NCAA Tournament Committee Seeding is a Joke -- So Don't Handicap Using that "Information"

by Hollywood Sports

Sunday, Mar 31, 2024
Successful sports handicapping requires constant re-evaluation of one’s tactics and assumptions. The moment a previous handicapping edge becomes conventional wisdom is the likely moment that past advantage has become a losing relic of the past. Winning bettors continue to innovate as does the books trying to minimize their potential losses. And with the legalization of sports gambling across the country, gambling information as sports content has become more mainstream. 

Nowhere is this perhaps most evident than during March Madness. There was a time even within the last decade where the seeding of the NCAA Tournament could play into potentially successful empirical angles for or against teams in the Big Dance. But all of this was dependent on the betting public putting stock in how the Tournament Selection Committee made their decisions. If the public incorrectly viewed their seeding as a de-facto objective power ranking, then there might be underlying betting value critiquing that assumption with more insightful power rankings that exposed value relative to the point spread (as always, sensitive to public opinion). 

There was a time when an eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament was likely one of the #29 to #32 ranked teams in the nation. One could reliably assume that a 12-seeded team fell pretty close to a team that ranks #45 to #50. It would be simply foolish to maintain that expectation these days. After the expansion of the first four round midweek before “Round One” and with more and more attention paid to the NCAA Tournament as a television product, the seeding pays less attention to creating a pure power bracket than it does presenting television programming for three weeks. There is a reason that CBS’s new NCAA Tournament 15-second advertisement features 13 seconds of “dancing” (it’s the Big Dance, get it?) and their celebrity commentators celebrating something other than actual on-the-court basketball highlights. In the world of early entry in the NBA, the transfer portal, and NIL, television is banking on a feeling rather than the product on the floor. 

Just an initial yet non-exhaustive list of criteria that conflicts with a true power rating bracket demonstrates the problem. The committee seems to take the selection of the top four one-seeds very seriously — and these four top seeds get plenty of television exposure. But then the games begin as the committee attempts to place them in opening round games that have geographic proximity to their campus. 

More conflicts ensue, with this being only a partial list that I jotted down over the last two weeks from memory. I’m sure I am missing some (and there are probably more that are not made public):

— teams from the same conference avoid being in the same potential Sweet 16 bracket.

— teams who have already played each other three times avoid being in the same bracket before the Elite Eight. 

— non-conference opponents who played in the regular season avoid each other before the Sweet 16 bracket. 

— teams like BYU avoid playing on Sundays.

— lower-seeded underdogs avoid playing in locations that would give them a geographical edge. 

Those conditions alone impact the ability to make a pure bracket. Then consider that the bracket is all but completed the night before Selection Sunday when the bracket is revealed — despite five conference tournament championship games having yet to be played. They don’t care about those results — although those results may have much to say about the true power ratings of the moment (as North Carolina State has demonstrated). 

Furthermore, cynical observers would suggest that the committee thinks about intriguing potential second and third-round matchups when seeding teams. Perhaps that is hindsight bias because even the random seeding of teams would stumble into compelling storylines. However, for those of us that consider seed numbers the equivalent of character names like “Rachel” and “Ross”, we do not think there is much integrity left in the process. Like the laughable College Football Playoff rankings show that is fully aware of the upcoming games on their multitude of networks that serve as de-facto playoff games (before their playoffs), it’s important to remember that is all a television show, folks. 

And we can still bet and win money off television programs! Just don’t put too much stock in thinking there is inherent value because the content creators decided to label a team a “Rachel”. I’ll pick on Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner here, whose work Giant Killers methodology I very much appreciated and considered insightful over the last decade or so. Maybe there is simply something about what happens to the people who start taking money from The Athletic, a publication that appears to offer bonuses for how often “insane” can be deployed as a descriptive noun. It's getting stale.

Keating and Brenner’s premise remains dependent on the evaluation of seeding. In 2012, this made sense. In 2024, it is laughably outdated. I mean, you can try to imply that the “market” is following your advice when 11-seed Oregon is a favorite against 6-seed South Carolina when 10-seed Nevada is a favorite against 7-seed Dayton, when 11-seed New Mexico is a favorite against 6-seed Clemson (I should have trusted my gut on the Tigers in that one), and two of the four 9-seeds are favored over the 8-seeds. One can also say the stripper is talking to you because she finds you truly handsome and charming if you want to ignore context. Those aren't underdogs, and they weren't underdogs before you hit send when your article was finished. The lines were out a few hours after the Selection Sunday TV show. You published it midweek. 

However, in the real world, the market caught up long ago to take heed of the publicly available power rankings system (that, coincidentally, is very, very close to your own personal power rankings systems that are (a) conveniently hidden; (b) same all the same assumptions as every other power rankings system, and our (c) still wrong all the time. 

I still like Keating and Brenner’s stuff, even if it is not as illuminating in 2024. I am very much intrigued with their evolving classification of styles of teams, such as Generic Giant for a Clemson team that plays good defense but does not create more scoring possessions by forcing turnovers or crashing the offensive glass. The recent identification of Wounded Assassins referring to teams like NC State that took a bunch of regular season losses but remain dangerous is intriguing. Labeling Marquette as a Generic Giant when they ranked 20th in the nation in forcing turnovers seemed a major misstep and betrayal of how they previously viewed Shaka Smart-coached teams when he was leading the Havoc at VCU. But that is an aside to simply this: taking credit for the higher-seeded teams whom the market and the bookies all viewed as favorites as “upset” winners is a conclusion that deserves mockery, especially when attempting to target a smarter audience. One can pretend that that point of the Giant Killers series remains filling out the bracket. In the year of our Lord 2024 when legalization of sports betting is abundant, that is not how one is reading this work that started in earnest over a decade ago (and they know it).  

Keating and Brenner’s work would be better served moving forward by attacking the oddsmakers' line rather than the tournament selection committee’s number. Yes, attacking the “Rachel” label may be easier, but relying on padded numbers from faulty seedings pretending to be a power ranking system is simply not credible any longer. 

The work is getting harder. The transfer portal, NIL, and the continued reliance on 3-point shooting are adding more and more in-season and in-game variance to the NCAA Tournament than previous Big Dances. Just when I thought the little guy perhaps had an edge with experienced rosters after the Final Four runs of San Diego State and Florida Atlantic last year, we get chalk this season with only one double-digit seed advancing to the Sweet 16 and only two “non-Power Conference schools” — San Diego State and Gonzaga — reaching the final 16 teams (and those two teams are perennial powers in college basketball). 

Those are some of the issues I will be thinking about in the offseason as I make some much-needed tweaking to my college basketball handicapping fundamentals. Relying on past models may make it easier to produce content, but it is not producing winning results. And it is fooling fewer and fewer people. 

Best of luck — Frank.   

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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