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Mar 07 2018
by Rina Lee

How Are College Basketball Teams Actually Picked for March Madness?

By Rina Lee - Mar 07 2018
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For any collegiate basketball fan, March Madness is undoubtedly the most highly anticipated event of the year, racking up an average of 9,325,000 million viewers and an all-time record of 69.1 million live streams in 2017. Just like any other major sporting event, however, March Madness inevitably comes with its own overwhelming amount of obscure terminology and rules, making it difficult, if not downright impossible, for new fans to fully appreciate and enjoy the games. For instance, is there anything lonelier than being lost and confused in a sea of painted faces, sweat-stained jerseys and the insistent buzzing of words such as “seeds” and “pods” – which apparently have nothing to do with gardening?

These seemingly outlandish terms (and many more) all have to do with one specific thing – the selection of the 68 March Madness teams that will compete for the title of national champion. Contrary to the bitter remarks made by some disappointed fans, however, the team selection process is actually a highly standardized and detailed procedure that reflects its critical role in setting the overall tournament in motion. After all, without any participating teams, there can be no tournament!

Unfortunately, due to an abundance of the above-mentioned terms, reading through the official NCAA rules for the team determination procedure can be a daunting challenge for any new fan. But never fear – this guide will have you casually dropping terms such as 'bracketing the field' and "at-large bids" into your pre-game team-selection conservations like a seasoned basketball pro in no time!

First things first: What is March Madness?

March Madness is a term used to describe the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Basketball Tournaments, which are held every year throughout mid-March and early April.

This year, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament will commence with Selection Sunday on March 11, 2018, and end with the National Championship on April 2, 2018.

The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament will begin with Selection Monday on March 12, 2018, and end with the National Championship on Sunday, April 1, 2018.

What is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament?

The NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament is a single-elimination tournament, in which 68 Division I college basketball teams compete for three consecutive weeks for the national championship title. A single-elimination tournament, also known as a knockout or a sudden death tournament, is a style of competition in which the loser of each match is immediately eliminated from the tournament, while the winner of each match is allowed to proceed onto a match in the next round.

(Note that for the women’s tournament, there are 64 Division I college basketball teams that participate, not 68.)

Who selects the teams for March Madness?

The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee and the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Committee, each consisting of 10 members, are responsible for selecting, seeding, and bracketing the field for their respective tournaments. The committee members are made up of Division I athletic directors and conference administrators who have been nominated and chosen to reflect a fair representation of all 32 Division I basketball conferences in the US.

How are the teams for March Madness selected?

The selection process officially begins on the Tuesday before Selection Sunday and lasts for five consecutive days, until the voting is finalized and the final bracket of 68 is broadcast on Selection Sunday.

Of the total 68 teams that make up the “field” of the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament, however, the committee only really selects 36 teams. This is because 32 teams are able to secure automatic bids by winning their respective conference tournaments, which are held at the end of the regular season. These 32 teams are referred to as holding “automatic bids,” while the spots for the remaining 36 teams are called “at-large bids”.

How are the 36 at-large teams selected?

In order to pick the most deserving and qualified teams for the 36 at-large bids, each of the 10 committee members first objectively reviews and evaluates an extensive amount of consultation, observation and data resources that have been amassed throughout the regular season, such as computer metrics, NABC regional advisory rankings, and the qualities of wins and losses. This ensures that the judgements of the committee members are as fair, educated and thought-out as possible.

After countless hours of debate and deliberation, the committee holds a vote by secret ballot, and the 36 teams with the highest number of votes are awarded the at-large bids.

(Note that for the women’s tournament, a total of 64 teams participate, of which 32 receive automatic bids and 34 gain at-large bids.)

What is "seeding the field"?

Once the 68 teams have been selected, each must now be placed, or “seeded”, into one of the four geographical regions of the NCAA tournament field – south, east, west and midwest. Each region hosts between 16 and 18 teams.

In a process called “seeding”, the committee first ranks each participating team, in descending order from 1 to 68, according to its relative strength and competitiveness. For instance, the most powerful team in the field will be ranked as 1, while the weakest will be ranked as 68. The qualitative assessment of each of the 68 teams is determined by the committee using the consultation, observation and data resources previously discussed above. These national rankings are sometimes referred to as “true seeds”.

How does the committee ensure a fair power balance?

Next, the committee must group the teams into “seed lines”. There are 16 seed lines in total, with the first 15 lines consisting of 4 teams each, and the final 16th line containing 6 teams. The top four strongest teams (those who have been nationally ranked as 1, 2, 3 and 4) are placed into seed line #1, and are referred to as “number 1 seeds,” regardless of their individual national rankings. The next four strongest teams (those who have been nationally ranked as 5, 6, 7, and 8) are placed into seed line #2, and are referred to as “number 2 seeds”. This continues all the way down to the “number 16 seeds”, the teams who have been nationally ranked as 63, 64, 65, 66, 67 and 68.

After the 16 seed lines have been established, the committee separates the teams from each seed line into the four regions so that in the end, each region will have one team from every seed line. For instance, all regions will only ever have one number 1 seed, one number 2 seed, one number 3 seed, and so forth. This “seed list” thus helps create a power balance across the field by ensuring that the four regions are all equally strong.

How does the committee decide where the teams play?

In a process called "bracketing the field", teams within each of the four regions of the tournament are further separated into “pods”. Each region contains four pods, and each pod contains four teams. The first pod will include seeds 1, 16, 8, and 9; the second pod will include seeds 4, 13, 5, 12; the third pod will include seeds 2, 15, 7, 10; and the fourth pod will include seeds 3, 14, 6, and 11. By making sure that the seeds in every pod add up to 34, the committee further ensures the even power balance.

Every region also has eight distinct locations, each of which will host one of the total eight regional games. The committee then assigns two locations for each pod – one site for the First Round, another for the Second Round.

At last, once the committee has separated all the teams into their pods and assigned each pod to two distinct regional locations, Selection Sunday will officially be underway. And we all know what that means – March Madness, in all its glorious, crazy frenzy, has finally begun! Now get out there and put your newly-acquired terms to good use!

If you want to brush up on your Basketball knowledge before the madness begins, make sure to check out Rookie Road’s Basketball tutorial to understand more about what goes into the game.

New basketball fan – who?

Lead Image Credit: Pexels

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Rina Lee - University of Toronto

Rina is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and the associate editor at Fresh U. You can contact her at rina@freshu.io.

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