(Meredith) -- Every year on Selection Sunday, the bracket for the NCAA Tournament is released. Sixty-eight Division I men’s basketball teams find their names on the bracket, along with how they’ve been seeded and who they’ll have to defeat to win a national championship.
Dreams of players and fans are realized, or shattered, by the decisions of the 10 members of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee. So how does the selection committee go about making the final bracket, and what factors into how they pick the teams for the Big Dance?
With only ten committee members, keeping up with 351 schools in 32 conferences can be a tough task. They each monitor about seven conferences each throughout the year along with their assigned teams, compiling reports they’ll share with the rest of the committee periodically throughout the year.
During the season, the members of the selection committee spend countless hours watching their assigned teams and conferences, evaluating their play on the court with an expert’s eye. They’ll match this so-called “eye test” with data from a variety of sources to inform their votes come Selection Sunday.
Luckily, a daunting task gets a little easier: the committee doesn’t have to pick all 68 teams that’ll show up on their bracket come Sunday. Thirty-two teams will have automatically qualified by winning their respective conferences, leaving just 36 spots for “at-large” bids.
So how do they decide what teams fill out the 36 remaining blanks on the bracket? A bevy of factors inform how the committee votes, including the hundreds of hours spent evaluating each team’s games, but there are two you’ll hear a lot about: Rating Percentage Index (RPI), and team sheets.
A team’s RPI is determined by three main elements:
RPI ranks teams from strongest to weakest, with the No. 1 team in the RPI being the strongest. RPI rankings can be especially useful when comparing teams that appear similar. You’ll often hear about the stand-out wins a team has, something we can use RPI to more effectively compare:
Team sheets are supposed to visually represent a team’s season resume, and are another tool for comparing two teams that seem similar. Here’s an example from the NCAA of a team sheet from the 2014 season, the same format still used today, with a guide for how to read it.
Lots more detail in there than the casual fan probably needs, but it’s an important tool for committee members. A key section to note is the team’s performance against teams ranked 1-50 in the RPI. If they inflated their record with wins against lesser teams, and struggled against good teams, that won’t work in their favor come tournament time. Even if they make the committee’s final bracket, you could be smart to avoid them in your bracket in the office pool.
Although Selection Sunday gets all the attention, committee members actually begin the process on Tuesday, and spend five full days pouring over data and casting hundreds of ballots to determine which teams get the 36 at-large bids.
Along with deciding who gets in, the committee ranks all of the tournament teams from 1 to 68, a process called seeding. They then place the teams into the bracket, using each team’s seed to determine where they go in the bracket.
While you might look at the bracket and see four No. 1 seeds, one of them is actually the overall No. 1 seed and, as a result, is in the slightly easier bracket region. The inverse often holds true for teams seeded Nos. 5 through 8 (the four No. 2 seeds on the bracket) and on down the line, as weak lower seeds can find themselves facing tough higher seeds.
The tournament bracket is weighted in favor of the top-ranked heavyweight teams, but that’s part of what makes March Madness so much fun. Every year, there’s still a low-seeded Cinderella team that surprises everyone.
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