Last season, if you’ll recall, I asked a question regarding the tournament selection process:

Let’s say you were given the following task: From a list of 320 college basketball teams, pick the 34 best. Not the most deserving, not the most difficult to play against, not the ones with the best athletes or the cutest stories. You had to pick the best teams. How would you do it? Would you use the RPI?

It was sort of rhetorical question, except that most people responded, “I would use the RPI”. So that didn’t go so well.

This year, I have a new question, or maybe it’s more of a thought exercise. Do committee members really need to watch games? More specifically, should they make an effort to attend games in person? (I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m going to answer my own question this time.)

I’ve been thinking about this for years, but an experience last week compels me to write about it now. The backstory: We hear how wonderful it is that committee members are out watching games. Teams never know when one will be watching them on game night, so they must always strive to be on their best behavior. It’s like each committee member is a regional Santa Claus, monitoring which clubs are naughty or nice.

I happened to sit next to a committee member at the BYU/San Diego State game last week. I thought it would be a great opportunity to trash the RPI, give a plug to Virginia Tech, mock Steve Lappas, etc. Unfortunately, none of that ever happened.

For one thing, the guy had a game to watch. But also my attempt to break the ice – “So, you think these teams are going to be in the tournament?” – wasn’t met with the belly laugh it clearly deserved. In addition, the guy didn’t know who I was, so my diva-like instincts made me promise myself I would never speak to him again.

Regardless, the guy did have a game to watch. It’s not like that was the proper forum to explain why average RPI win is an absurd measure of a team’s performance. One thing I did notice, though, was a somewhat detailed sheet the man was taking notes on. Presumably, it’s used by each of the committee members that attends games, though that’s not entirely clear.

It was just one sheet of paper, but it was divided into perhaps a dozen categories. Things like “post-play” and “guard-play”. Actually, those are the only ones I remember specifically. I didn’t go there to write a story about the selection process nor look over the guy’s shoulder as he was taking notes, and besides, there was a compelling game taking place in front of us.

The note sheet could very well have just been a crutch to pay closer attention to the game. If so, great. However, comments from committee chair Gene Smith before the season seem to indicate more than that.

Q: Talk generally about the work of the committee. For example, what will members being doing in November and December? Talk about the expectations of committee members and the integrity they have to bring to the table in order to serve in this role throughout the year.

A: We’ll be watching a lot of games in November and December, that’s what. But it’s a lot more involved than it sounds. Committee members have different methods in how they monitor and track the conferences they’ve been assigned. Some use charts – you don’t just watch games as an ordinary fan might. You are paying attention to the players, the types of defenses they play, what offense they run – you’re juggling a lot of different aspects in your head. There are times when I will watch four or five games in one night. Then as the year goes on, you take injuries into account – how does a team play without one of its starters, how does so-and-so play on the road, how deep is Team X? You start taking more and more into account in January and February.

(Emphasis mine.)

Maybe Smith’s response to the question was just for PR (“Hey, look, we know X’s and O’s! You can trust us!”), but I’m not comfortable with the committee monitoring the kinds of offenses teams run. It’s great in terms of having an intelligent discussion about basketball, but whether a team runs the DDM or the flex shouldn’t have any bearing on the selection process, and it adds clutter to an already difficult task.

Think about this in other sports. If I was selecting the best chess players for a tournament, should I care if a player is proficient at the King’s Indian Defense? If I was selecting the best players for a tennis tournament should I consider if a player can’t play at the net? All I should be evaluating is who the player played and how well. Style should be irrelevant. Same when filling out a college basketball tournament.

I’m not suggesting that people merely look at the final scores. For instance, let’s say one missed the St. John’s/Duke game yesterday. St. John’s won by 15, but clearly the final margin could have been arrived at in different ways. A game that was reasonably close before a late run by the Red Storm would be viewed differently than a game where St. John’s got up big early and coasted. The thing is, that data is easily available. I think a win probability plot conveys that information best, but any hoops web site worth its salt has a “Game Flow” which displays the running score.

I suppose you might want to know why Duke was run off the floor, but the more I think about it, I’m not sure what this would add. Its outside shooting was horrible and Duke is dependent on that more than most teams, but I don’t see how this contributes to your determination of where Duke should be seeded beyond having a bad loss on the team sheet. St. John’s manhandled Duke. There’s your data point for that game. 

I actually can come up with some drawbacks of making a big effort to attend games. For one thing, committee members are like you and me in that they have day jobs. In fact, they probably work more hours than you do. Thus, it is difficult for them to attend many games.

Perhaps a committee member only sees a certain team play once in person all season. Might this observation have undue influence in the selection process? If you watched a bubble team and saw them play very well (think St. John’s against Duke), might you be more inclined to support their inclusion into the field? I could see that happening. We see people overreact to the significance of one game all the time. That’s not a good thing when there is an additional mountain of data out there to utilize in the decision-making process.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter either way. From all accounts, the selection process is chaotic, and RPI data is burned into the computer screens of committee members. I’m sure there’s some time for qualitative discussion, but I hope it doesn’t revolve around a committee member saying “When I saw Team X play, they had really good post-play, and I think that’s important to win basketball games. Therefore, Team X should get extra consideration.”

The committee’s charge is to select the 37 best at-large teams. It should be based on the play on the court, not on things like how much depth a team has or whether they have an effective press. At selection time, we’ll again hear about how the committee is seeing more games. However, I won’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling because I’m not sure it makes a difference in terms of the quality of the bracket that’s produced.