NCAA tournament selections explained

by Matthew Webb
Senior Writer,

The men's and women's NCAA tournament selections were released Monday morning and fans across the nation, as well as us here at, have now had most of the day to digest them. With that exercise taken care of we now begin our own annual exercise in which we address the notable questions that have arisen throughout the day and also take a look at the day's common complaints to see if we can help make some sense of things.

Marian's inclusion in the men's field was the source of much of Monday's uproar. But how did it happen? And did it make sense?
Photo: Larry Radloff for

Were there any complaints this year? Why, oh yes there were, and in even larger quantities and at a higher volume as usual. So much in fact we thought of naming this edition "tournament non-selections explained" instead, but for what reason?

We've historically led with the women here as that bracket is traditionally straightforward and the questions few (which was yet again the case this year), but are there any other issues that Monday morning's selections kicked up that anyone thinks we should maybe take a look at first? Anything that has generated an overwhelming amount of comments, complaints, disgust and praise that might just be at the forefront of a lot of fan's minds?

Let's see here...ah yes, perhaps it could involve the men's Pool C selections? Namely regarding how Marian got in over Utica while Oswego State and Trinity managed to both miss the field as well? Separate yet connected at the same time the two issues are, so let's see what we can figure out here...


Why did Marian get in the tournament over...Utica?

In our Men's Bracketology Final Projection we ruled Marian out once we got down to four teams for the final Pool C spot. Salve Regina, University of New England and Adrian were all easy selections in our opinion and that's indeed how it played out in reality, but once we whittled down the field for the final Pool C spot to include Marian, Oswego State, Trinity and Utica, we dropped Marian as it simply didn't have the resume to match Oswego or Trinity. We also dropped Utica as it's low SOS kept it from being able to outdo the Lakers as Bantams as well.

And that's where we began to deviate from what actually transpired as it was actually Marian and Utica that were compared for the final Pool C bid.

It was immediately clear what had happened once Marian's presence in the field was revealed and it became even clearer once the final East Region rankings were released on Monday afternoon. In case you missed them, here they are:

1. Salve Regina
2. University of New England
3. Hobart
4. SUNY Geneseo
5. Utica
6. Trinity
7. Oswego State
8. Nichols
9. Buffalo State
10. Plymouth State

Obviously the positions of interest here are 5-7, and we see Utica moved up from seven to five, while Oswego fell from four to seven despite not playing, and Trinity stood pat in sixth after a 1-1 weekend.

The end result of this is that when it came to the final Pool C comparison, Utica came off the East Region board first and was placed in a comparison with the highest-ranked (and last) West Region team remaining, which was Marian, and that comparison looked like this:

WIN  .796  .732
SOS  .480+  ~.523
RNK   1-1-1   1-4-0
H2H   -   -
COP   0-1-0   0-1-0

Going by the straight "pairwise" comparison, which is the way teams were compared many years ago, Utica wins this comparison 2-1-1 but there remains a problem for the Pioneers and it's a major one -- a strength-of-schedule that is critically low. So low, in fact, that we warned about this incessantly in our Bracketology editions so it should not have come as a surprise this manifested itself in the actual selections. To quote ourselves from this year's Bracketologies:

  • And even then it might not be enough as Utica's SOS is quite poor and will not have the chance to improve by a large amount.
  • The Pioneers' real issue here is, and will continue to be, a SOS that's downright dismal by NCAA selection standards...
  • While every committee is going to interpret things a bit differently, a good historical reference here is the 2010-11 Castleton team that finished 22-4-1 with a SOS a tad over .480 and was left out completely in lieu of a UW-Superior team that finished 16-12-1.
  • That's how low this SOS is.
  • SOS is the real driver here as while Utica's has come up a bit over the past two weeks, it remains extremely low.
  • ...we checked with Publisher Pat Coleman to see if he could recall teams in other sports getting the nod with such a low SOS, and it just doesn't seem to happen -- and it has definitely never happened in hockey.
  • The big one is Utica's SOS. To take Utica here, despite its edge in WIN, would defy literally decades of Division III selections.
  • ...we just cannot bring ourselves to defy a mountain of precedent when it comes to a SOS that low. We can't do it.

So what's the point? The point is that the way we chose to interpret was based on the fact that's how it's been interpreted by committees, across a wide swath of Division III sports, including men's hockey, forever. A SOS in the .480s is not just considered low, but has been considered so low that it amounts to a de facto barrier to entry as an at-large Pool Selection.

Which is exactly how it played out. Marian won the comparison because Utica's SOS is so low by NCAA tournament selection standards that the committee deemed the Pioneers incapable of winning the selection. And that's the entirety of it; Utica's SOS and SOS alone is what propelled Marian into the field.

Now, whether one finds this a proper reading and application of the numbers is a separate discussion and one that may certainly have merit, but in terms of how it was handled in this instance it falls perfectly in-line with how Division III tournament selections have been handled for a long, long time.

And we do sympathize with Utica as it almost certainly is one of the best 12 teams in the nation, its poor SOS is the result of playing in a league that performed poorly in non-conference play, and it did do a fair amount to try to help itself by playing Adrian, Oswego State, and Salve Regina in non-conference games, but in the end it simply had a SOS that was too low.

Perhaps this should have been reflected in the final East Region rankings and another team been comparied with Marian instead.


Why did Oswego State and Trinity get left out?

The Lakers and Bantams, which were our own finalists for the final Pool C spot, missed out for a different reason than Utica but their fates were invariably intertwined with the same thing that led to Marian beating out Utica and getting into the field: the final East Region rankings.

Simply put, it's inconceivable to look at the comparisons and conclude that Oswego or Trinity would not have gotten in over Marian, but the problem is that neither even had the opportunity to get into that comparison as the final East Region rankings had Utica in front of both, which means the Pioneers came up first for the comparison with Marian.

The blame for this lies squarely at the feet of the East Regional Advisory Committee for concluding in its final rankings that Utica's SOS not only wasn't a hindrance compared to Oswego and Trinity but also that it wouldn't prove a hindrance on the national call when it came to at-large bid selections. The decision to treat SOS differently than decades of precedent suggests it gets treated proved a grave mistake that cost either Oswego or Trinity dearly.

If that doesn't make sense, how about wording it this way: the decision to move Utica above both Oswego and Trinity (a spot it had not been in the prior three weeks) kept both the Lakers and Bantams from even getting a chance to get into a comparison with Marian -- and it's a comparison both should have won.

Fans of Oswego and Trinity have every right to be upset, and even though one would have been left out anyway as there was only one Pool C spot remaining, the fact both were put in positions that kept them out of the discussion entirely is inexcusable if not a fine display of gross incompetence and deriliction of duty.

Often fans are upset and frustrated with tournament selections for reasons that have nothing or little to do with the process, but in this case the outrage is justified as this has everything to do with the process and never should have had happened. But it did, and it did for one reason and one reason alone: the decisions of the East Regional Advisory Committee relative to the final East Region rankings.


As usual, the women's bracket was released with lots of fanfare and very few complaints. Ray's final projection turned out to be exactly right save for flipping the regional seeds of Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline, and the only real question about the bracket itself has to do with why the games in that section will be played at Gustavus instead of Hamline despite the fact Hamline is a higher seed.

The answer is that Hamline simply wasn't able to host. Be it by not bidding to host or the fact its arena was unavailable or incapable of hosting the event, the Pipers were deemed not able to host which meant the games were moved to the home of the next-highest seed, which was Gustavus.

The only other question (that we've actually only heard a couple times) has to do with how UW-Eau Claire grabbed the second and final Pool C spot over UW-River Falls. Here's that comparison:

WIN  .714  .732
SOS  .574  .590
RNK  4-2-2  3-5-2
H2H  2-1-1  1-2-1
COP  9-2-3  11-4-1

A quick looks suggests each claim two criterion, and not by overly large margins at that. Eau Claire grabs RNK and COP while River Falls claims WIN and SOS. But none of the differences really stand out, and the conclusion Ray came to in Bracketology is that the head-to-head results were enough to tip the comparison to Eau Claire. Which is exactly how it played out in reality as it was the H2H edge for the Blugolds that ended up making the difference.

And finally, there's the alignment of the bracket. No issues there at all as it was all forced by the teams selected and the committee slated all teams right where they could be expected. Elmira and Adrian had to be paired together and the remaining West Region teams had to be grouped in the same quarterfinal which pushed the first round game out West. From there the two East Region quarterfinals fell right into place by seed and it was a wrap.

Another straightforward and logical conclusion by the Women's National Committee and they should yet again be commended for it.


Process, Process, Process

We repeatedly stress in our Bracketologies that our goal is not to predict the field but rather to illustrate the selection process as well as possible, which we of course do by walking through it as best we can despite the fact we're forced to deal with some unknowns the actual committees don't have to deal with.

While some seemed to have some benighted issue with this last night, our steadfast refusal to be predicitve is based on a strong belief that significantly more value lies in illustrating the process as well as possible than it does in having to make an enormous amount of assumptions and guesses all while trying to read the minds of committees comprised of an ever-changing cast of individuals. The former offers immense value and potential to learn (including for us), the latter offers nothing.

To that end, we stress again: process, process, process. When attemptiing to analyze this part of the game we all love, always try to view it through the lens of the process. Sure it's not an exact science and there are always going to be unknowns, but sticking within the tenets of the process is paramount to the comprehension thereof.

To that end, here's a reminder that none of the following are included in the NCAA Pre-Championship Manuals as either primary or secondary criterion:

  • Blown out in conference championship game criterion
  • Cross-regional criterion
  • Score comparison criterion
  • Shot count in league semifinal criterion
  • We know they're good criterion
  • Won so should be in criterion
  • Lost last three games so should be out criterion
  • poll ranking criterion

The best resources around:
Men's Pre-Championship Manual
Women's Pre-Championship Manual
Division III Manual


Why was our Men's Bracketology "wrong"?

Tough to match the real one when you don't have the field itself right, especially when it affects the East-West regional split. Not too much to say here for a change aside from the fact that the inclusion of Marian blew things up for everyone, us included. Now, had we known the East Regional Advisory Committee was going to drum up the rankings it did, our final comparison would indeed have come down to Marian and Utica and who knows what would have happened from there.

Had Trinity, which was our pick, or Oswego gotten in (and the comparison between the two was the closest men's comparison we can recall) we'd have had the bracket alignment right but some East Region teams would have been shifted around due to our inability to properly channel the final East rankings and thus seeds.

Besides, being "right" isn't our goal in the first place, though it's admittedly nice to correctly guess the unknowns and hit the thing on the head like we did a couple years ago.

Ah well, there's always next year.


Executive Summary

We again commend the national commitees for sticking to the process and turning out fields and brackets that are completely defensible and logical. Yes, we know some will scoff at this due to the selection of Marian, but we again emphasize that comparison was treated the same way it has been treated in dozens if not hundreds of comparisons across abundant Division III sports for years and years.

Both committees again did their jobs well and it's a point that needs always needs to be made considering the past instances in which decisions were made by individuals so as to advance their own agendas, which not only bastardized the process itself but also helped lay the groundwork for much of the distrust that exists to this day -- and it's the latter that's truly unfortunate.

Thankfully we haven't seen that for some years now. Both national committees did it right -- again.



No contests today.
No contests today.
No contests today.