By Kathy DeBoer
An NCAA tournament bracket has to pass two tests to be credible: first, the selections and seeds have to pass a numbers test, i.e. they must make sense in terms of win-loss record, RPI, head-to-head, and conference standings, all objective measures that take time and care to calculate, but once computed are straightforward and unbiased; second, the selections and seeds need to pass the eyes test, i.e. they must make sense from the educated observer’s standpoint. The eyes test is subjective in that either there are no numbers to support or refute it, or the numbers lead to different conclusions than the eyes.
The numbers test favors the selection committee administrators who have access to the computer models needed to crank out RPI’s, the white board spread sheets necessary to compare vast amounts of information, and the nation-wide seasonal results, that ultimately lead to the selection, seeding and bracket decisions. The eyes test favors the coaches who have been participants in the fall matches, scrutinized endless video, scoured their own and opponent’s statistics and, therefore have insider, but regionally-myopic knowledge of team’s strengths and weaknesses, and who, also, feel strongly as if they have more skin in the game than the committee as their livelihoods are directly impacted by those administrative selection, seeding and bracket decisions.
Both tests alone will produce an imperfect bracket. RPI numbers can be manipulated; traditional biases color coaches evaluations.
Add the NCAA parameters that non-profit-producing championships must also keep air travel to a minimum, and that seeded teams from the same conference cannot face each other until the regional finals, and an imperfect bracket becomes unintentionally even more flawed.
The bracket produces a volatile standoff each year at NCAA Championship time between the DI volleyball committee and DI coaches. Each group feels dishonored by the other. Administrators believe, correctly, that coaches have little understanding of, and even less appreciation for the parameters within which they must work, nor any gratitude for the time, honest effort, and struggle that went into making what they know is an imperfect, but still their best-effort-given-the-restrictions, bracket. Frustrated coaches accuse administrators of having dishonest agendas; in a blind attempt to explain certain choices or pairings, they hallucinate about conversations that never happened, and manufacture conspiracies laced with regional bias and personal politics. Each group feels the other has trivialized their efforts.
A partial solution may be possible although difficult: increasing attendance enough to ease the air travel straight jacket gives the committee more flexibility. The women’s DI volleyball championship loses about $1 million dollars annually. If we can get attendance of 2500 per night at all first and second round sites that shortfall would largely disappear, and we, administrators and coaches together, would have helped ourselves to more bracket plasticity.
Is it possible both the numbers and the eyes aficionados can support that agenda?