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Arcade Mode: Challenges to the 2021 NCAA Tournament Selection Process

How can the NCAA modify its process to account for a bizarre season?

Gonzaga NCAA practice Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

There is a certain era, a certain generation who acutely understands what it was like to spend hours dropping coins in an arcade. Now to be fair, arcades and their games have been around since the 70s and there has been a resurgence of them over the past decade with nostalgia and e-sports taking flight. Yet the generation we’re speaking of is one that grew up on the Street Fighter’s and Mortal Kombat’s of the world, where you compete head to head, win, and stay on the sticks until a new challenger arrives. At times you’d have to ask complete strangers to play if your friend left early or if you just needed a warm body while trying to practice developing your skills. This is exactly what scheduling feels like in 2020 for college athletics (basketball more so than football) and why NCAA tournament evaluation must meet the moment.

After NC State had to cancel the William & Mary game because of COVID concerns, the next couple days produced talk about who and how we’d replace them. We needed a new challenger. We needed to find someone, anyone, to just play the game so our young team could continue to hone their skills leading into a tough stretch against UCONN, Michigan & Louisville. Picking up UMASS-Lowell sparked debate (surprise!) among Wolfpack fans with some arguing this was fine considering the circumstances (plus they beat SF, who beat UVA!) while others worried about our Non-Con SOS after it was cited as the primary reason we missed the 2019 NCAA tournament. But the fact is we have no clue how the NCAA will make selections this year (and I’ll stake everything on there being a tournament, they aren’t losing that revenue again). There’s no precedent to consider. Notably, we can’t really judge anything based on the College Football Playoff Committee because they are 1) a different entity and 2) that committee is inundated with a brazen bunch of grifters only in the business of elevating name brands to collectively maximize the revenue of P5s like they are Prop Joe’s Co-Op.

The NCAA when it comes to basketball isn’t much better, but they are less beholden to power conferences because at the very least they have auto-bids to consider and a formula they publicly follow that really only gets subjective with bubble teams and seeding. When evaluating, at the top of each team’s sheet they include overall record, analytics like NET/BPI/KenPom and the infamous quadrant wins/losses. Also included at the top is each team’s strength of schedule both overall and in the non-conference. While historically a middling SOS doesn’t exclude teams from the tournament (can we all agree that it’s REALLY about who you beat), we know first-hand that SOS exists as a tie-breaker (or, ya know, an excuse) to justify why a program was excluded. This is all in a normal year...but this ain’t a normal year. So due to the arcade style scheduling that teams have had to do, scrambling to find opponents to play, the NCAA is really going to have to rethink this metric.

How do you do this? Well for one, we have to acknowledge that if the goal is picking the best 36 teams in basketball it is fair to judge them on who they played and who they beat. That formula must exist as it informs the analytics that help to determine who could get into the NCAA Tourny, compete, and win a game or two. When teams have a 200+ Non-Con SOS rating the common refrain from talking heads and committee leaders is “they didn’t challenge themselves with a tough enough schedule.” So, in a year like this, a new metric should be added called PSOS (Preseason Strength of Schedule) that takes into account the games that teams had on the docket but were dropped due to COVID concerns/restrictions. To be clear, it shouldn’t be added into the analytics formulas themselves (there are too many variables), but it should be present so that the committee can see what programs attempted to do.

Subjectivity is fine in this process (i.e. accounting for injuries) so adding more opportunities to “show your work” has to be considered for this season. The NCAA should take more factors into account by announcing the bubble teams before the conference tournaments begin. No order or rankings needed just the 8-10+ teams they’ve written in pencil instead of pen. Allow those teams to submit documentation that includes their potential schedule, injuries they’ve had and time taken off due to COVID. A team that misses two weeks of practice before a tough stretch of games should be allowed to justify why they struggled (or, if they had success, bolster their case). Sure, knowing the bubble teams early could remove some anticipation from Selection Sunday, but imagine the drama of watching these guys and girls play their hearts out to win games in their conference tournament knowing they are on the bubble as opposed to assuming that a first round win was enough because Joe Lunardi or Jerry Palm just arbitrarily said it was. Or imagine the team that thought they were on the bubble now knowing they have to fight to make or win their conference championship game to get back in the conversation.

Of course, this was all written without a hint of bias considering how often State is on the bubble. Or that State had to drop out of potential neutral-court games against Baylor and Villanova that, win or lose, would’ve made this year’s Non-Con SOS concern moot. Still, the NCAA would do itself some good will by announcing how they will judge the non-conference early, so that teams can adjust their schedules efficiently without risking health to keep a marquee matchup or avoid playing a game altogether because it could be counted as a bad loss. With unavoidable cancellations, programs are ready for a new challenger…the NCAA should make it that much easier to pass the sticks with impunity.