I’m heated. Not because Cal didn’t make the NCAA tournament ─ its late-season collapse spelled more than enough doom for the Bears ─ but because numbers have failed me.
Numbers never lie, but clearly the metrics for giving a bid to the Big Dance stand far beyond what’s apparent to most basketball fans (or everyone not on the committee). We are spoiled by professional sports. Very clearly defined tiebreakers, a head-to-head record and an overall ranking taking precedent over things far more difficult to understand, like Rating Percentage Index (RPI) or Strength of Schedule or marquee wins. But not with the NCAA.
Cuonzo Martin was very humble in his approval of USC’s tournament selection ─ as is expected of him in his position as a coach ─ but were the Trojans so deserving?
“I think USC did their job. … I thought USC was a no-brainer because they did a great job in the preseason,” Martin said in response to the bracket release. “We lost three home games we should have won: Virginia, Arizona and Oregon, and you don’t lose home games.”
Preseason? The time when teams are figuring out how to play with each other and coaches are learning how to maximize their players’ abilities takes so much weight in determining a postseason ranking?
If Cal fans have a gripe, it should be with the consistency of the selection process and not with Cal’s lack of a bid to the Big Dance.
Let me be clear ─ I don’t think Cal deserved a bid. Losing five of six to close out the season and choking three very close home games speaks for itself. But I do think that the Bears had more going for them than a Trojan team that started the season red hot and then came back down to earth during conference play. And I think neither team really deserved a bid.
And yes, my questioning of college selection processes is a yearly occurrence, but somehow, every year, there is a notable lack of consistency. Why does the Pac-12 need four teams in the tournament? Is it so terrible to realize that the three great teams are the only ones who deserve a bid?
Why do marquee wins make such a big impact ─ it’s likely that USC’s win over No. 3 seed UCLA pushed it in ─ when notable losses aren’t talked about as much? The victory over the Bruins should at least be considered in comparison to the Trojans’ loss to Arizona State.
And how does the committee weigh home versus road records? To me, Syracuse deserved a bid over both Cal and USC because it defeated three top-10 teams. But while Cal was penalized for losing home games, Syracuse took the bullet for its lower RPI and inability to win on the road.
If these comparisons don’t show how much of a toss-up picking teams for a bid is, I don’t know what does. And this yearly confusion over selection begs the question of why the NCAA doesn’t have more set-in-stone requirements for the amount of bids given to each conference.
The NCAA would argue that its system is in place to give the most deserving teams a chance. But I would then ask if it doesn’t stand to benefit from the emotions of fans everywhere, who realize every year that luck and unpredictability is such a big factor in the business of the NCAA.
As a kid, I really disliked following college sports. NCAA selections were too complex for me to understand, so I stuck with what made sense in my young brain ─ the concrete, easy-to-calculate records of the NBA and NFL.
Then I got roped into the Madness one year. It was too much fun to not partake in, but low and behold, I’m still as confused about selection now as I was then, despite my far greater knowledge of statistics. And as much as I want the numerical clarity that professional sports offers, I know it won’t happen because of how the college sports industry is set up.
Yes it’s madness, and we’ll let our love-hate relationship with it continue to grow until the end of time. Bring it on, March.
Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].