As Virginia and North Carolina prepare for a noon matinee Saturday that will have XL impact on their NCAA tournament credentials, here are some points to consider, courtesy of selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski.
The outgoing athletic director at Xavier and incoming AD at Georgia Tech, Bobinski spoke with reporters via teleconference Wednesday and with media who traveled to the NCAA’s Indianapolis HQ for a mock selection exercise.
Bobinski offered no revelations, but some of his remarks serve as a helpful reminder with 30 days until Selection Sunday.
To my ear, Bobinski’s most salient comments were about the Rating Percentage Index, the oft-debated and misunderstood computer rankings employed by the 10-member committee.
As of Friday, North Carolina was 34th on the RPI, Virginia 80th. But that by no means indicates the Tar Heels (16-8, 6-5 ACC) are locks for the 68-team field, or that the Cavaliers (18-6, 8-3) are locked out.
Indeed, if the field were chosen and seeded strictly by RPI, the committee would be unnecessary.
But while many of his predecessors wanted us to believe the RPI’s influence was minimal, Bobinski embraced the truth: Nearly every metric considered by the panel – records versus the top 50 and 100, strength of schedule and non-conference strength of schedule – is rooted in the RPI.
That makes the RPI a very big deal.
“The RPI is one of many tools that are available to us as a committee,” Bobinski said. “We use and rely on a number of different ranking tools and evaluation tools out there. I think they all have relative strengths and in some cases relative weaknesses.
“Interestingly, last week we asked a statistician that works with the NCAA who is really, really sharp, to sort of do a comparison of all the major different rankings that exist, including the RPI and others that you can all probably certainly come up with who they are, and compare those evaluations systems with performance in the tournament. …
“We were all surprised to see that the RPI actually did end up with the highest level of predictive value and the highest correlation with ultimately success in the tournament. That doesn't mean we're going to use it more or less this year. It's just a very interesting piece of information.
“We use the RPI, honestly, as a means to categorize the field, categorize the teams that are under consideration. And really, what is more important, is common opponents in head-to-head competition that might happen during the course of the year. Some of the other factors that we also use, we have regional advisory committee rankings by coaches around the country. We look at non-conference records as previously spoken about, non-conference RPIs, road records, injury to key players, and a lot of special circumstances that might occur during the course of the year. …
“So if you look on the NCAA website and see the nitty gritty or see our team sheets, it's RPI driven, so it's clearly in there and it's a tool that's important to what we do. But we don't ever say team X's RPI is at a number that we absolutely have to put them in the field or not. It never gets used in that fashion at all, I assure you of that.”
For example, even though North Carolina is 46 spots ahead of Virginia on the RPI, the latter’s resume compares favorably.
The Tar Heels are 1-6 against the top 25 and top 50. They are 4-7 against the top 100.
The Cavaliers are 1-0 versus the top 25, 2-0 versus the top 50 and 6-0 versus the top 100.
The Tar Heels’ non-conference schedule is No. 120, the Cavaliers’ No. 323. Moreover, Virginia defeated Carolina head-to-head.
Reporters at the mock selection – I participated in 2008 and hope to again -- chose the Cavaliers for the field and not the Tar Heels. Seems fair, given the incomplete data available.
With Virginia a solid third in the ACC standings, some Cavaliers faithful have suggested to me that there’s no way the committee can bypass the ACC’s No. 3. The seasons are not identical, but 2000 says otherwise.
Virginia and Carolina tied for third that year at 9-7. Moreover, the Cavaliers swept the Tar Heels during the regular season, and both lost in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
But Carolina, No. 41 on the RPI and 3-8 versus the top 50, made the field as an 8 seed. Virginia, No. 76 on the RPI and 3-4 against the top 50, was bypassed.
The Tar Heels’ strength of schedule was 13th, the Cavaliers’ 109th (the non-conference breakdown is not available that far back).
“We're disappointed,” then-Virginia coach Pete Gillen said after the snub. “We felt we deserved to be in.”
In the opening round of the NIT, the Cavaliers lost to Georgetown 115-111 in triple-overtime. The Tar Heels advanced to the Final Four.
For those of us who recoil at the notion of expanding the tournament, to 96 or, heaven forbid, 128 teams, Bobinski offered encouragement Wednesday.
“This is just me speaking at this point in time,” he said when I asked about the field growing. “I would tell you that I feel no compunction at all to think about expanding the tournament. I think 68, while we didn't set out to come up with, I was part of the committee when we allowed that. We didn't set out with 68 as a goal. It was sort of a compromise position that we arrived at in the course of a lot of conversation.”
Bobinski said that the so-called First Four, four opening-round games Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, “has worked out extremely well. I think we've gotten better as a committee and an NCAA basketball staff of making that into an event that really makes a lot of sense and is administered properly and doesn't put teams at any significant disadvantage.
“The first year we didn't do it as well as we could have, but since then, it's worked very, very well. I feel like it's a nice way to kickoff the championship. It really sort of gives it a front end, and then it's connected to the Final Four at the back end. …
“Dayton, I think this year as we sit here today, is sold out for that event, which is an amazing thing. I'm not sure there are a lot of communities around the country that could pull that off, but Dayton has sold out that event. It will really give the teams that are there a real feeling of being part of the NCAA Championships.”
The First Four debuted two years ago and features the four lowest-rated at-large teams and four lowest-rated automatic qualifiers. VCU was part of the group in 2011 and famously won five games to reach the Final Four.
Previously, the field was 65 teams with a single play-in game in Dayton. I preferred the symmetry of a 64-team bracket, but there’s no chance of the NCAA cutting the available at-large bids from the current 37 back to 33.
With Dayton also hosting second- and third-round games, there’s a good chance some of the First Four winners will remain in Dayton to play their subsequent games.
“We also have this year sites in Lexington and Auburn Hills, which are very convenient to Dayton also,” Bobinski said. “So I think we have enough flexibility there to provide teams without disadvantage(d) … next-round travel circumstances.”
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