Hey, a bunch of us got together at the NCAA office last Friday to discuss how to incorporate modern rating systems into the basketball committee’s selection process.

That the meeting happened at all is a big step. The NCAA is a large organization with diverse membership and the fact that it is even this far down the path to changing the data used in the selection process should be applauded. Especially considering that basis for the existing process has been locked in for over three decades.

Change isn’t worth it when the cost of change outweighs the benefits of it. But in this case, basketball people at the administrative level and on the sport’s front lines increasingly believe that the benefits of modernizing the tools of the selection process will offset the cost of redesigning the technical workings that support it. And we shouldn’t take that for granted. 

Much of the discussion in the room revolved around the criteria for selecting the field and your somewhat humble correspondent believes it’s best for the sport if a results-based approach is used to selecting the field. This is not because teams that win are best equipped to win in the tournament. That scoring margin predicts conference tournament winners better than conference winning percentage tells you all you need to know about the predictive power of winning. (It is small relative to scoring margin.)

But conference tournaments aren’t seeded based on scoring margin and nobody has ever proposed that. To my knowledge, there is no tournament in any sport1 that seeds on something other than record. Maryland can win all of the one-point games it wants and the Big Ten is not going to take away its regular-season title if it has the best record.2 Likewise, Texas A&M’s controversial victory over Georgia on Saturday counts just as much as Kentucky’s 42-point win over A&M earlier in the season.3

The reason this is so is that the outcome of the game has to matter. This is why we watch the game. Make the selection process, and thus the games, purely about points scored and allowed and the games become less entertaining.4 There is no special purpose to having one more point than your opponent. No point in managing foul trouble. No point in hoisting threes in the final minute to catch up. The contest becomes one of points accumulation. There’s a reason televised Scrabble has never hit it big.

However, the reason margin-of-victory works in identifying the best teams is because the goal is to win the game. Teams are happy with a one-point win after the fact, but they’d rather not have the game come down to the final possession while its occurring. There’s already incentive to run up the score (to an extent) in order to avoid the game coming down to a team’s players not being able to count off 5.6 seconds in their heads so they know when to shoot.

While it’s easy to mock the committee for not grasping the nuance of resume vs. skill, many people that think they want a results-based approach struggle with the issue as well. In the coming weeks, when a commentator says a certain team “looks” like they belong in the tournament, they are implying that the record isn’t the only thing that matters. Any use of the eye test goes beyond the results of the team and veers into the idea of selecting the “best” teams.

The same goes for trying to account for personnel changes. The SEC is not going to discount South Carolina’s loss to Kentucky because PJ Dozier wasn’t in the lineup. Just as Adam Silver is not going to cut the Clippers a break for being without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul for a few weeks. And if you believe that more recent games should count more than earlier games, or that only “basketball people” should be involved in the process, then you are also on the side of picking the best teams.

I’d allow there could be a small role for predictive measures, though. A dominant team from a lesser conference is challenging to evaluate because it has fewer chances late in the season to pick up quality victories that their power-conference brethren. Whether it was Wichita State or Stephen F. Austin last season, both were playing their best basketball when their schedule was a desert for nutrient-rich quality opponents. While Wisconsin turned it around when quality opponents were lined up one of after the other. We can throw our hands up and accept the inequity in that5 or we can use predictive measures to bridge the information gap and acknowledge that both the Shockers and Lumberjacks were more likely than not to succeed against tougher competition.

It’s worth clarifying what “predictive” means in this sense. It’s not looking into the future for information. It’s determining how a team is playing right now by looking at how it has played in the past. Predictive is shorthand for which teams are best, at this moment. You could call it a power rating except the term power rating has been co-opted by writers who are simply creating a results-based ranking. I suspect writers do that because most people want the results to matter, even though to understand a team’s ability6 one must know how a team achieved those results.

However, results do determine when a team’s season ends and that’s why tournament basketball is a fantastic viewing experience. But only in the postseason do we know what is at stake with the outcome of each game. Doing something to give regular season games this quality, as they do in other sports at the professional and high school level, would be a great step forward for the game.

^1 I welcome any counter-examples
^2 But no reasonable model would make Maryland the favorite to win the Big Ten tournament in that scenario, either.
^3 Though it’s worth mentioning that making the clock an unofficial keeper of time remaining is a horrible modern development and it’s a precedent that should be reversed.
^4 One benefit to this new paradigm: it would help speed up the end of the game since late-game fouling would be counterproductive.
^5 ”Come on Stephen F. Austin, just join the Big 12 already!”
^6 or “power”, one might say.