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The Score - Anthony Schoettle

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Sports Business

NCAA looks to overhaul March Madness selection, seeding process

January 18, 2017
KEYWORDS Sports Business

The NCAA basketball tournament’s team selection and seeding process appears to be bouncing toward a change. 

And the system, which now relies heavily on an often-criticized team-rating system called the RPI—Rating Percentage Index—could be changed as early as next season, NCAA officials said.

NCAA officials on Friday are meeting at the group's Indianapolis headquarters with some of the brightest minds in the world of college sports analytics to discuss potential changes to the often controversial selection process.

Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, and Jim Schaus, Ohio University’s athletic director and a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, will meet with Bloomington resident and statistics guru Jeff Sagarin, Kevin Pauga (KPI), Ken Pomeroy (KenPom.com) and Ben Alamar (ESPN's BPI) to discuss the selection process and consider a new rating system.

If the NCAA and the assembled group of number crunchers can boil the various methods down into one usable system, it would be the first time advanced metrics were used as an official part of the NCAA tournament selection and seeding process.

Gavitt told IBJ on Tuesday that the NCAA is seeking a selection process more “rooted in fact and in data.” NCAA officials think if they can pull that off, they’ll spend less time defending their tournament selections after they’re announced.

Sagarin, who graduated with a degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is known for his development of a method for ranking and rating teams in a variety of sports, isn’t sure what to expect on Friday.

“At this point, I don’t know any more than you do,” Sagarin told IBJ on Tuesday. 

Asked if he thinks the NCAA’s selection process for March Madness needs changing, Sagarin said: “After all the controversy with the BCS [college football’s Bowl Championship Series], I’ve learned to keep a low profile.”

“They asked me to come to the meeting, and I agreed to do that,” Sagarin said. “I’m happy to help if I can.”

The RPI, which evaluates teams according to win-loss record and strength of schedule, has been criticized as outdated in recent years. Worse yet, according to college sports aficionados, the RPI isn’t the sole measuring stick used in the selection process—with many selection committee members using what is commonly referred to as the “eye test,” i.e., watching a team play to see if it appears tournament-worthy.

Gavitt thinks Friday’s confab will be “absolutely fascinating.” 

“I can’t imagine they’ve ever been together very much, if ever,” he said of the group being assembled. “There’ll be a lot of brain power in the room.”

He called the group “a good mixture of folks who value different things.”

The meeting was called at the urging of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, whose members said they would like a new selection and seeding process that uses more advanced mathematical calculations and statistical evaluations.

Embracing new ways of using analytics and technology in the tournament selection process is one important way of keeping college basketball relevant to today’s sports fans—especially young ones, Gavitt said.

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