Wichita State is taking up residence in a spot that defies the guidelines used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
The selection system works well in most cases. It produces a hugely successful, hugely profitable tournament filled with excitement. While it won’t make all 351 NCAA Division I members happy, it comes close and in a few days will bury the objections in a storm of upsets, buzzer-beaters, painted faces and tears.
Then there’s Wichita State, a No. 10 seed in the 2017 field and the bracket’s biggest point of contention.
The Shockers (30-4) play seventh-seeded Dayton (24-7) on Friday and they are regarded as the favorite by many.
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Coach Gregg Marshall registered his disappointment and bewilderment on Sunday night, soon joined by a chorus of TV analysts and writers disturbed by WSU’s seed and its implications for the Shockers and their opponents.
“Wichita State, to the surprise of no one, is favored by 6.5 points against Dayton, a team seeded three spots higher than the Shockers,” wrote Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com. “So let this egregious call be the decision that changes the NCAA’s seeding and selection protocol forever going forward.”
That may happen, but too late to benefit the 2017 Shockers. Or the 2016 Shockers. Or …
NCAA selection committee member Bruce Rasmussen, athletic director at Creighton, said WSU’s case was the most-discussed team this week as the members set up the bracket.
“If we were into predictions, and we’re not, and we can’t be, I would predict that Wichita State will do very well in the tournament,” Rasmussen said. “The team that had the biggest difference between results and predictive was Wichita State. There were long and intense discussions about it.”
At its heart, the issue is scores of games — the oft-repeated “Who did you beat and where?” question.
While that may seem obvious, the inequities and quirks of college basketball scheduling create challenges for judging teams who don’t play each other.
From that issue grows the use of the power ranking known as the RPI, which attempts to categorize teams who don’t play common opponents. The RPI is a large part of the directions given to the selection committee by the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, with input from the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which oversees the sport.
The RPI is a results-based measurement that can give the committee and idea of what teams accomplished against other good teams. The RPI isn’t designed to pick winners and losers, or identify offensive or defensive strengths that can win games. That, many years, works to the detriment of schools such as WSU, who don’t get numerous opportunities to play teams well-regarded by the RPI.
“We all know Wichita State is an outstanding team, but the charge of the committee is not to be predictive,” Rasmussen said. “The charge of the committee is to focus on results, only. We have to go by results. That’s what we have been given as a means to determine who goes where.”
Until those instructions change, Rasmussen said, outliers such as the Wichita State case will continue to frustrate the committee.
“That’s the way it’s been for a long time,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said Sunday. “I don’t know what we’d do if we were a really good seed most of the time.”
The Shockers went 1-3 against the NCAA Tournament field with its lone win over 16th-seeded South Dakota State. The Shockers went 2-4 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the power rankings (RPI), with both those wins over an Illinois State team that didn’t make the tournament. Wichita State’s best non-conference — and road — win is over No. 66 Colorado State.
Compare the Shockers to other No. 10 seeds and the committee’s difficulties become clearer.
▪ Oklahoma State went 3-10 against the top 50 with a win at fourth-seeded West Virginia, a win at Wichita State and a win over No. 8 Arkansas.
▪ VCU went 3-4 against the top 50 with wins over No. 7 Dayton, No. 12 Middle Tennessee State and No. 12 Princeton.
▪ Marquette went 7-7 against the top 50, highlighted by a win over top-seeded Villanova and a sweep of sixth-seeded Creighton.
While it may be hard to justify WSU’s No. 10 seed, it would also be tough to justify moving the Shockers ahead of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys handled WSU 93-76 at Intrust Bank Arena. While the Shockers improved since that Dec. 17 meeting, the Cowboys did also.
“Wichita State was young early; we know that,” Rasmussen said. “I watched Wichita State all year; I love Wichita State. Oklahoma State was young early, got better as the year went on. It was difficult for the committee to talk about moving Wichita State in front of Oklahoma State.”
Earlier this winter, the NCAA convened a think tank with basketball analytics types to discuss better ways to select and seed. Selection guidelines with more predictive parts — such as ones used by Ken Pomeroy or Jeff Sagarin — may grow in prominence. Those metrics regard the Shockers more favorably because of their wins, margin of error and offensive and defensive efficiency.
Pomeroy, for example, ranks WSU No. 8 nationally.
On Sunday, Rasmussen said, those measures were a minor part of the discussion.
“Anybody who looks at Wichita State, and if you’re into the predictive part of it … you would recognize Wichita State is an outstanding team,” Rasmussen said.
The committee may rely more on predictive measures and less on the RPI in the future.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, down the road, there is more of a blend,” Rasmussen said.
In 2005, the NCAA declined to give Wichita State’s volleyball team — 28-3 and 18-0 in the MVC — an at-large bid. The outcry from that episode led to changes in how teams are selected for the volleyball tournament. The seeding treatment of the basketball team in recent seasons may push for changes in that sport.