The Madness Behind March: How The Bracket is Selected

By Ryan Goodman

March 12th, 2015

The beginning of the month of March, to most, is a friendly reminder that spring is upon us.  Although the world famous groundhog,  Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow in early February predicting six more weeks of winter, that doesn’t stop the annual NCAA Mens College Basketball tournament from kicking off in full swing.

 This 68 team, single-game elimination tournament- simply known as March Madness, doesn’t officially start until March 17th. However, the actual tournament field isn’t picked until the Sunday before the 17th,  which was precisely three days ago.  This day is called Selection Sunday.  To college hoops junkies (such as myself), this is like a second Christmas.

The seeding and selection process is very intricate and in some ways, delicate.  First off, there are 68 teams that participate in this exclusive tournament and a total of 351 teams in Men’s Division 1 Collegiate Basketball.  To put this in perspective, that is only 19% of all NCAA teams that have a shot at winning the national championship. Less than ⅕!  Even less than that if you take look at some of the tournament’s past history. But first, a quick run-through of the playing field’s set up.

The tournament is divided into four regions, with each region being seeded 1 through 16.  The 1 seed (the region’s best team, or most deserving of a top seed according to the selection committee),  plays the 16th seed, the 2 plays the 15, and so on.

 Now for some statistical history.  A #16 seed has never, in the history of the tournament, beaten a #1 seed.  #1 seeds are a staggering 120-0 against #16 seeds.  Also, no team seeded lower than 12th has ever made it to the Final Four!  So, if we are going super technical, that basically leaves 52 teams that have a “realistic” shot at winning a championship.

 The process of determining a team’s seed, however, is where it gets complicated.

 Both the Men’s and Women’s tournament each have their own ten person committee, called the “Selection Committee”,  made up of school and conference administrators that are nominated by their conference.  These elected representatives serve five-year terms and represent a cross-section of the Division I membership.  The committee is collectively responsible for labeling each team with a respective seed, based on a many different aspects of that team, like overall record, conference record,  strength of schedule, quality wins, RPI, potential and talent, etc.


The first round, called the “first four,” consists of two play-in games.  It is basically teams that have been selected by the committee to play their way into the second round (round of 64).  The round of 64 is the real first round because its when the remaining 64 teams in the tournament play their first games.  The third round is known as the round of 32 (creative, I know), with the fourth round being the Sweet Sixteen.  With four teams from each region remaining, this part of the tournament is when the real contenders start to show.  After that, the Elite Eight and Final Four follow suit, with the National Championship game wrapping up the tournament, always on the first Monday of April.  This year, the final showdown is on April 6th.

 To recap: there are 351 teams in College Basketball and these teams are split up into 32 different conferences, with five major or most competitive conferences (referred to as the power-five).  They are the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC.

 All 351 teams have two parts to their schedule, the non-conference and the in-conference.  The non-conference part is matchups between teams that are not in the same conference and vice versa for the in-conference.  In conference, schedules consist of matchups with every team in the conference at least once (sometimes twice but no more than that).  All teams in their respective conferences at the end of the season, regardless of their performance during the regular season, will compete in a conference tournament.  The seeding in the conference tournaments is determined by each team’s in-conference record.  For example, UVA had the best conference record this year, (record against other ACC teams) in their conference, with Duke coming in right behind them.  So, UVA claimed the one seed in the conference tournament and Duke will grabbing the two seed.

 The most important thing about these conference tournaments is that whichever team wins, (again, regardless of their performance during the regular season), the conference tournament, they automatically get to participate in the NCAA tournament. This rule allows teams that didn’t have very good regular seasons to maybe steal a spot from other teams hoping to get bids into the NCAA tournament, by winning the conference tournament.   The committee has to determine their seed for the NCAA tournament, but that team is still guaranteed a spot.

Obviously this doesn’t end up happening too often, just a couple of times a year, but it is always exciting to see a team overcome turmoil and pull off upset after upset to become champions of their conference tournament and secure an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

Other than the easiest way to determine what teams make the NCAA tournament, however,  there are other ways the committee does so.

 Of all the teams in the “power-five” conferences, their overall win/loss record is one of the most important factors in determining their seed for the NCAA tournament. You may be thinking, what about all the other teams who aren’t in these top conferences?  Well, their records are considered too, but you have to remember, the teams in the top five conferences play much tougher competition than teams outside the power five.  So, for example, if a team like Texas (who is in the Big 12, a power five conference) has a record of 20-10 at the end of the regular season, and a team such as Murray State (who is in the Ohio Valley conference, much weaker than the Big 12) has a record of 27-4, Texas could still make the tournament or have a higher seed over Murray State because of their harder schedule.  To get a jist of what the selection committee was like this year, (because it varies year to year), the committee decided to sneak Texas in as an 11 seed, and leave out Murray State altogether, sending them to the NIT (tournament below NCAA).

 Lets use Miami and North Carolina State for example.  Both teams are in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and boast eerily similar records at 21-12 and 20-13.  However, NC  has beaten tougher opponents, (victories over #2 Duke by 12, at #9 Louisville by 9, and at #15 UNC by 12.  Miami however, only has one quality victory that can match NC State’s, (a beatdown of #4 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium).  So, by this metric, the selection committee could possibly place NC State into the tournament instead of Miami.

 If you’re not confused already, this might help you out a bit.  During the regular season, Miami actually beat NC state the only time they faced each other, and even though NC State has played better against harder competition, the fact that Miami beat NC State this season and has a better overall record might sway the selection committee to put NC State in over Miami.   This year, however, the selection committee decided to go with the latter and place NC State firmly in as a 8 seed, again, sending the other team (Miami in this case), to the NIT.

 This is the kind of thing the selection committee has to debate, analyze and discuss for countless hours.   And remember, there are only a limited number of spaces for teams that haven’t won their conference tournament (36, to be precise), so there are lots of teams, hoping to get an At-large spot (invitation, not guaranteed) from the selection committee.

 What if there were one metric that measures both strength of schedule and quality wins at the same time?   In fact, there is a tool for measuring these two factors together.  This is exactly what the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is.   RPI is simply a measure of a team’s strength of schedule and how a team does against that schedule.  Wouldn’t this RPI ranking tool solve all of the committee’s problems then?  If this exists then why doesn’t the committee just pick the top 68 teams and throw them into the NCAA tournament?  Well, because teams still need to be separated or have legitimate cases made for them based on based on potential, star talent, heart, veteran (and even newfound) leadership, matchups with different players, and many other things that can only be assessed with human intellect.  Statistics are great tools but they can’t measure what truly lies between the numbers.

However, this process is far from perfect and there are obviously many question marks each year, but that’s part of the process. There is no perfect model for the NCAA tournament seeding selection and there never will be.  That’s part of the beauty of it.  Millions of fans every year, nervously awaiting their beloved teams to be called on Selection Sunday, the electricity and buzz that this tournament generates is truly amazing. March Madness features almost everything that makes sports great.  Elite talent, upsets, cinderella stories (when a huge underdog makes it deep into the tournament), heart, passion, and above all, sweet,  sweet victory. Buckle up, sports fans.  And let the Madness begin.

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