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The NCAA Tournament's Brand-Name Bias Is For Schedules, Not Schools

March snubs for St. Mary's and St. Bonaventure don't indicate bias toward brand-name teams. But they suggest the selection committee is looking at the wrong things.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After St. Bonaventure learned that it would not be playing in the NCAA Tournament, Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade released a borderline incredulous statement about the selection committee's decision. There is a way that conference commissioners write statements, and this was decidedly not written in that way:

"St. Bonaventure belongs in the NCAA Championship. Their body of work, seven wins against top 70 teams, their first-place finish in the A-10, and a 29 RPIevery measuring point has been successfully met. In short they met the 'eye test' and the fact test. I am shocked that the committee did not select this team."


St. Bonaventure, with an enrollment of 6,000, wasn't the only small school left out on Selection Sunday. The Bonnies were joined by an impressive collection of well-credentialed mid-majors—a group diverse enough to include St. Mary's, Monmouth, San Diego State, and Valparaiso—in falling short, while power conference schools with (arguably) worse resumes such as Syracuse, Michigan and Vanderbilt were included in the NCAA bracket. It was a result that led, many commentators to decry passive, pernicious "brand name bias" among the selection committee.

Read More: By The Numbers, The Best Upsets To Pick For Your NCAA Tournament Bracket

This isn't the first time the NCAA Tournament field has resulted in claims of conspiracy against mid-major schools. Those accusations are ridiculous. People will watch March Madness regardless of which mediocre teams are included, so there is little financial incentive for the NCAA to screw over St. Bonaventure in favor of Syracuse. Moreover, four of the committee's 10 members are from smaller schools—Ohio University, Northeastern, Creighton, and UNC-Asheville. It isn't just blue bloods in the selection bunker.

That said, the committee's insistence on giving too much weight to inadequate metrics does make it impossible to properly evaluate the resumes of both big and small schools. This, in turn, makes tournament selection decisions more arbitrary than they need to be. The end result isn't good for anyone, but it can be particularly hard on mid-majors.


Is there a better way?

Sorry, St. Mary's. — Photo by Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

There are three primary problems with the committee's selection methods—its insistence on using the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), its increased emphasis on "good" wins, and its refusal to take into account a team's margin of victory.

RPI is supposed to be the NCAA's statistical formula for differentiating between teams that have played very different schedules, in order to see which team had tougher opponents. However, the system can be gamed, and it provides no relevant nuance beyond what you already see on paper. Was a team dominant in its wins? Was it lucky in its losses? RPI doesn't determine that, which makes evaluating teams extraordinarily difficult.

The good news is that the committee at least seems to be recognizing said limitations, as RPI didn't seem to hold much influence over the inclusion or exclusion of schools this year—Syracuse (RPI 72) and Vanderbilt (63) got in, while St. Bonaventure (30) and St. Mary's (40) did not. The bad news? Without any effective way to statistically evaluate teams, the committee seems more and more focused on "good wins."

And that emphasis unfairly hurts mid-majors. Compare St. Mary's and Syracuse. Syracuse, for example, certainly has better wins than St. Mary's: the Orange won at Duke, at home against Notre Dame, and against Texas A&M and UConn on neutral courts; the Gaels…beat Gonzaga twice, once at home. But that alone doesn't mean Syracuse is a better team, or that Syracuse even wins more often against better teams.


Due to its affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference, Syracuse simply has more opportunities to win big games than St. Mary's does in the West Coast Conference. St. Mary's only had four chances this season, and split those contests 2-2. One loss was to No. 4-seed Cal by four points. The other was to Gonzaga, a school the Gaels had already beaten twice, in the WCC finals.

Who's to say Syracuse would have done any better than that against St. Mary's schedule? And who's to say the Gaels couldn't have picked up just as many good wins playing in the ACC? Without using any comparable metrics, the committee takes a guess, and it sides with the teams that stockpile more good victories. That those teams tend to come from power conferences doesn't quite rise to the level of Conspiracy Against The Mid-Majors, but it's not a surprise, either.

TFW it's good to be in the ACC. — Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Fortunately, there is a way to more accurately compare teams with drastically different schedules: margin of victory. Comparing margins of victory—while still taking into account level of competition—paints a far more accurate picture of a team's strength and NCAA Tournament worthiness. By noting how Syracuse played against its ACC competition, we can determine how well the Orange would likely play against St. Mary's schedule, and vice versa.

To return to the above questions: Would the Orange, who lost some perplexing games in the ACC, run through the St. Mary's schedule better than the Gaels did at 27-5? Probably not, once margin of victory is taken into account. Would St. Mary's have more wins if it was given those opportunities? The numbers suggest that the answer is probably yes. St. Mary's dominated the West Coast Conference in ways that many of the larger schools included in the field of 68 likely would not have.

For smaller schools feeling snubbed, margin of victory isn't a cure-all—while it supports St. Mary's NCAA case, it also tells us that St. Bonaventure didn't win all that impressively against its relatively weak schedule, and probably didn't deserve a bid. Moreover, the selection committee can't and shouldn't make victory margin too much of a determining factor—when deciding between teams that played similar schedules, it's both reasonable and smart to reward the team that, perhaps luckily, has better wins.

Still, margin of victory is the only metric that can accurately compare mid-major and power conference resumes. Until it's given more weight, the committee will continue to make arbitrary decisions that put mid-majors at an inherent, brand-name disadvantage. It's not a conspiracy. It's just a (very familiar) resistance to new ideas.