March Madness is unlike any other playoff system in American sports. It combines the one-and-done nature of the NFL Playoffs with the intrigue of the NBA Finals and the spectacle of the World Series. Lost in all of this, however, is a system that allows such an event to happen every year.
Earning a spot in the NCAA March Madness Tournament
March Madness can’t operate like pro sports. Many NCAA teams compete against different opponents from one another. Going by records and tiebreakers, as most professional playoffs do, is impossible. Furthermore, the depth of field the tournament allows means they must go above and beyond the most impressive teams.
Some of this sorts itself out thanks to conference tournaments. Strangely, a lot of college basketball does not necessarily rely on the record. Teams can have a poor season but make up for it in conference tournaments. With every conference tournament comes an automatic berth to March Madness. This is the best chance many smaller schools have to make it to the tournament.
However, outside of the 32 teams decided by wins, the rest must go by decision. This can be a dangerous method that keeps deserving teams out of the running, depending on who’s asked, but the fact of the matter is that it’s the only logical way to go about things.
Trust the process
As the NCAA website explains, a three-step process decides the other 36 teams in March Madness. The committee, made of reps from around college basketball, is not shackled to any specific conferences. But they must try to give a competitive balance to all four regions of the bracket. And committee members are not allowed to vote for a school they are connected with.
Members can use anything at their disposal to help dictate who is deserving, including game film, box scores, head-to-head results, and strength of schedule. While the wins and losses don’t necessarily hinder teams in tournaments, a team lacking an impressive record rarely makes it to the decision phase.
The committee compiles a list of teams they deem at-large selections or no brainers in one column. In a second column, the members compile teams that should receive consideration. Teams receiving overwhelming support are moved into the tournament field, while others are put “under consideration.” As the teams make it in, the “under consideration” board is for those who are left.
Once 68 teams are decided upon, they receive a seed based on their strength within the region they represent. The best teams will have the highest seeds; the weakest teams occupy the final seeds. Each region’s 16-seed is decided by a play-in game among the weakest teams.
Building the bracket
Once seeds are chosen, the regions are decided to ensure that every team meets the rules. Teams are not allowed home games if there is a game to be played in their stadium or area in early rounds. Furthermore, teams from the same conference can’t play against each other until the regional rounds.
While convoluted and deep, this complicated process helps to make the seemingly impossible task of picking 68 teams a little bit more palatable. It is an ever-evolving method that changes over time. While some lament the absence of their favorite teams or seeding, there aren’t too many viable alternatives to the tried-and-true method the NCAA allows.
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