Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Committee

Seems like everyone is putting in their 2 cents about changes to the NCAA tourney selection process this week. Since the committee is meeting soon to discuss the process, and put on a TV show so they can make more money, I want to make sure they have my valuable input. I do realize that when it comes down to it, all they really care about is making money, so that will in the end be the determining factor despite my wise advice. From what I read on the interwebs, the committee may revise the metrics part of how they pick the teams and seeds. The demise of the RPI, and the birth of a more advanced metric system to determine what teams get in will be the beginning of a new era where fairness rules over the process.

As you may have guessed by now, I don’t care that much about this. I think the process as it is right now gets everything basically right. You can certainly quibble about team 68 getting in over team 69, or a team getting seeded a couple too high or low. In the end, they all have to win 6 games against good to great basketball teams, and start seeded pretty close to where they should. As for team 69 that doesn’t get that chance, there isn't any system that will not result in a subjective decision between a few teams with very little difference between them. The idea that using advanced metrics will result in significantly different outcomes on selection Sunday is silly. It’s even more silly to think any changes will lead to a better tournament.

Now that I have cleared all that up, I can dive into this, as I don’t really have any problem with changing the metrics that the committee uses, I just don’t have expectations that anything will be different or more fair.

Part of the problem lies with the committee and that they tell us they want to get the “best” teams into the tournament, without telling anyone what "best" means. This is frustrating since there is no way to know why something like overall strength of schedule is valued over top 50 wins or vice versa in any given year. Much of the recent debate seems to be focused on a pretty good indicator of “better”, the margin of victory, and why that should or shouldn’t be used to select and seed teams. Especially as it relates to just victories, and the inevitable example of Maryland.

Coaches will game any system to give themselves any advantage possible as that is their job, and they are all crazy competitive. The RPI is gamed now, and to think that coaches won’t game any new system is naive. It’s not hard to take this to the extreme conclusion that coaches will play starters longer, run up scores, and do whatever unsportsmanlike actions they have to in order to get a higher seed. You can even go to the extreme of a team being down 3 at the end of a game, and taking the easy 2 and losing, because it will close the margin of victory over a higher risk 3 point shot that would tie. Seems crazy and it is, but the discussion of should wins matter more than margin is interesting.

With the system as it is, both wins and margin matter, but some would like to see margin matter more.  I don’t like that much. It seems strange to value a metric like margin of victory over wins to select and seed teams in a tournament where each game is single elimination where margin means nothing. It values having “better” teams over having a better season, which bring us back to the example of Maryland. Maryland has recently had great seasons (measured by wins) without having great teams. 

Maryland has been winning lots of close games in recent seasons to the chagrin of advanced stats people. They don’t blow out bad teams that they probably should if they were as good as their ranking indicated, but all those close wins don’t hurt rankings much. I concede this leads to Maryland getting into the tournament/seeded higher than they should be, and I think that is good. I think teams should be rewarded for having a great season as defined by wins (close or not). Having a great season should matter over being a great team. If I wanted to watch a college football playoff game with the 2 teams playing the best, I would have seen USC play Alabama. USC was playing unbelievable football at the end of the year, but they lost 3 games during that season. I don’t want the National Champion to have 3 losses, because wins should matter, even if USC was incredible by the end of the year. In the great words of Herm Edwards “You play to win the game”.

If you have made it through these rambling thoughts, I’m sorry I can’t give you those few minutes of your life back to you. Take heart in that it doesn’t matter, the committee pretty much gets it right anyway, and that’s good enough in an imperfect world. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't think many disagree with your basic point that wins should be the paramount concern, and that Maryland should be awarded for its wins rather than penalized for its lack of style points. The ONLY people I've seen arguing for pure MOV / predictive metrics to be a major factor in selection are fans of mid-major teams that get systematically screwed by the current process.

    The big "problem" with the current system is just that the RPI has fundamental flaws that can be gamed by scheduling, which systematically favors programs with scheduling power. So if you rely on RPI (as the NCAA does) you are systematically favoring programs with scheduling power. That is really a difference in kind than the argument of "should we select the best teams or the most accomplished teams"? It's just not fair.

    I think it's telling that the counter-argument you make about how MOV considerations can be "gamed" is basically that teams will try to win by more and lose by less. There may be very very extreme examples when those goals aren't completely overlapping with the goal of winning of the game, but in 99.99999999999999% of situations, the best way to accomplish the uber goal of winning the game is to try to score as many points as you can and try to make your opponent score as few points as it can. This is very far removed from "try to schedule teams that will win a lot of games in their shitty conference to come play you at your place where they have almost no chance of winning and avoid road games against mid-majors" -- which not only has nothing to do with basketball, but actively makes the sport worse in my opinion.

    So far I've been accepting your premise that the committee is considering going to something that actively encourages increased margin of victory. But there is zero chance of that actually happening. That's why in my post I recommended something like WAB or strength of record, which provides absolutely zero incentive to run up scores. (In WAB, if you run up the score all that does is make your opponent seem like a marginally worse team, which on the margin decreases the value of that victory.)

    The ultimate fact is that ANYTHING would be better than RPI, which is a terrible rating system almost by design. A full 75% of your RPI rating is essentially predetermined the day the schedules come out, and that 75% of the RPI doesn't even attempt to account for the existence of home-court advantage!

    In the end I agree that the tournament is okay even with the terrible RPI, mainly because everyone is involved knows how terrible the RPI is and therefore they don't even pretend that it's a reliable indicator of team quality (thus their use of "buckets" -- top 50, top 100 -- on the theory that it is maybe okay to use RPI +/- 25 ranking spots). It could really be improved, though, or at least the selection process could be a lot more rational and less crazymaking if they switched to a non-terrible metric as the basis for all their decisions.