Bracketology 101: Nate Explains it All

Nate is responsible for the bracket projecting around here. I’m mainly around for the Flyers stuff and some occasional witty commentary. As I’ve been seeing bracket experts pop up all over Twitter during the past couple of weeks, I thought it would help to learn from an expert what actually goes in to evaluating teams. What follows is a conversation between Nate and me about a variety of bracket-related topics. The primary focus is on understanding how Nate does the projections. I find that watching the ESPN (and other) programs that talk brackets don’t do much explaining. It’s mostly just voicing an opinion and then yelling at the other person. We thought it would be useful to try a different approach.
Outside of adding a few pictures to break up the script, very little of what we discussed has been edited.
Mike: I’ve been seeing some discussions about the bubble this year and the selection process in general that have been confusing. I try not to get into these things on Twitter since I’m not the resident bracketologist here. A good start is why people seem to think that the bubble is so weak this year. Is it?
Nate: It’s weak, but it’s been weak every year since they expanded the tournament from 64 to 68 teams. Now, the “historically weak” talk…I don’t know about that. In 2011, five teams received at-large bids with 14 losses. We could approach 2 or 3 with 14, and maybe even 1 with 15 this year. Now, the lack of mid-major bubble teams has added to the overall weakness.
Mike: I’m hoping that at least the idiots who think the tournament should be expanded further take notice of this. On the mid-major front, is it just that there are fewer good teams this year or is there something in their scheduling that resulted in too few of them being tournament worthy? (I’m assuming the lack of quality wins is the problem with most of them).
Nate: The lack of quality wins…and moreso the opportunities for quality wins. Major conference just won’t schedule the quality mid-majors anymore. Wichita State has to get into tournaments to get their chance at the big boys. Let’s just look at the Top 6 mid-majors (not counting Wichita since they are in). MTSU, Nevada, Illinois State, UNC Wilmington, Monmouth, UT-Arlington. They have a combined 13 games played against RPI Top 50 teams.
Couple that with the fact that these mid-majors have absolutely regressed, and you have a bubble that is lacking the little guy.
Mike: Yeah, that’s not a lot of chances to notch quality wins. This does bring me to a philosophical question about the selection process: the tournament markets itself as being a meritocracy where David can beat Goliath. Some of the best moments in tournament history are those games. And yet the committee has seemed hell-bent on reducing the number of mid-majors in the field in the past few years. That pattern looks to continue this year. What’s the advantage of mediocre major conference teams over successful mid-major teams?
Nate: You’re absolutely right about this. From the opening package at 11 a.m. on Thursday, we see Bryce Drew hitting the shot for Valpo, the Hampton coach kicking his legs in joy, and so on.
I don’t necessarily think the committee is shutting out the mid-major purposely. I think it is a by-product of the two factors discussed above: 1) big schools don’t schedule tough mid-majors; 2) the MWC, MVC, A10 aren’t what they have been. The committee stresses quality wins and avoiding bad losses. Well, the mid-majors hardly have a chance to pick up quality wins…and almost every conference game is a chance for a bad loss. It sucks, but until the mid-majors go back to finding away to boost their profiles…the crappy big school is going to get in over the 27-6 small school more often than not.

You might see this a time or two in the coming weeks.

Mike: We’re not here to fix the scheduling gap…yet. So when you’re evaluating teams for inclusion into your bracket are you trying to predict the Committee’s decision or picking the bracket as you would if you were Czar of College Basketball (and, god willing, you will be).
Nate: Ha! If I ever were to be in charge, Illinois State and Monmouth probably wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I try to project what the committee will do, based on trends from previous years.
Mike: Since they won their regular season conference titles, they shouldn’t have anything to worry about anyway.
Nate: Let’s get into that briefly. Monmouth wins 17 straight games to easily win that conference…and then they have to play in the conference tournament on the #4 seed’s home floor. It’s just ridiculous. The proper way for these smaller conferences is to give the #1 seed home court advantage. If they lose on their home court…fine.
Also, Princeton goes 14-0 in the Ivy and wins the league by 4 games. The Ivy now has a tournament for the first time. Who does Princeton open up with? Penn at the Palestra. It makes no sense.
But it’s all about the cash.
Mike: No – it doesn’t. Conference tournaments are just a money grab for the conferences. Why should the biggest prize go to the team that gets hot for a week? Or, more unfairly, the team that gets home court for a conference tournament for some bizarre reason? If you’re a one-bid league, you should either make sure your auto bid goes to the regular season champ and the conference tournament gets an NIT bid (or something) or just cancel the damn thing. I can’t imagine the Big Sun makes a lot of dough on the conference tournament anyway.
Nate: Do you see the attendance at these things? We could have 3rd row seats.
Mike: Walk-up 3rd row seats, a parking pass, and a stadium meal for $9.
Nate: Maybe just have all the conference tournaments in either Dayton or Vegas. That may solve the problem.
Mike: Actually, that would be a great time. Anyway…before we get too far afield: I think everyone kind of understands how the low (1-6 seeds) get selected. There are some arguments, but they’re minor. Where people seem to lose the thread is for seeds 7-12. How the hell do you judge among these teams? Factors, eye test, metrics?
Nate: I, and I believe the committee, do it the same way. We come up with a 1-68, so how the top seeds are ranked is exactly how the middle seeds are selected. Directly to your question, I’ve had significant difficulty with the 6-10 seeds this year. There really is not much difference between Oklahoma State and Michigan, yet I have OSU as the top 7, and Michigan as a 9. So how do I get there? I look at the teams individually and compare their resumes, and then if they are similar…I take into account what conference they are in. So our OSU/Michigan example…the committee showed on Feb. 11 that they thought highly of the Big 12 and not so favorably of the Big 14/B1G/Big Ten.
But there certainly is some eye test that comes into play as well.
Mike: Let’s use them as an example. Relative conference strength is apparently a factor, but I thought that conference W/L isn’t a factor. Wouldn’t conference strength already be baked into an SOS number?
Nate: Conference W/L is not a factor, and yeah the SOS takes into account the conference strength. However, the committee has shown in the past that it will drop teams from a conference based on the strength of the conference as well. These resumes are so close. OSU/Michigan are almost identical (except for SOS..and I’d say eye test). But OSU will be 2 seeds higher because the Big 12 is better than the B1G.
Mike: This seems to be yet another way that the AACs, A10s, and MVCs of the world get hosed, but that’s for another time. This time of the year it seems like there are 2 things hotly debated: who gets the 4 #1 seeds and the bubble. If I gave you two teams to compare for relative seeding, what are the first 5 things you look at in trying to figure out where they should be seeded?
Nate: 1) How the teams have done against the Top 50; 2) Where did they beat those teams; 3) How the teams have done against the Top 100; 4) SOS (including non-conference SOS); 5) how many sub 100 losses do they have and who are they to
And when I talk Top 50, Top 100…I use RPI…but, I personally don’t use the RPI as a ranking tool for seeding purposes. I look at RPI, I look at KenPom, but the committee has shown in the past couple years that it really is who you beat and where you beat them.
Then also, when two teams are in the same conference or if they played in the non-conference, I take head-to-head into consideration. For example, Virginia is currently 17 and ND is 18, because they have nearly similar resumes.
Mike: RPI seems to be going the way of batting average in terms of how seriously people take it as an evaluative tool.
Nate: The RPI as a ranking is…but it is an effective tool to provide info on the Top 50 and Top 100 wins.
I don’t think the committee uses it to say…well Providence (52) is seeded higher than Marquette (56).
Mike: That makes sense – using a number like that never seemed like a good way to pick the best teams for the tournament. I’m also curious about some specific teams but just before that, one more question: do you think the committee looks at the teams as a potential ratings draw when making a selection? For example: if they’re picking among 5 teams for the last 2 spots and one is Indiana, does Indiana get the spot?
That question is in a vacuum intentionally.
Nate: I really don’t think they do that…and I sure as hell hope they don’t. But with the NCAA, would you put it past them? Look at last year, the teams that made it had more Top 50/Top 100 wins and better strength of schedules than the teams that didn’t make it. Now, two years ago UCLA made it when no one thought they should have. Could they have been given the benefit of the doubt due to their name? Sure, but they also made the Sweet 16.
Bryce Alford, Nic Moore
Mike: That was exactly what I was thinking about and I was very disappointed that they advanced after that. 
Nate: Specifically regarding IU…no chance of them getting in unless they make the Big 14 finals. But their draw is favorable (Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota…).
Mike: We’ll see about that – and I hope you’re right, but it’s the NCAA so I’m not so confident that they won’t bend the rules.
Alright – some specific teams. First up: how the hell is Illinois even still in consideration?
Conference isn’t respected, lost to Rutgers, probably worse on the eye test than the aforementioned Indiana who they lost to.
Nate: That loss to Rutgers was just brutal, but that was their first sub 100 loss. Obviously, it came at the worst possible time. They are still in consideration because they have a Top 20 SOS, 5 Top 50 wins, and 11 Top 100 wins. Sure, four of their Top 50 wins are in the 45-50 range…which obviously doesn’t help. They do have a neutral court win over VCU, and have 5 road/neutral Top 100 wins.
Just looking at the numbers, they and Michigan State are incredibly similar.
Mike: That sounds like a valentine for the Illini, but it also makes sense. This is why I’m asking these questions – I didn’t realize they had anything like a Top-20 SOS and only 1 bad loss. 
Alright…Xavier. They might only have 3 wins since Feb 1 when the tournament starts and they’re all going to be against DePaul…which is French for “suck factory”
Nate: Losing to Rutgers is likely a death blow though.

Rutgers delivers these.

Nate: I think Xavier’s in trouble. They clearly are bad without Sumner and with a banged up Bluiett. When your hopes ride on Macura and his wetsuit he wears under his uniform, you’re in deep shit. To their resume…
The committee will take into account how they have performed without Sumner (4-6). The 9th ranked SOS is keeping them in the field…for now. But they are going to have to beat DePaul and Butler to be safe.
One more thing about Xavier…
They are 3-9 against the other 6 Big East teams in the field. The committee should, and will, take that into account.
If Sumner were coming back, Xavier would be in much better shape to get in. Since he’s out, and they have sucked without him, they are a toss up right now.
Mike: I have a bit of a bias here, admittedly, but I do think the Committee selectively examines injuries to favor certain teams. Anticipating a comeback is one thing but giving a team a pass for a guy with an injury seems unfair. Evaluate the team entering the tournament – if that team is missing its best player, so be it. Another team I just don’t understand – and this will be the least surprising thing I’ve brought up so far –
Vandy. Your thoughts? 
Nate: Jerry Palm and his refusal to consider Vandy because they would be the first 15-loss at-large team is ridiculous.
Mike: There was a first 14-loss team, too
Nate: Exactly. There are no limits.
Nate: 1) They swept Florida…and Florida is good. 2) #3 overall SOS. #1 non-conference SOS
Mike: Because they played Dayton, obviously.
Nate: Of course.
Nate: 3) 5-8 against the Top 50, 10-13 against the Top 100…For comparison…they have more Top 50 wins than Cal has Top 100 wins. 4) They have a better resume this year than they did last year…and they barely got in last year.
Mike: So what do you make of the 15 losses – that is a lot of losses.
Nate: That’s the main negative in a resume with a bunch of positives. Well, that and a 20 point loss to Missouri. It all depends what the committee values. Does USC at 23-8 get credit for 18 sub 100 wins, or does Vandy get credit for playing the absolute best non-conference schedule? It’s a tough call.
Mike: Doesn’t seem like it from here: I’d rather take the team that does better against the better teams.
Alright – a couple more questions since it’s getting late. Which teams are you watching most closely in the conference tournaments? Relatedly, anybody that could play themselves from in to the bubble by losing their first conference tournament game?
Nate: I think there are realistically 8 teams in the hunt for 6 spots. Illinois and Iowa are on the fringe…but could get back in the hunt with deep runs.
Michigan State can’t lose to the winner of Nebraska/Penn State.
Mike: Can we do a quick A10 hit?
Nate: For sureVCU could actually be sweating Selection Sunday out if they lose to George Mason or Fordham.
Mike: I’m biased – can you give me a quick assessment of how you feel the conference has been treated by the Committee in the past…say 5 years?
My assessment is unflattering. At best.
Nate: The two glaring errors I think they made involve Dayton’s seeding a few years back when they were inexplicably put in a play-in game…and then the omission of the Bonnies last year.
So yeah, the committee doesn’t seem to enjoy it some A10.
Mike: I would obviously agree with those. It shows both that I live a pretty good life and my college basketball fandom that the Dayton seeding that year might be the angriest I’ve been in the past 3 years.
Nate: It was completely absurd.
Mike: Anyway, they seem to underseed the teams that make it and bone at least one team every year. That being said…why shouldn’t I believe that UD is getting a 10, VCU will be the most obvious snub, and Rhode Island will win the NIT?
Nate: All of those things certainly could happen, but I doubt it. VCU may not be as safe as I think they are. 9 Top 100 wins help, but they are only 2-3 against the Top 50. The Bonnies last year were 3-2 against the Top 50 and had 7 Top 100 wins.
Rhode Island is an interesting case…
The 21 wins help, they have a solid SOS (55 overall, 23 non-conf), and they beat Cincinnati on a neutral floor.
But, they are only 2-3 against the Top 50 and 5-7 against the Top 100…AND THEY SCORED 43 POINTS AT HOME AGAINST FORDHAM
They’ll likely get the Bonnies in the quarters, and need that one for sure to have a chance at getting in.

We’re all confused about that Fordham game.

Mike: That all caps part should be disqualifying to me. I want them in, but you just can’t do that without a boatload of injuries or something.
Nate: Regarding UD. I could see them as a 9, especially if the committee couples them with Northwestern.
Mike: That 8/9 slot seems like the least important distinction of any in the tournament. Those 8 teams are all on exactly the same footing. 
Nate: The difference between the top 7 seed (Oklahoma St at 25) and the last 10 seed (Seton Hall at 40) is very, very small.
Mike: I tend to view UD’s resume as the equivalent of VCU’s. What am I missing here?
Nate: I think Dayton is ahead of VCU because of the 4 Top 50 wins for the Flyers vs 2 Top 50 wins for the Rams. Plus, VCU also lost to Fordham…
How the hell is Fordham beating these teams?
Mike: That Fordham played a role in the A10 tournament teams is inexplicable. One final quesiton: what should we, as non-experts, be watching most closely this week?
Nate: These are the 7 teams that I’m going to be watching: Syracuse, Wake Forest, Xavier, Vandy, USC, Kansas St, URI. Illinois State is going to be watching them closely too. Bad losses will eliminate them…and big wins will solidify a bid. That’s how close it is between these teams. Obviously, Illinois State is rooting for all of them to lose. I think they needed to keep it close today to have a shot. Getting crushed in the game of the day is not a good look.
Mike: I feel for Illinois State. They did damn near everything necessary to make it and they’re almost certainly not getting in. 
Mike: Alright – I learned something today. Thanks for the education. Big Boy Tournaments up next.

One response to “Bracketology 101: Nate Explains it All

  1. Pingback: Big Boy Basketball: Major Conference Tournament Notes | HEAD VS GUT·

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