfers may be good for the players, but it could hurt the sport. Taking it to the extreme, if unlimited transfers happen with no exceptions, a guy could play for four teams in four years. However unlikely that is, it would be very hard for fans to identify with teams in such a scenario. I can almost hear John Wooden say to Bill Walton, “Son, you are more than welcome to transfer to Grateful Dead State. Make sure to drop off your playbook with my assistant.”

But fans will always — always — identify with the NCAA Tournament, and for pretty much the opposite reason they watch the other major sports. We cherish the unpredictability. In baseball when the New York Yankees win, the ratings go up. In basketball when “the Butler does it,” the ratings go up. Butler is closer to being the Kansas City Royals than the Yankees. I’m not saying the networks don’t like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas. They do. But look at how much excitement was generated and ultimately lost in the 2020 tournament with Dayton and San Diego State as potential No. 1 seeds. When George Mason, VCU, and Loyola of Chicago made the Final Four in recent years, the excitement was off the charts. And I suspect the amount of unpredictability is enhanced by the lack of bracket manipulation.

I know I’m in the minority on this. Most people, even the most grizzled observers of the tournament (media and otherwise), believe there is a certain amount of matchmaking taking place. But it’s the organic unpredictability which creates the most excitement. It can’t be scripted. Just like trying to force-feed rivalries, forcing coaches to play their former teams is not worth the trouble. There are too many other factors that go into bracketing and seeding without trying to script something unnatural. And remember: the only certain pairings are the first-round games. We may look ahead to great storylines in the later rounds, but the round orange ball rarely bounces as planned. UMBC anyone?

Another myth is putting undeserving teams in the tournament strictly because of star power. Does the committee look past a substandard résumé to make sure a marquee player is in the field? I don’t believe they do and I can provide very recent examples. I’m a Philadelphia 76ers fan. The Sixers have had two No. 1 overall picks in the past few years, presumably the best players in college from each of those drafts — Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Neither made the tournament during their one year in college. So it happened twice in three years that the best player in the nation didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. One could argue that LSU (Simmons) and Washington (Fultz) weren’t anywhere close to the bubble during the seasons in question. They weren’t crawling across the bottom of the screen as part of the First Four Out.

But the committee’s only job is to select the best teams. There’s no way they add player personnel and scouting to a job description that already has more regulations than the IRS code.

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