Though the most casual of college basketball fans might not pay close attention to the sport until the calendar flips to March, it’s clear that the Division I men’s basketball committee does not operate that way.
The selection committee’s No. 1 seeds — Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga — had accumulated at least a handful of quality wins over the course of the regular season, including during non-conference play. And all four had won their leagues’ regular-season championships, all by multiple games.
The fact that Duke — a team that beat North Carolina twice in three meetings this season and, by the end of the night Saturday, had won more games against RPI top 50 opponents than the Tar Heels did — could not bump its hated rival off the top seed line shows that the selection committee did not value an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title nearly as much as an ACC regular-season title.
To be sure, the Blue Devils’ run last week — which included RPI top-25 wins against Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame — was impressive and drastically improved the résumé of a quite fascinating team in a season marked by player injuries and a seven-game coaching absence. But ultimately the committee did not give Duke the boost it justifiably could have — all the way to the top seed line.
It also is justifiable that the committee did not do that.
“You have to understand the process and the procedures,” selection committee chairman and Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said on a media teleconference Sunday night. “It starts on Wednesday. Duke came in on the No. 4 line, I think the top one, and throughout the week, they picked up a number of neutral-site, top-25 wins — three — which has an impact on scrubbing, which is the comparison of one team vs. another. That’s how teams go up and down the seed line."
Hollis said Duke’s jump to the No. 2 seed line was one of the most drastic of all teams throughout the selection, seeding and bracketing process that took place over the past five days. Arizona was another, sliding up from the No. 3 seed line at the start of the process to No. 2.
But, ultimately, the Blue Devils got stuck behind Arizona, a team that shared the Pac-12 regular-season championship and won the Pac-12 tournament, and couldn’t move past the Wildcats. And the Wildcats were slotted behind other Wildcats, from the University of Kentucky (the top No. 2 seed).
“Kentucky stopped Arizona, and Arizona stopped Duke,” Hollis said. “Neither Arizona nor Duke was compared to any of the No. 1 seeds. … it’s not a situation where we come in on Sunday and look at everything with a clean slate. That’s just the procedure we use and have always used."
That Duke’s résumé never was compared to that of the No. 1 seeds at all is slightly surprising, but, again, entirely justifiable.
When asked about valuing regular-season league titles more than tournament titles, Hollis said, yes, regular-season titles matter. But so do non-league wins. Consider Gonzaga’s: Florida, Iowa State and Arizona, three of the Zags’ wins against RPI top-50 teams and a feather in the cap for a team that ultimately landed the fourth and final No. 1 seed.
PHOTOS: 2017 ACC Tournament
Now, for those looking for some actual controversy, you can slide down to the mid-range seed lines. Some Southeastern Conference teams, such as Vanderbilt — a No. 9 seed with 15 (!!) losses — and South Carolina were seeded too high. Some Big Ten teams, such as Michigan — a No. 7 seed, same as the Gamecocks, despite the Wolverines’ run through the Big Ten tournament — were not addressed.
And perhaps most egregious of all: Wichita State landing a No. 10 seed in the South region. The Shockers, winners of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, are the eighth-rated team in the country according to KenPom.com. Yet they’re a No. 10 seed because of the disparity between metrics systems; RPI, which the selection committee relies upon to sort teams and their quality wins, is no fan of the Shockers, which is unfair to both that program and the teams that will draw them in the NCAA tournament as a better-than-a-No. 10-seed No. 10 seed.
But, in the end, there’s nothing all that controversial about the way the committee approached the top seeds, the grouping of which ultimately contains the most Final Four contenders. That’s the part of the bracket that matters most, though the bubble and the final at-large spots receive a great deal of attention and intrigue. It’s better to treat the top teams fairly — and thoughtfully.
And the committee did just that this year.