NCAA basketball tournament selection process
The selection process for College basketball's NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball Championships determines which teams (68 men's, 64 women's) will enter the tournaments (the centerpieces of the basketball championship frenzy known as "March Madness") and their seedings and matchups in the knockout bracket. Thirty-one teams gain automatic entry through winning their conference's championship (commonly through winning a conference tournament or, in the sole case of the Ivy League, the regular season title). The remaining teams (37 men's, 33 women's) rely on the selection committee to award them an at-large bid in the tournament. The selection process primarily takes place on Selection Sunday and the days leading up to it; Selection Sunday is also when the brackets and seeds are released to the public. (The women's championship brackets and seeds are announced one day later, on Selection Monday.)
The selection committee
The ten-member basketball selection committee is made up of athletic directors and conference commissioners throughout Division I men's and women's basketball. (There are separate committees for the Division I men's and women's tournaments.) The committee, whose members serve 5-year terms, is chosen to ensure that conferences from around the country. Generally the men's selection committee consists of all men, and the women's selection committee consists of all women, although there have been exceptions, including Lynn Hickey (see below), who is the 2nd woman to sit on the men's committee (after Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose, who served from 1999-2003), and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference commissioner Richard Ensor, who serves on the women's committee. The tournament selection is only part of the committee members' duties; the panel meets year-round (in-person or through conference calls) to discuss the tournament and its administration, evaluate teams, assign tournament game officials, and determine future tournament sites.
To avoid a potential conflict of interest, committee members must leave the room when their own school is being discussed--or schools in the case of the conference commissioners. The member may be invited to answer factual questions regarding their team (e.g. status of player injuries). An athletic director may be present when other schools from his or her conference are discussed, but he or she may only speak if asked.
Current men's committee members
|Mike Bobinski†||Georgia Tech Athletic Director|
|Ron Wellman||Wake Forest University Athletic Director|
|Doug Fullerton||Big Sky Conference Commissioner|
|Scott Barnes||Utah State University Athletic Director|
|Steve Orsini||Former Southern Methodist University Athletic Director|
|Joe Alleva||LSU Director of Athletics|
|Jamie Zaninovich||West Coast Conference Commissioner|
|Joe Castiglione||University of Oklahoma Athletic Director|
|Bernard Muir||Stanford University Athletic Director|
|Mark Hollis||Michigan State University Athletic Director|
† Committee Chairman for the 2012-2013 season
Selecting the field
The selection committee must first decide which teams will compete in the tournament. Thirty teams receive automatic bids to the tournament by winning their conference tournament; a thirty-first team gains automatic entry by winning the Ivy League's regular-season championship (as that conference does not conduct a championship tournament).
The only teams the selection committee selects are the 37 teams (33 for women) who receive at-large bids. Though each conference receives only one automatic bid, the selection committee can select any number of at-large teams from each conference. The at-large teams generally come from college basketball's top conferences, including the ACC, Atlantic-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac-12, and SEC. Many of these at-large teams, however, are "on the bubble," meaning their chances of gaining a tournament berth are borderline, and they will not know if they have gained entry until they see their name during the Selection Sunday bracket announcements.
A number of teams essentially know that they are assured of an at-large berth no matter their performance in their conference tournament. Most teams in the Top 25 in the national polls or RPI are essentially guaranteed at-large berths even if they do not win their respective conference tournament. However, teams that have been ranked heading into Selection Sunday, but didn't win their conference tournament, have been left out (or "snubbed") by the selection committee despite what the polls and pundits may say. The Missouri Valley Conference has received the most snubs (5 RPI top 40 teams excluded), with Missouri State left out each of the last 9 years, despite RPI's of 21, 34, and 36). Another famous snub was in 2004, when Utah State completed the regular season with a record of 25-2 but was snubbed after losing in its conference tournament, even though it was ranked in the polls.
Predictions and speculation
While the selection committee assembles to do the official work, many predictions are made by various people and organizations. Speculations and buzz can come from anywhere from random college basketball fans to senior bracketologists and experts on the selection process and the seedings, such as ESPN's Joe Lunardi. Other well-known experts in this field include Ken Pomeroy of kenpom.com, Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com, David Mihm of bracketography.com and Gary Parrish of CBS Sportsline. The website StatJunkie.org assigns percentages to each team's chances of receiving an at-large bid, based on a statistical formula.
Bracketology is conducted extensively for the men's tournament, although a few bracketologists also make projected brackets for the women's tournament, the most prominent being Charlie Creme's weekly projections on ESPN.com.
The selection committee's work to seed the teams is just as vital as their work to select the at-large teams. While the selection process starts before the seeding process, the two often overlap; with conference tournaments not finishing until Selection Sunday itself, and only one hour between the end of the last game (usually the Big Ten Tournament championship game) before the brackets are officially unveiled, the committee cannot wait until after all the games are played to start determining the seeds. While nothing is set in stone until after all the games are played and the brackets are established, the committee may have a good idea of where a team is and where they could rise or fall depending on their showing in the later stages of their conference tournament. The women's tournament has the luxury of an extra day from the end of games on Sunday to prepare its bracket announcements on Monday.
Though the brackets only feature the seed numbers 1-16 in each region, the committee assembles an S-curve of teams seeded from 1-64. In theory, the teams 1-4 on the seed list will all be #1 seeds (the #1 "seed line"), 5-8 will be #2 seeds (the #2 seed line), and so on; however, bracketing rules often lead to some deviation from this. The S-curve is most important for keeping each region balanced, the ideal being that each region will be equally strong. For example, the committee will try to ensure that the number 1 team on the seed list, the national #1 seed, will be in the same region as the weakest #2 seed. The committee tries to ensure that the top four seeds in each region are comparable to the top four teams in every other region. For example, if one region has the best #1 seed (#1 overall), the weakest #2 seed (#8 overall), the best #3 seed (#9 overall), and the weakest #4 seed (#16 overall), its seeds add up to 34, the ideal number. But if a region has the best team for every given seed, its seeds would add up to 28, and a region with the weakest team in every seed would add up to 40, making the two regions very unbalanced. It is extremely unusual that an at-large bid can be lower than a #12 seed, but it has occurred, most recently with BYU and Iona being #14 seeds in the 2012 Tournament. While the seeds are almost never perfectly balanced throughout the four regions, the committee strives to ensure that they differ from each other by only a few points. The process is identical for the women's tournament, with the exception that seeding occurs to 64.
The selection committee uses a number of factors to place teams on the S-curve, including record, strength of schedule, and the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). The RPI rating is often considered a significant factor in selecting and seeding the final few teams in the tournament field, though the selection committee stresses that the RPI is used merely as a guideline and not as an infallible indicator of a team's worth.
Making the brackets
Once the S-curve is established the committee must place the teams throughout the four regions. They were originally referred to as East, Mideast, Midwest, and West. In 1985, the Mideast designation became the Southeast, and later the South Regional in 1998. The women's tournament continued to use the Mideast terminology through 2004. In 2004, the NCAA started to identify the men's regions only by the city in which the regional semifinals and finals were played, with the same change being made for the women's tournament in 2005. The NCAA reverted to the East/South/Midwest/West designations for the men's tournament starting in 2007, but continues to designate women's regionals by their cities. Typically the cities selected will be spread throughout the country and conform roughly to the old geographic distinctions. While the regions are named for certain cities, the first and second round games are played in different cities which need not be anywhere near the regional finals. In 2005 the Austin, Texas men's regional was fed by games in Indianapolis, Indiana; Tucson, Arizona; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Worcester, Massachusetts. This is due to the "pod" system enacted before the 2002 tournament to minimize travel for as many teams as possible, especially in the early rounds. Any team may be sent to any region and any pod, although the tournament does try to keep teams, especially the top-seeded teams, closer to home. However, in 2004, Pittsburgh played its first two tournament games in Milwaukee and not in Buffalo or Columbus, cities to which it was closer. This was done to keep a lower-seeded team, the Wisconsin Badgers, close to its campus. Similarly, two east-coast teams, Maryland and Syracuse traveled to Denver, where their opening round opponents were BYU and UTEP, both of which were geographically closer to Denver. In addition, in the 2009, Kansas and West Virginia, the two higher seeds, were seeded in Minneapolis to play their opponents North Dakota State and Dayton, although Dayton and North Dakota State are geographically closer to Minneapolis than Kansas and West Virginia.
A number of complex rules govern the seeding process, so it is not as simple as merely following the S-curve, although that is the top priority according to the NCAA's rules. The better a team is, the more priority they have in remaining close to home, but no team can actually play on its home court if it is hosting tournament games (generally, games are hosted on neutral courts, so this is not usually a problem). Sometimes a top team may be a short drive away from its games; in 2006 Villanova played its first and second round games in Philadelphia at an arena where they had played three games that year, one fewer than the four required for a site to be considered a "home court" for a team, and in 2002 the Pitt Panthers played their first and second round games in the city of Pittsburgh at Mellon Arena, which they used occasionally for home games. In the women's tournament, this criterion does not apply and a team that is hosting is automatically assigned its home arena, regardless of seed. Thus, occasionally, lower seeded teams will host a game. For example, in 2006 Old Dominion, although a 10th seed, played at its home court in the first round and also would have played there in the second round had the Lady Monarchs won that game.
Teams are spread out according to conference. The first three teams selected from each conference must be placed in different regions. When a conference has more than three teams in the tournament, the committee tries to seed the teams so that they cannot meet until the regional final. Before 2006, this was an absolute rule. However, in the summer of 2005, the NCAA changed its rules to allow intraconference matchups as early as the second round of the tournament, assuming all measures to keep the teams apart until the regional finals have been exhausted. The NCAA was clearly preparing for the chance that a conference would place more than eight teams in the tournament, which became a realistic possibility when the Big East, already a power conference, expanded to 16 members, with several of the new members having traditionally strong programs. The Big East placed a record eleven teams in the 2011 Tournament, and nine teams in the 2012 Tournament.
The committee may move a team up or down one seed from its seed line in the S-curve in order to preserve other principles. While this may be seen as unfair in some instances, the seeding process is an inexact science anyway and a slight move in seeding is unlikely to affect the chances of any team.
The committee also takes into consideration other non-basketball factors. In 2003 the tournament mistakenly placed BYU, a Latter-Day Saint school which has a policy of not playing games on Sunday, into a region where the team could be forced to play on a Sunday if they advanced to regional play. The NCAA then announced that they would switch BYU's region if they won their first two games and reached the regional semifinals; since BYU did not go that far, however, no action needed to be taken.
For 2011, the region names were slightly adjusted based on the locations of the regionals. The Midwest and South regions were replaced with the Southeast and Southwest regions, which will be held in New Orleans and San Antonio (these sites were determined when the NCAA was using city names as regional names). The regions will revert to the previous ones in 2012.
Selection Sunday is the day when the NCAA College basketball tournament participants are placed, seeded accordingly, and announced. Both CBS and ESPN cover the selections for the men's tournament live; ESPN also covers selections for the women's tournament live on Selection Monday. The NCAA committee gathers to select and place 68 men's teams and 64 women's teams that secured or are deemed worthy of an invitation to the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship and the NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Championship basketball tournaments that take place in March and April.
CBS has the official rights to cover the selection of the men's tournament field as they are the TV network which covers the vast majority of the tournament. (CBS held exclusive TV rights to the men's tournament from 1991 to 2010, and have shared rights with Turner Sports since 2011.) For this reason, CBS announces each bracket first, with ESPN passing on the brackets to its viewers seconds later. Both networks' coverage is augmented by discussion of the selections and predictions about how teams will fare once the tournament begins. ESPN has exclusive rights to cover the women's tournament selection announcements, as that network has sole rights to the women's tournament. Before 2006, the women's matchups were made in a selection show airing one hour before the men's matchups. However, beginning in 2006, the women's matchups have been announced by ESPN on Selection Monday. The Selection Monday move allows ESPN to provide more prominent coverage on women's basketball instead of providing token coverage for the women before devoting the rest of the evening on the men's tournament matchups; it also allows minor coverage of the secondary National Invitation Tournament, to which ESPN also holds full rights.
Both CBS and ESPN send camera crews to schools around the nation to capture the teams' (and occasionally fans') reactions the moment they find out what seed they received or if they even made the tournament at all. Once the teams are announced, the teams and their fans begin to make game plan and travel preparations. Additionally, millions of college basketball fans begin to fill in their brackets, usually as part of March Madness pools conducted through websites, gambling-related contests, or simply through a group of friends or co-workers.
- "Two new members join DI Committee," from NCAA.com, 2/23/2012
- May The Madness Begin by Mark Starr Newsweek.com; March 14, 2002; accessed January 25, 2008
- NCAA.com - The Official Web Site of the NCAA
- Men's tournament selection process
- Women's tournament selection process
- Selection Monday for women's basketball
- From Sports Illustrated, a 2005 article on the selection process