Why your favorite college hoops team won't be playing in March Madness

The tournament bracket isn't created by a capricious god — though it often feels like it

SMU Mustangs
(Image credit: (Joe Murphy/Getty Images))

The bracket for the 2014 NCAA tournament is out, which would explain all the whining coming from those who feel their team got an unfair draw — or was snubbed entirely.

As always, there's at least some degree of validity to those complaints. Take Southern Methodist University, which ranked 25th in the final regular season Associated Press poll, and 32nd in Ken Pomeroy's vaunted ratings system. Yet after an upset loss in their conference tournament, the Mustangs failed to make the Big Dance.

So what gives? How did a top 25 team fail to make a tournament field that has ballooned to include 68 teams?

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The short answer: Snubs are bound to happen given that the selection process is wholly subjective, aside from the 32 teams that automatically qualify by winning their conference tournaments. Each member of the 10-person selection committee comes up with a list of 36 at-large teams they want in the tournament, plus an open-ended list of borderline teams they think should be up for debate, too. Any team chosen by at least eight members in their first list automatically gets into the tournament. With at least three votes, any other team from either list can move on to a big "under consideration" board.

That's where things get tricky. The NCAA's "principles and procedures" fact sheet on the selection process lists a host of resources available to the committee, from box scores and game summaries, to injury reports and head-to-head results. But it says nothing about what criteria should be used in evaluating teams, or how much emphasis should be placed on any given criteria. So in the rounds (and rounds and rounds) of voting that whittle down the number of potential teams, committee members are free to favor whatever statistical quirks they like most.

"Ten members treat this objectively, for sure, but subjectively, too," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, chair of this year’s committee, told reporters. "They have their own criteria to emphasize in certain cases."

This year, the committee put a great deal of faith in the strength of schedule rankings, which was apparently the deciding factor in SMU missing the cut. Their strength of schedule ranks 129th; the lowest schedule strength of a tourney team this year is 91.

Committee members also gave extra import to road wins against quality teams, which Wellman said were "really, really impressive to the committee." Hence, North Carolina State, which beat three top-50 teams on the road this year, nabbed the final at-large slot.

Other subjective criteria are more fluid and harder to quantify. For instance, the committee had to decide whether to drop Kansas to a lower seed because star center Joel Embiid will miss some games with a back injury. And it had to determine how to value a suspension to Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart.

Consistency in applying those criteria across the board isn't necessarily a given either, a point Wellman inadvertently conceded Sunday in discussing a couple of controversial selections. In explaining why Louisville — a team many pundits view as a legitimate title contender given how strong they finished the year— got stuck as a fourth seed, Wellman said the committee must consider a team's "entire body of work" over the season, not only how they have played of late. But later, Wellman noted that Kentucky was penalized because it "had two wins against tournament teams, both of which occurred in December." If the committee truly considered all games in a season of equal importance, there would be no reason to fault Kentucky for notching its best wins months ago.

That gets at the second difficult task for the committee members: seeding. Once the field is set, the committee goes through even more rounds of completely subjective ranking. The exact process is a bit convoluted, but it involves members independently picking the "best" teams from the overall pool, comparing their choices, and then repeating the process until they've run out of teams and arrived at a consensus on where each school should fall in a perfect bracket.

It doesn't end there. Even after the seeds are ranked from one to 68, there's a long list of dos and don'ts pertaining to seed placement. The first four teams selected from a conference must go into different regions if they're seeded on the first four lines; teams from the same conference can't meet until the regional finals if they already played three times in the year; top-four seeds can't be placed at a home crowd disadvantage; and so on. With those limitations in mind, the committee then uses an S-curve model to ensure, to the best of its ability, that the strongest number one seed faces the weakest number two seed, and so on down the bracket.

Surely, it's a complex system. And to the NCAA's credit, it has in the past half-decade opened up a great deal about what was once a mysterious process, posting the selection guidelines online and making committee chairs available to explain controversial decisions.

But the process is still far from being scientific, which means the howls about team selection have become as much a tradition as the tournament itself.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.