The NCAA Tournament field, announced Sunday, includes a staggering eight teams from one conference, the Big East. There are six teams each from the Pac-10, the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference, which according to the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI, was the best in the nation this year, only got four teams in.
They can deny it all they want, but you know as well as I do that the selection committee did that on purpose to get Billy Packer sputtering mad on national TV.
It worked, making Sunday's CBS telecast of the announcement as entertaining as it's been since -- well, since every year, because Packer's always mad about some slight to some ACC team, if not to the whole conference.
RPI is a formula that takes into account a team's winning percentage, its opponents' winning percentage, its opponents' opponents' winning percentage and its opponents' opponents' winning winning percentage percentage. Percentage.
Selection committee chairman Tom O'Connor, the athletic director at George Mason, sat at a table with Packer and his broadcast partner, Jim Nantz, and, biting his cheek so he wouldn't burst out laughing, listened as Packer grilled him about this terrible slight to the mighty ACC, lord and master of RPI.
"The Big East," Packer said, "the fifth conference in RPI, ended up getting eight teams, which ties the record. How do you justify the Atlantic Coast Conference being the No. 1 RPI conference and yet with only four teams."
The amusing thing about this question -- which sounds like a good question right up until you give it a yoctosecond's thought, at which point it sounds like a stupid question -- is that Packer is basing it on RPI, which he's been perfectly willing to dismiss as slide-rule hokum in the past when it showed that so-called mid-major conferences were gaining on the so-called majors.
Two years ago Missouri State of the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference, at No. 21, was the team with the highest RPI ranking ever left out of the Tournament. And what did Packer complain about that year? Too many mid-major teams in the Tournament.
"I didn't know how many teams came from a conference till I was coming down the elevator to come over here," O'Connor said, no doubt doing some quick figuring in his head to calculate how much he'd just won in side bets with other committee members about what Packer's first question would be. He explained that the committee works off of alphabetical lists of teams, not conference rosters, and that, while of course the members know who's in what conference, they're not thinking about that as they fill out the brackets.
"The conference rankings, we never talked about that," he said. "It was never talked about in the room, we don't have any statistics on it, it's not on the big board. So we do it on a team-by-team basis."
Packer would not be denied. He stayed on O'Connor like a Bulldog. No, wait, SEC reference. Or WCC. He stuck with him like a Demon Deacon. He was a real Tiger. It was even a little Hokie.
"How would a conference then be the No. 1 rated conference," Packer Terrapinned on, "because it would be a compilation of the teams within that league that played, it just seems to be quite unusual that you could be No. 1 with the lowest number of picks, and you could be in the case the No. 5 conference in regard to the whole year's body of work and end up with eight picks."
That was actually easier to follow when he said it than it is reading it.
"That's a great question for fandom," O'Connor said, and how much do I love it that he said "fandom"? A lot, is how much. "The RPI is a control point. It's a data point and it's a starting point. But it's not the end all, and it's for the individual teams. We don't look at conferences at all and we don't list them that way. When we're into a situation on any, any phase of the selection, the seeding and bracketing, it's individual teams."
What Packer isn't getting is some pretty simple math, or maybe it's just head-slappingly simple logic.
Strength of conference is an overall measure. It's not just about how good the top teams are, but how good all the teams are. Some stinkers at the bottom can drag the whole conference down. The ACC being the strongest conference doesn't mean it has the most teams among the top 34, which is how many at-large bids there are. But it might mean it has the fewest teams among the bottom 200. In fact, it has none among the bottom 208. There are 341 teams.
The ACC isn't filled with elite teams. It has its fair share, North Carolina and Duke. But it has such a high overall RPI because the bottom of the league is good. According to RPI calculations by Ken Pomeroy of Basketball Prospectus, the ACC has two of the top seven teams in the nation, but only three of the top 20 and no others in the top 30. It has four of the top 40 and no others in the top 50. But the worst team in the league is Boston College at a fairly respectable No. 133.
Compare that with the Big East. It has only one of the top 10 teams, but it has four in the next 10. It has seven of the top 30 teams -- compared with three for the ACC, remember. This is the range from which the bulk of at-large Tournament teams come.
The Big East has two more teams in the 50s and three in the 110s, so we're up to 12, which is something like a third of the Big East. Just kidding, but there are 12 teams in the ACC, and the bottom two, No. 127 Virginia and No. 133 Boston College, are below the top 12 Big East teams. If the Big East were just its top 12 teams, it would be a stronger conference than the ACC by RPI. Got that, Billy?
But the Big East is a 16-team league, including No. 156 St. John's, No. 158 DePaul, No. 179 South Florida and No. 211 Rutgers. These are the kinds of kids you want in the class if they're grading on a curve, to put it delicately. Packer is saying that because the Big East has four bad teams in it, it shouldn't get more teams into the Tournament than the ACC, regardless of how many Tournament-worthy teams are in each conference.
It's idiotic. And Packer's idiocy is like the swallows returning to Capistrano. It's Tournament time, baby. Billy Packer's mad about the brackets!
To be fair to Packer, he graciously congratulated O'Connor and the selection committee members for doing a fine job. I'd like to do the same thing. Not about how they filled out the brackets -- I could do without teams getting de facto home games, like North Carolina in Raleigh and UCLA in Anaheim -- but about keeping the Billy Packer apoplexy streak alive. Well done, ladies and gentlemen.
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