Busted Before It Even Began

Monmouth was among the NCAA Tournament’s most egregious snubs. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Originally published in The Fordham Ram on March 18, 2016.

“Secondary Sports Holidays” is a term I came up with to describe events that are widely embraced by sports fans, but are not on the same level as events like the Super Bowl. In other words, they’re analogous to Groundhog Day. This category includes events like the MLB trade deadline, the NFL draft and major soccer games featuring the United States national team.

The most revered of these days was this past Sunday: Selection Sunday for the March Madness bracket. It’s the day when your grandmother fills out a correct bracket by remembering an old boyfriend who played basketball at UNC Wilmington and picking the Seahawks to win the whole thing.

Rumblings that this year’s Selection Sunday was going to be a less violent version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre began to surface when CBS announced that their bracket reveal show would be stretched from one hour to two for the first time. Remember, this is essentially a reading of a list of 68 teams that has historically been completed in an hour — and even that’s probably 45 minutes too long. But this year, the powers that be decided to provide instant “analysis” from Charles Barkley, who struggled with working the touchscreen he was using to analyze. Luckily, someone leaked the bracket when the show was halfway over, saving us from jokes about how much lotion Chuck uses on his hands.

The selection show was a farce, but once eyes were turned to the actual bracket, the true issues began. An important part of the whole tradition is getting mad about this team getting in over that team, but these arguments generally involve splitting hairs.

That isn’t the case this year. The two biggest offenses were the inclusions of both Syracuse and Tulsa over teams with decidedly more impressive resumes, including fan-favorite Monmouth and the Atlantic 10’s St. Bonaventure, among many, many (seriously, how did this happen?) other teams.

Every year, bracket experts try to be the next Joe Lunardi — despite the fact that Lunardi is still alive and doing his job — and determine the bracket ahead of time. Lately, as the Selection Committee has become more transparent (which I’ll get to), it has become pretty easy to determine which teams will be included. TheBracketMatrix.com collects bracket predictions, and of the 59 submitted, not a single one had Tulsa in. In fact, the matrix has now extended to over 100 bracketologists, and just one, “Drew’s Bracketology,” had them in. Tulsa has an RPI (which the committee has said over and over again is a major factor in selecting at-large bids) of 61, lower than those of Monmouth, South Carolina, Valparaiso and St. Mary’s, among others left out. Additionally, Tulsa had just been thoroughly dismantled by a Memphis team that was 138th in RPI and lost to 149th-ranked Oral Roberts.

Even the reasoning from committee chair Joe Castiglione makes no sense. Pretty much everything he said made the Tulsa decision sound worse. First, he brought up Tulsa’s “four top-50 wins, including a road win over SMU.” He continued, “They had eight top-100 wins, and to add some context to that, six of the eight top-100 wins were over teams in the tournament.” St. Bonaventure had seven wins over the top 100 and lost just five. While Tulsa may have won eight, they also lost another eight. They also lost six games to teams that missed the tournament, even when the committee cited St. Bonaventure’s losing to five non-tournament teams as the reason for its exclusion.

Sure, Tulsa being chosen made no sense. But at least the Selection Committee put them in a First Four game, meaning they were one of the last teams chosen.

But the bracket’s most egregious inclusion was the Syracuse Orange, a team with an RPI of 68, even lower than Tulsa’s. That is the lowest RPI for a team with an at-large bid in the history of the tournament. That wouldn’t be so terrible had they also been tossed into a First Four game, but instead, they got a straight-up No. 10 seed. 14 teams with higher RPIs did not make the tournament. This may be the most mind-boggling decision since Sanjaya made the top seven on American Idol.

First of all, Syracuse lost to St. John’s 84-72 — you know, that team Fordham beat 73-57 and that ranked 245th in RPI. Syracuse also lost five of their last six games, including its first game of the ACC tournament.

Syracuse getting in isn’t totally egregious, even though their RPI is awful. The issue is their receiving a No. 10 seed. They are somehow the 39th overall seed, higher than Tulsa, VCU and Wichita State, among others. At best, Syracuse should have been one of the last four in. Instead, they lucked out with a 10th seed. Apparently, the committee decided to disregard the games they played without head coach Jim Boeheim while he served a suspension, which is not how a basketball season works.

What makes the inclusions even more baffling are the justifications for the exclusions. Monmouth did exactly what the Selection Committee says mid-major teams must do to secure at-large bids: schedule and win road games against major conference teams. Monmouth scheduled five of those games and won all five. That includes going on the road to beat UCLA, one of the toughest environments in sports. While UCLA only has a RPI of 99, they beat the likes of Kentucky (15th overall seed) and Arizona (23rd) at home. And despite having to play a weaker conference schedule, they still beat three tournament teams in Notre Dame (22nd overall seed), USC (31st) and Iona (54th).

Yes, Monmouth did lose three games teams with RPIs of 200 or more. However, almost the entirety of its conference schedule is against bad teams, and all three of those losses came on the road. The Hawks play an inordinate number of sub-200 teams, and they did not lose a single one of those games at home.

In addition to Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, San Diego State, South Carolina, St. Mary’s and Valpo all did exactly what the committee wants. Were all of these teams going to get in? No. But when teams like Syracuse, Tulsa, Michigan and Vanderbilt get in over them (some of them ostensibly due to playing in a power conference), that is a cause for concern.

These are only the problems the Selection Committee had with choosing the teams. The actual seeding itself was also a mess, and it included mistakes such as putting Michigan State as a No. 2 seed and Seton Hall as a No. 6. But I won’t get into that, because I’ve already typed more than a thousand angry words.

You know what the worst part of this is? Syracuse is probably going to go to the Elite Eight (which your best friend’s little sister will get right because she likes oranges), and Monmouth will lose in the first round of the NIT.

The Selection Committee has literally one job, and they managed to foul it up immensely. That, along with the dragging selection show, absolutely demolished the sanctity of this year’s Selection Sunday, thereby ruining a Secondary Sports Holiday for fans across the country. How would you like it if when Punxsutawney Phil came out of the ground, we ate him for dinner instead of using him to predict the length of seasons?

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