On Monday, the NCAA revealed a pair of changes to how the selection process for the men's basketball tournament will play out from this season on. The changes have been put into effect in order to give the selection committee more flexibility to create the most fair tournament possible, which is something that most people seem to be in favor of.
The first change pertains to the already controversial "First Four."
Previously, the guidelines called for the last four teams voted into the tournament field during the selection process to participate in the First Four; now the last four at-large teams on the overall seed list will play in those opening round games.
During the selection process, the committee typically votes for eight schools from a pool of teams under consideration for the tournament. After that vote, the committee ranks those eight teams and the top four vote-getters move to the at-large board, meaning they are in the tournament. During the seeding process, committee members vote for eight schools from a pool of teams already in the field. When those eight teams are determined, committee members rank them and the top four are placed on the overall seed list, which is the committee's ranking of all 68 teams.
Throughout selection weekend, the committee will compare teams on the seed list with one another, a process known as "scrubbing," to make sure the group is comfortable with the order in which the teams are ranked. Teams are carefully compared with one another, 1 versus 2, 2 versus 3 and down to 67 versus 68. However, due to the previous principles calling for the last four at-large teams selected to the field participating in the First Four, a full scrubbing process did not take place with those four teams. The new principles change that process.
This is change -- which you'd have to think is at least partly due to the fact that UCLA was the biggest surprise inclusion in the field last season and didn't have to play in the First Four -- that isn't likely to create much of a national splash, especially when you consider that a majority of the public likely assumed that this was how the tournament's opening round was assembled already.
The second alteration, which should generate a bit more buzz, involves making sure that two of the tournament's top five teams don't have to meet until at least the Final Four.
Another change the committee made will provide flexibility for seeding the four teams on the No. 2 line. While teams from the same conference will remain in separate regions, the committee may consider moving the team seeded fifth on the overall seed list out of its natural geographic area to avoid the best of the No. 2 seeds being placed in the same region as the top overall team.
It seems like a no-brainer -- yes, the team which has played better than all others for the previous four months should be protected to the point that it isn't assigned to a region with the tournament's best No. 2 seed. Still, the fact that this change needs to be made or even addressed at all speaks to the biggest problem with college basketball's postseason right now.
There isn't a sport more defined by its postseason than college basketball, which claims not only to have the most exciting way to crown a champion, but the most democratic. Every team (in theory) gets to play until it loses, which is fantastic, but it's not like the regular season has zero impact on all of this. The teams that have done the best work over the course of the past four months are rewarded by the tournament's selection committee with the easiest potential paths to the national championship. Teams that may have hit their strides later in the season still have a chance to be in the field and prove their worth, but there still have to be ramifications for their early season struggles, and thus they are given more difficult roads to the national championship.
It's a beautiful system, but it only works if the highest premium is placed on the tournament being concocted in as fair a fashion as possible. As of right now, that isn't being done.
A few years ago, the NCAA made the decision to abandon the old "S-Curve" method of bracketing (winding down in an "S" pattern so that the No. 1 overall seed is in a region with the worst No. 2 seed, the best No. 3 seed, the worst No. 4 seed, and so on) in favor of seeding the tournament's top teams based on geography.
This is all well and fine if we're just talking about the No. 1 seeds, which have earned the right to play close to home and deserve to be protected, but the committee does this with all teams seeded 1-4. Basically, if you're the top No. 2 seed, instead of being automatically assigned to the bracket of the weakest No. 1 seed, you're automatically assigned to the region that is the closest to you geographically. The same system is in place for seeds 3 and 4.
As you might expect, this has led to some extremely unbalanced regions in recent years.
Two seasons ago, Wichita State became the first team since 1991 to enter the NCAA Tournament with an unblemished record, and was rightfully rewarded with a No. 1 seed. The committee's rankings of all 68 teams later revealed that the Shockers were regarded as the No. 3 overall team in the tournament, meaning they should have been assigned a region with the second-strongest No. 2 and No. 4 seeds, and the third-strongest No. 3 seed. Instead, Gregg Marshall's team was dealt the remarkably unfair hand of being in the same region as the tournament's best No. 3 and No. 4 seeds (Michigan and Louisville), and its second-best No. 2 seed (Duke). Toss in preseason No. 1 (and eventual national runner-up) Kentucky as a remarkably under-seeded No. 8, and you have one of the most unfairly stacked regions in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2013, eventual national champion Louisville was named as the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, the team more deserving of protection than any of the other 67 in the field. Instead, the Cardinals were assigned to the same region as a Duke team that most experts believed was going to be a No. 1 seed itself, as well as the tournament's third-strongest No. 3 and No. 4 seeds (Michigan State and Saint Louis). So the overall No. 1 seed was given a region where none of the other top four seeds were the weakest teams on their line.
If your goal is to set up the most fair tournament possible based on the results of the previous five months, there is simply no way to justify this. The examples will continue to pile up until a complete overhaul to the selection process is made and a premium emphasis is put back on crowning a national champion in the most legitimate manner possible.
While today's changes are certainly two steps in the right direction, they're also a pair of positive steps that shouldn't need to be taken in the first place.