The NCAA Tournament selection committee has its work cut out for it again. Every year, they lock themselves in somewhat of a bunch during championship week, preparing for Selection Sunday. These committee members will make the important decisions: Not just "in" or "out," which are typically the focus, but also seeding, pods and location. The NCAA Tournament bracket is a giant puzzle, and it's the committee's task to put it all together.
The process is both simple and complicated. Automatic bids cut the field almost in half, and it's up to the committee to figure out the "at-large" teams. There are 31 automatic bids -- 30 for conference tournament winners and one for the Ivy League regular season champion -- and 37 at-large bids. So the committee is deciding the fate of 37 teams, inevitably leaving a few deserving teams out.
As the NCAA Tournament bracket begins to take shape, the committee has two buckets. The members will run through and pick its 37 at-large teams early, not taking into account conference tournament winners. Teams that earn an automatic bid will either be slotted into the field of 31 auto-bids, or moved from the at-large to the automatic column, opening up another at-large bid.
Throughout the week and into Sunday, the committee is constantly moving teams around. If a favored team that's already a lock to earn an at-large bid wins its conference tournament, another "bubble" spot opens. If an underdog -- perhaps a bubble team or one that wasn't in the tournament at all -- steals an auto-bid, it's cause for concern for other teams on the fringe.
In basic terms, this is how the field is put together. Selection committee members have access to mounds of data, including RPI and a bevy of stats, and also takes into account factors such as injuries, strength of schedule, and much more. Once all 68 teams are locked in, the difficult work of seeding and placing teams begins.
What matters when it comes to seeding? Let's take a look.
Location, location, location
It's all about location early on. The second and third rounds -- round of 64 and round of 32 -- take place in pods. These are like mini-regionals held at arenas across the country. Seeding is important here, sure, but location is a big factor. If a team is underseeded a tad but doesn't have to travel far, it's an advantage. Typically, the top-4 seeds will get the benefit of protected location. They'll stay close to home -- or as close as possible -- to ease the burden of travel and gain a possible advantage by packing the arena with their fans.
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is madness, and the reason it's called March Madness. With 32 games going on over the first two days, and another 16 over the weekend, this is where most of the madness takes place. It's where we'll see the upsets and buzzer-beaters, and everything that makes March Madness great. It's also a time for the top-seeded teams to survive.
The pod is the small group of teams that serve as a route to the regional semifinals and finals. The difficulty of the pod is, in the first two rounds, more important than the overall seeding. The selection committee has a lot of work to do with the pods, and the difficulty of them is key for the top-seeded team.
Throwing a wrench in seeding
The selection committee also has to manage pods and paths to the Final Four. Seeding may have to be tweaked -- with teams dropping down a seed line or moving up one, based on sets of rules. The committee avoids having conference teams playing each other early, and may have to move a lower-seeded team around to accomplish this. The same goes for pods and travel: Teams will be moved in an effort to make the puzzle work and come together.
Keep an eye on the mid-majors. Some of the most fun games we've seen in the past involve upstart mids playing David to major-conference Goliaths. By the same token, we've seen mid-on-mid crime -- mid-majors having to play other solid mid-majors early, instead of getting a shot at the big boys. Watch where the strong mids are put, and what path they'll have to the second weekend. You'll be able to tell a lot about the selection committee.
The selection committee will take heat after the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed -- a tradition that's stood the test of time. There will be quibbles about teams that didn't make it, or teams that did and perhaps don't deserve to be dancing. The process will be scrutinized, broken down, and analyzed to death -- and that's okay.
But the committee has, for the most part, done a solid job under difficult circumstances. There are many factors that make selecting each year's bracket tough -- dynamic factors that pop up as March Madness gets underway with tournaments. And there are many things that come into play when figuring out seeding and pods.
The NCAA Tournament bracket puzzle is a difficult one to put together, and the task of the committee isn't enviable. In the end, though, we'll forget about all this in a week, when March Madness is in full swing and the wonderful buffet of games satiate us for another year. It's a fun time of year, and soon we'll see the names on a piece of paper transform into real, tangible matchups and games.