How Wisconsin won, Villanova lost and the NCAA failed
On Saturday night, the NCAA admitted a mistake.
The issue at hand was the officiating controversy of the day: Zach Collins' goaltending violation in No. 1 Gonzaga's 79-73 win over No. 8 Northwestern. The Wildcats had made an extended second-half run to cut the Zags' lead to five -- and should have cut it to three -- when Collins reached through the rim to block Dererk Pardon's shot. Which is, um, not legal.
The NCAA put it in more arcane terms: "Article 2.a.3 states that basket interference occurs when a player reaches through the basket from below and touches the ball before it enters the cylinder. Replays showed the Gonzaga defender violated this rule ..."
The NCAA did not, however, apologize for what happened next, when the refs T'd up a ballistic, floor-invading Northwestern coach Chris Collins "based on bench decorum rules outlined in the rules book."
In sum: Your bad. But yeah, our bad, too.
Which raises the question: Why stop there?
If the mea culpas are flowing -- if we're having a real heart-to heart moment here -- why not apologize for the way the 2017 bracket was put together? As long as we're opening up and saying what everybody's already thinking, why not admit how much the NCAA's outdated metrics have hurt the balance of the field?
Why not just come right out and say it: The way the selection committee evaluates teams is systematically flawed in a way that needlessly and avoidably punishes good teams. Our bad.
If the NCAA feels the sudden urge to get something off its chest, there will be few better opportunities than this weekend.
Before Gonzaga's goaltending stunted Northwestern's 8-over-1 upset bid Saturday evening, another Big Ten-borne No. 8 had already knocked off a No. 1 Saturday afternoon.
Except in Buffalo, unlike in Salt Lake City, Wisconsin's 65-62 win featured the downfall of the No. 1 overall seed, the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats. In Buffalo, unlike in Salt Lake, the No. 8 seed in question was not a team making its lovable first NCAA tournament foray but a roster whose seniors have been to two Final Fours and three Sweet 16s and played in 15 NCAA tournament games in the past four seasons -- the most tourney-tested group of players in the sport. In Buffalo, unlike in Salt Lake, the No. 1 seed's path to the second weekend went through one of the most underseeded teams in the 2017 NCAA tournament field.
Yes, Wisconsin was underseeded. Throw out the Badgers' past accomplishments (the selection committee certainly does), and there remains no actual basketball explanation for why Greg Gard's team was seeded where it was. The Badgers entered Selection Sunday 25-9 with a 12-6 record in the Big Ten -- same as Maryland, a No. 6 seed, and one win better than Minnesota, a No. 5 seed that Wisconsin beat twice.
Even after a 2-5 end to the regular season, the Badgers were the only Big Ten team other than Purdue to enter the postseason with a top-25 rank in adjusted efficiency. ESPN's Basketball Power Index likewise considered them (before Michigan started igniting nets NBA Jam-style) the league's No. 2 team.
Why did this happen? Because even as every coaching staff tracks its per-possession performance and Las Vegas builds books based on advanced analytic projections, the people responsible for deciding how the sport's most important competition is structured can't be bothered with all that much more than the RPI.
Wisconsin's RPI was 36. Its nonconference strength of schedule -- which is based on RPI -- ranked in the low 300s. Its "best" wins -- which is to say "best" according to the RPI -- included only two against the top 25.
If you live in the selection committee's world, it isn't hard to understand how a team with Wisconsin's résumé could end up playing the top overall seed on the first weekend of the tournament. If you live in the real world, it's impossible to fathom.
This isn't just about Wisconsin.
Elsewhere Saturday, No. 7 seed Saint Mary's played No. 2 seed Arizona. The Gaels were 28-4 on Selection Sunday. Three of those four losses came against Gonzaga. As of this weekend, Randy Bennett's team ranked 14th in KenPom -- neck and neck with Duke and Oregon -- and 13th in BPI. Even the RPI ranked Saint Mary's 17th. But because the Gaels' nonconference schedule didn't include elite wins over elite opponents -- zero against the RPI top 25 and only two against the top 50 -- one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country had to play Arizona in the second round. And vice versa.
Meanwhile, the most damning product of the selection committee's mistakes hasn't even taken the floor. That will come Sunday, when No. 2 Kentucky will, somehow, find itself lining up opposite No. 10 Wichita State in just its second NCAA tournament game.
The Shockers (now No. 6 in adjusted efficiency and No. 15 in BPI) were Selection Sunday's most laughable example of extreme bracketing malpractice. The committee sees a team such as Wichita State, notes its lack of wins in limited nonconference opportunities, dismisses reams of data about how good it is on each and every possession of its season relative to competition and emerges with a resounding shrug.
This isn't just about Wisconsin or Saint Mary's or Wichita State. It's also about Villanova and Arizona and Kentucky. It's about doing what the bracketing principles and procedures are supposed to do, especially with top seeds, teams that have spent months earning their spots. It's about rewarding those who deserve to be rewarded.
That's why the National Association of Basketball Coaches asked the committee to join the rest of the sport in the glories of modernity and why the genuinely smart, often forward-thinking folks at the NCAA responded by summiting with some of college basketball's best statistically inclined minds. It's why a new metric might soon replace the RPI -- maybe as early as next March.
Because the bracket could be better. Because it should be. Because days such as Saturday, when the top overall seed faces a team such as Wisconsin, shouldn't happen -- not this early, anyway.
Is it the selection committee's fault that Villanova lost? Of course not. Did it create the conditions for such a loss? Yes.
Was it the referees' fault that Collins broke decorum and ran onto the floor? No. Did they create the conditions for him to do so? Yes.
If the folks at the NCAA are in an apologetic mood -- if we're really airing out the past week's mistakes -- why stop there? While we're at it, why not drop a line to Villanova?
Your bad. But yeah, our bad, too.