By Cindy Luis
For those of you who don’t frequent VolleyTalk … have to admit I don’t go on much … but was alerted to this Q&A that should clear up some of our previous discussions … make sure to read the last answer. pretty funny.
The “Guru’ is supposed to be an authority on the NCAA bracketology and a member of the selection committee.
VT:So how many teams are considered when the committee sits down to discuss the 64 slots in the tournament?
The Guru:Well, there are a number of automatic qualifiers, teams that won their conference tournaments. The rest are teams that are considered to be deserving of being selected as at-large selections.
VT:What makes those teams deserving of an at-large bid, there are a lot of teams that can be selected. What is the cut off criteria?
The Guru:Well, there is no cut-off criterion per se. The committee looks at the body of work, approaching the eligible teams from a body of work point of view. The basis of comparing the bodies of work changes slightly from year to year. For this season the following pieces of information are included: above 0.500 record, RPI, Schedule strength, Regional rankings, National rankings (AVCA poll), Pablo, Significant wins (wins against teams with 1-70 RPI), Significant losses (losses against teams ranked 150-250 RPI), Common Opponent results, Head to Head result, and their records for the last 10 matches.
VT:So which is more important? Many have pointed at the RPI as the key criteria for getting in and for seeding.
The Guru:This is where the VTers start verging towards fantasyland. In actuality, and this is a part of the rules for the selection committee, not one metric is more important than another, each team is evaluated by the body of work as defined by the data as I had previously stated. Even automatic qualifiers are still subject to these data except for the winning record. A conference champion, especially a tournament champion, may have a record below 0.500
VT:We had heard that Pablo and the AVCA poll were not a part of the process. Why the change?
The Guru:The rules makers were concerned enough about the Pablo being a method which is more about predicting outcomes than about ranking teams. But I think they are finally comfortable with Pablo being more beneficial towards getting the tournament consideration decision and the seeding decisions right that they decided to use it this year.
As for the AVCA poll. The committee was very concerned about the effect of the college coaching trying to game the polls by voting for their own best interest that the polls do not reflect a “true” ranking or being careless in their selections. But once the AVCA started publishing the poll voter’s votes, so that people are being held accountable for their votes, it cleared up that obstacle, it forced the poll voters to be more accountable..
VT:So does the process place an inordinate amount of emphasis on the RPI as many have speculated?
The Guru:Like I said before, the RPI is but one dimension for consideration. Again think in terms of the whole evaluation process as looking at the body of work by that team for that season.
Let me describe how it all works and you will get an idea. All the teams that meet the criteria, including the automatic qualifiers all get thrown into a pot. They are then ranked by their RPI, AVCA poll, and Pablo. They pick the first eight teams since there are eight branches in the bracket feeding into the final four. They then start discussing each of these teams looking at their results in terms of regional rankings, records against common opponents, each other, good wins/bad losses etc. and most importantly, their record in the last ten matches of the season. This last point is incredibly important because many teams have dropped in stock because they were just limping into the end of the season and living off of the records that they had built early in the season.
VT:It sounds like the rankings and ratings are a starting point.
The Guru:You can see it that way. Keep in mind what these rating and ranking numbers are all about; they take a team’s achievement through out the season, wins, losses, good wins, bad losses and they collapse all those variables into one number: the ranking. The way that number is arrived at involves a lot of estimation and averaging of subjective grades. The other numbers mentioned that aren’t averaged are used to reconstitute the body of work and recover the dimensionality of the season because those numbers remind the selection committee how each of the teams got to their ranking, these numbers gives granularity to the rankings.
VT:OK, I can see how that works; I didn’t realize that those regional ranking numbers were used.
The Guru:Regional rankings are taken very seriously. The process work hard at finely differentiating one team from another and take the process seriously. There are regional advisory committees starting the second week of season to rank teams in the region and give their version of the top 20. These are mostly coaches representing their conferences. The selection committee members will meet with these regional advisory committees off and on, but most importantly right before the selection process begins and ask their opinions. They would ask them about each team, about whether their wins are deserved or whether the teams can beat any of the other eligible teams in the region if they have not played; each selection committee member is responsible for a region, so their job is to know everything about those teams in their region and where they stack up against each other.
So anyways, the first eight teams are stacked up and ranked. They then move on to the second eight and so on. The ranking criteria is based on those statistics I talked about earlier. Pretty lively discussions go on about where to put each team within the block of eight; this is where the record in the last ten matches really puts distance between otherwise identical teams, as well as discussions on the good wins and bad losses.
VT:Talk about how the other numbers used to give the process more granularity?
The Guru:Things like quality wins and bad losses, head to head competition between teams, and record against common opponents are totaled up for each team as well. These kind of data helps give granularity and precision to the ranking type of numbers. The committee is able to separate out the teams that by all other general measures look identical by revealing more about the quality of each team’s schedules, wins and losses.
One example of the one bad loss affecting seeding is the case of USC in 2011. They were very highly ranked in the AVCA poll heading into selection weekend but because they had one of the worst bad losses to a much lower ranked team (UCF), they got dropped to seventh overall. No one else had anything that was close to that bad of a loss,
VT:One can argue that the loss came very early in the season and that it really doesn’t reflect the team that USC was at the end of the season.
The Guru:The fact is, they still lost a bad loss.
VT:So what happens if there aren’t eight teams in a block?
The Guru:We drop to the next eight and figure out which one of those deserves to be up by using the same process with the preceding block and then move them up to fill out the eight.
VT:It sounds like all the teams do actually get ranked.
The Guru:Ranked but not seeded. The committee does seed the first two groups of eight and that is how the first sixteen teams get to be seeded. This is important because these are the teams that get the opportunity to host the first two rounds of the tournament. Before 2011-2012, this determined whose’ trips get paid for by the NCAA.
VT:Wait. Not all the travel expenses get paid for all the teams?
The Guru:The committee has at their disposal a number of trips for the teams. But since 2011, having the seeded teams host made it a whole lot easier. Oh, and those teams who drive gets their driving expenses reimbursed, but that is it.
VT:OK, that brings up another interesting question: why doesn’t volleyball seed all 64 teams, including the automatic qualifiers?
The Guru:Well, there is a major ramification with seeding every team, even though the work is done to rank each team within each block of eight teams that are the most similar in terms of body of work. But the committee is well aware that travel and other rules of the NCAA will dictate where those non-seeded teams will go in terms of playing site. Many people know that in a bracket of 64, the four regional first seeds will play the regional sixteenth seed in the first round. So the seeds for each matchup in the first round must total 17, and the final round matchup must add up to 5. This kind of bracket making gives the top seeds the easiest route to the regional finals. This also means that an low seed automatic qualifier may need to travel cross country to play one match and come home, a prospect that many of the lower seeds won’t do or can’t do economically given their budget constraints, and it really isn’t a very good way to spend your scarce resources.
VT:Well, you said that the committee had travel money at their discretion?
The Guru:Not that much money, but if you seeded all 64 teams, then the committee will be sending the teams all over the country, or else some teams may just forfeit their first round matches.
VT:So what you are saying is that if we wanted the entire bracket to be seeded, the NCAA volleyball would have to find a way to pay for all 64 teams to travel.
The Guru:That’s the long and short of it. I don’t know of any school that is willing to pay for the volleyball team to travel to a single digit seed’s home court, play one match, get smacked and pay for the flight home, especially cross country or even going from someplace in the northeast to California, or Hawaii.
VT:Does the committee use any kind of an online mileage computation aid to figure out what the mileages are for the location of the first round site?
The Guru:To be totally honest, there isn’t really the need. The flights are a function of the airlines and their policies and restrictions, so it really isn’t worth the effort to figure that stuff to the minutest level because the flight situation changes all the time and if the committee worked it out to the last mile, the travel plans will most likely change anyways. And there is no longer a need, with each of the sixteen seeds hosting, they will cluster those teams that are lower in the overall list to someplace close to home.
VT:Well, this brings up the situation where Kentucky, Dayton, and Lipscomb had to all travel to College Station to play, while all three of them are within close proximity of each other and Texas A & M was the lone team that was in Texas, why couldn’t TAMU have traveled to meet up with those three teams?
The Guru:Well, did any one of those three other teams get seeded? No, I guess not. Get seeded and things will get a whole lot easier.
VT:OK, so what’s next?
The Guru:Well, we then move the automatic qualifiers around to that they can play against the seeded teams that are mileage-wise the closest venue for them to travel to.
VT:We have had a bunch of VTers complain about Penn State getting an easy first couple of rounds. Is this the reason why?
The Guru:Yes. As it turns out, the closest first round venue to some of these northeastern automatic qualifiers is in State College, so that is where they are sent.
VT:You mean this has nothing to do with a bias towards Russ Rose and Penn State?
The Guru:Nope. Another VTer delusion. Trust me, as soon someone in the Northeast wins enough to be seeded above Penn State and wants to host, the committee will move it to their campus.
VT:So is that the end? Do they have the bracket done then?
The Guru:Not so fast my friend. The NCAA also have a number of mandates concerning teams from the same conference playing against each other in the first two rounds, as well as other constraints concerning competition between conference opponents.
VT:Well, you say that there are rules about teams from the same conference playing each other, but a few years ago, there was a bloodbath for the Big Ten when three teams ended up on the same branch of the bracket. How did that happen?
The Guru:I think that was a case of the seeding dictating where those teams landed. The committee does not haphazardously move teams from different regionals if it wreaks havoc with the seeding.
VT:Huh, so the committee is duty bound to meet every one of the NCAA rules?
The Guru:Yep. Once you have seen the rules, the travel restrictions, and how the automatic qualifiers fall into the overall bracket, it becomes very obvious that the bracket really creates itself, warts and all, the committee’s bias, if it exists, has no effect on the outcome of the bracket.
VT:OK, it may have nothing to do with the bracket but it might have something to do with who gets in.
The Guru:It may seem that way, but the committee really gets down to splitting hairs while they get down to the last five teams that are allowed into the tournament and the first five that are left out. They really rely on the key numbers: record in the last ten matches played, good win/bad losses, and their record against the other teams that are already in, common opponents and head to head. Those numbers really tell the story about how they have done throughout the season. This is why there ise no mulligan if you are on the verge.
I read the discussion about being a 0.500 with great interest. The discussion serves to illustrate my point. There are lots of teams that finish just above 0.500. Not all of them get in. Only the ones that are deserving, by virtue of their record against the best competition, get in. Unlike football, being 0.500 does not automatically get you into a bowl game; it just gets you into consideration. If you played a really tough schedule and you have won more of those matches than lost, then you get in, but if you play a tough schedule and lose, well, there are others that did better so you are on the outside looking in. The scale for who gets in or not is dependent on who else is in the mix that season, and it will slide depending on everyone’s body of work.
VT:Wow, I can see that now. So why are you opening up the curtains this little bit?
The Guru:Well, every year the committee gets slammed for this bonehead move with someone’s favorite team or gives someone else’s least favorite team as easy pass. I read some of these comments and realize that most of the people commenting have no clue as to what the process is and how all of this comes together. I just wanted the process to be more transparent and try to assure some people out there that Elvis is not alive and there isn’t a conspiracy against Hawaii and for Penn State.