Jeff Jacobs: NCAA selection committee needs to adjust process for COVID

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There is no more nerve-wracking, emotional and argumentative day on the sports calendar than Selection Sunday. So much data, so many metrics, so many authoritative takes, it makes the presidential election look like a vote for eighth grade student council.

The NCAA selection committee comes off as solemn as the College of Cardinals and with the judicial impartiality of the Supreme Court … then the brackets are announced. A school or two that should have gotten into the NCAA Tournament doesn’t. A handful of others that shouldn’t have, yet are convinced they got jobbed, are angry. A food fight emerges on CBS and ESPN.

It’s awesome.

Still, the selection committee has its data to defend its selections and that data has become more refined over the years. The NCAA announced in May that the NET Rankings, instituted in 2018, would increase accuracy and simplicity by reducing a five-component metric to two.

One is the Team Value Index that rewards teams for wins over quality opponents, especially away.

The other is Adjusted Net Efficiency, adjusted for strength of opponent and location across all games. The NCAA gave examples: A given efficiency value (net points per 100 possessions) against stronger opposition rates higher than the same efficiency against lesser opponents, and having a certain efficiency on the road rates higher than the same efficiency at home.

Scoring margin and winning percentage were dropped.

It’s clear wins on the road against quality opponents mean an awful lot. And they should.

Here’s the problem.

In this COVID season, how difficult is a road game when there is no one in the stands to lift a home team and put visitors under duress.

And how fair is it when some teams’ schedules are barely touched and others are hit two and three times by 10- and 14-day COVID layoffs that screw up everything from conditioning to on-court chemistry to game preparation because schedules are changed sometimes at the last minute?

What is a level playing field in a unique season when the word “bubble” has two meanings?

“This is a great question for the NCAA selection committee,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. “I think they’re going to have a very tough job this year, probably like the College Football Playoff committee did in trying to assess apples and oranges as it relates to schools trying to get into March Madness.”

“This is a season where there’s not going to be a whole lot that’s going to be fair about how it goes for one school compared to another,” Hurley said. “It’ll probably be hard on Selection Sunday to justify the field based on who has played how many games. Who has had multiple pauses. All the different things that are going to go into it.”

An example:

Creighton, No. 9 in the nation last week, beat St. John’s by 18 Thursday in New York. The Bluejays were safely in Storrs for a 4 p.m. practice Saturday following the UConn women’s game at Gampel Pavilion.

UConn, meanwhile, was playing its first game in 17 days on Sunday because of a positive COVID test. They started rusty against Creighton. They ended a little gassed. And beyond officials, family and a dozen media, the only ones who saw a terrific overtime game live were cardboard cutouts. It is a very nice Net Rankings W for Creighton.

Such scenarios are taking place all over every night.

“Not every conference and schools in different conferences are handling COVID positives the same way as some other schools and leagues are,” Hurley said. “That’s one part.

“The other part — I guess Creighton will have limited attendance — for all intents and purposes you are playing a bunch of neutral site games. There was no advantage playing the other day in Storrs. Obviously, there is some familiarity with the surroundings. But to put so much weight on a road game that is played in front of nobody doesn’t make a whole lot sense.”

Even in conferences if you do get to play each team twice, there are all the other evolving logistics involving COVID. It’s not that any one game is unfair. It’s how the entire resume looks to the selection committee.

That’s why there should a third metric: COVID Value Index (kidding about the name, just trying to sound like a sabermetric smarty cat.) Still, the committee should find a fairly standardized way to accurately take into account games following long layoffs, giving less weight to road wins without fans and viewing results when teams are forced to quickly alter schedules and play bunched games, etc.

Seth Davis, from CBS and The Athletic, said he had such a conversation with NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt recently. In RPI and now the NET, a road win has been worth 1.4, a home win 0.6, and neutral site 1.0

“They have the ability to monitor homecourt advantage,” Davis said. “By the time they get into February and find a pretty strong variation for homecourt vs. past years they do have an ability to tweak the NET … say 1.2 from 1.4 for a road win. It’s not going to have that big of an effect, but it’s something they have.”

And there’s another.

“Each committee member is assigned a small handful of conferences, 10 members, 31 leagues, to monitor,” Davis said. “They’re already tracking stuff. They do it every year with injuries. So anecdotally and conversationally, there is a responsibility. ‘Hey, UConn was just coming off a 17-day COVID pause. Let’s look at how they did when everybody was together for a few weeks.’ It’s another level of oversight.”

Ackerman reinforced that point. She said the Big East will make sure NCAA monitors know the circumstances its schools are laboring under during the next few months.

“The at-large determination, I think, will be sort of vetted through this year with a different screen,” Ackerman said. “You will deal with uneven numbers of games across D-I and within individual conferences possibly. As we get toward the end of the regular season, we’ll take stock in how many games schools have played and what we in the conference may need to do to get games in safely. If any team in contention is behind — it looks like the NCAA may offer waivers, but that’s kind of unclear right now.

“I think they’re going to treat it as a fluid situation and we’ve made this really clear to our schools the parameters we normally adhere to very closely like spacing between games and how many times you are on the road may have to take a back seat this year. No. 1 is health and safety. But, No. 2, if we do feel pressed to play more games in a condensed period, some of the guardrails schools have come to rely on in how their games play out may not be what they normally see.”

The Power Five and College Football Playoffs proved it will do what it wants. The rule for number of games to get into the Big Ten championship was reduced at the last minute for Ohio State. The top teams in the ACC championship didn’t have to play their final regular season games. The CFP made sure Cincinnati didn’t get a sniff.

The NCAA basketball selection committee has a more accurate moral compass. But March Madness also involves infinitely more schools, coming from every direction. The NCAA has set a minimum of 13 games for teams and said 68 teams will remain in the men’s tournament. It’s looking at one site, likely Indianapolis. The women, with 64 teams, is likely in San Antonio. If COVD hits hard, I don’t believe for a minute the NCAA wouldn’t reduce the required number of games.

The Ivy League is already out, so that means another at-large school. And heaven knows what happens if COVID hits teams in March during league and national championships.

“You just got to accept the season for what it is and hope you get a little lucky and don’t have a lot of games canceled and get some consistency,” Hurley said. “Stop getting COVID in your program so you don’t have to pause. I know what this is now. We’ve dealt with it a couple of times. You’ve just got to make the best of it and win as many games as you can.”

Accepting the COVID season for what it is obviously is a noble concept. We’re all in this together. There are so many factors beyond control. When Hurley is doing his daily meditation, it all makes sense.

And then Hurley and the rest of America tunes into Selection Sunday.

jeff.jacobs; @jeffjacobs123