All things considered, the Committee does a terrific job of putting the field of 64 together. They are open about the criteria used, and more importantly, they usually stick to the criteria. Sure, I'll have my quibbles with the Committee, but very rarely will I be completely outraged by a selection or a seed (I thought they were way off on seeding Vermont two years ago, but Vermont's upset win validated my opinion). This isn't a bunch of guys slapping together the bracket in 30 minutes, handing out favors to their friends. This isn't football.
LSU is about as far from the bubble as a team can be, but since Pittman lives in Alabama and we've got Tuscaloosa on the name of this page, we'll look at the bracket selections by using the Crimson Tide as our test team. This isn't so much as to predict Bama's chances, but to give everyone an idea how the Committee evaluates who's in and who's out. Since I'm a good Maryland boy, I'll also use the Terps to demonstrate how seeding works near the top of the bracket.
I will probably take a stab at projecting seeds on Saturday, but I'm not Joe Lunardi or Jerry Palm. I can get you an idea of the field, but in the end, there's only so much time I'm willing to put into the analysis. Besides, it might be fun to see how a non-expert fares against the professionals.
THE BUBBLE: ALABAMA
Probably the most important factor is conference standings. Everything starts from there. It's a good objective measure of how a team measures against teams of relative quality, though teams often break out of the order of their conference standings. It gives us the place to start. Bama is 7-9 in the SEC, a huge strike to kick things off. Georgia, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State all finished 8-8, and Bama is tied with Arkansas and Auburn. It is also important to note the mantra: conferences don't get bids, teams do.
The RPI is then used as guide to relative quality. It's not a critical factor, but we six teams to sort through and we haven't even gotten out of the SEC. Alabama has an RPI of 43, slightly better than Arkansas' #48, but definitely in the same ballpark. Georgia and the Mississippi schools are all hovering in the lower 60s, while Auburn's #104 will doom their chances.
The Committee loves "hot" teams down the stretch. Frankly, I think this is a stupid factor, but I don't make the rules. Also, since every tourney game is a road game, there is weight given to the road record. Bama went 2-8 on the road (4-0 on neutral courts) and staggered to a 5-5 finish in their last ten. Luckily for Bama, Arkansas has been just as bad down the stretch and on the road. In fact, none of the 8-8 teams distinguish themselves here either. The best road record is Georgia's 3-9 and no team is better than 6-4 down the stretch.
So how did they do out of conference? The Committee often punishes teams for weak out-of-conference scheduling and rewards teams for playing tough games OOC. Here is where Bama shines. Bama's non-conference RPI is 15. They scheduled Xavier, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame OOC; and while most of those teams fell flat on their face this year, it was a good effort by Bama to schedule good teams. Arkansas' non-conference RPI is 22 with wins over Southern Illinois and West Virginia, and losses to Texas, Texas Tech, and Missouri. The 8-8 teams all have weak OOC schedules, creating some separation in Bama and Arkansas' favor.
Which gets us to the last hurdle: good wins and bad losses. Bama is 2-6 vs. the RPI top 50. They have two losses to teams ranked in the 100s. Arkansas also has two bad losses, but they are 4-5 versus the RPI top 50. That SIU win is huge right now.
Looking through the factors, I'd have to put Arkansas slightly ahead of Alabama. Which means that Bama doesn't get considered against the at-large pool from other conferences until Arkansas gets in. And Arkansas' profile doesn't exactly blow you away. Alabama’s not dead, but close to it.
THE SEEDING: MARYLAND
The criteria is the same, but the big difference here is that we’ve already separated the team out of their conference hierarchy. You’re going to have to trust me, but Maryland is the #2 ACC team behind UNC. They finished in a four-way tie for second, but unlike Bama, the Terps have terrific peripherals: 6-4 on the road, 8-2 in their last 10, 4-0 vs. the RPI top 25, and a non-conference RPI of 8 to go with their #10 RPI overall.
At this point, it becomes a balancing act. For example, Pitt has a better conference record (and the Big East is of similar quality to the ACC) to go with a better overall record. Pitt has an even better road record than the Terps and a better overall RPI. About the only thing Maryland can point to is Pitt is that Pitt is 4-5 against the RPI top 50, while Maryland has just as many wins if just counting the top 25. Versus the top 50, Maryland is 9-6. They have more wins against the top 50 than Pitt has games against the top 50.
That’s simply not good enough. The interesting thing comes when it’s time to compare radically different profiles. Like Memphis. Memphis is 27-3 (16-0) and ranked 8th in the RPI. They have won all of their last 10 games and they have a killer road record. They also haven’t beaten a team with a pulse. Memphis is 1-3 vs. the RPI top 50. OK, they beat Kentucky. Their second best win? Ole Miss.
So the Committee has to sort through a Memphis team which hasn’t lost this calendar year against a Maryland team which went 10-6 in a brutal conference. Good luck. And that’s when we move beyond the “science” of Bracketology and into mere guesswork.