RPI, Conference Memberships, and Major Championships Determine Seedings
Gonzaga, Cincinnati, and Connecticut have been especially favored.
Selection Sunday for the 2018 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament is just days away. In past years I’ve published reports on how the Tournament Committee gives an advantage to teams in major and mid-major conferences and grants a seeding bonus to major champions. Recent conversations with a friend raised the issue of whether the Committee somehow plays favorites by seeding some conferences or teams above or below others after adjusting for objective ability. This report takes a look at such possible favoritism by the Committee.
As before I am using my database of 1,088 tournament appearances by 241 different basketball programs covering the 2001 through 2017 Tournaments. The results appear in this companion article.
Once again we see that the Tournament Committee looks more favorably on teams from the major and mid-major conferences. A team with an 0.60 RPI would be seeded seventh if it plays in a major conference, eighth if it hails from a mid-major, but eleventh if it comes from any other conference.
The Tournament Committee likes to stress that it looks at a team’s whole record when making seeding decisions and does not weight the end-of-season conference tournaments all that highly. That appears to be true for all the conferences but the six “majors,” the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Southeastern and Pac 12 Conferences. Champions from the major conferences have been seeded an average of one rank higher than other major conference teams with identical RPI scores.
Does the Committee Play Favorites?
Most theories of favoritism are usually based on the assumption than the NCAA and its partners in the television industry have a clear incentive to structure the Tournament to drive ratings. That creates a pressure to feature marquee teams like Duke or Kansas who will reliably draw a nationwide audience. In the brutal, single-elimination format of the Tournament, the Committee has strong incentives to seed the most popular teams higher and improve their chances of survival. But is there any other evidence of favoritism when it comes to specific teams or conferences?
I searched for favoritism by comparing the actual seedings awarded a team with the seedings I predict based on RPI, conference membership, and major championships. I began with the five teams that have appeared in every Tournament since 2000 — Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Are any of these schools’ impressive unbroken records the result of some bias over the years by the various Tournament Committees, or did these terms earn their ways to the Tournament in the gym?
For all but one of those teams I find no evidence of bias. The outlier is, perhaps not surprisingly, Gonzaga, the only mid-major in that group of five, and the darling of college basketball fans for years. By my reckoning, the Tournament Committee has seeded Gonzaga nearly two (1.9) ranks higher than what my model predicts for any other mid-major team with the same RPI score as Gonzaga over the years. That means Gonzaga should have averaged an eight seed rather than the 6.2 it was awarded over the years.
I expanded my search for team favoritism to all teams with at least twelve appearances to ensure any measured effect was not just because of small sample sizes. By that criterion only Cincinnati, with twelve appearances over the seventeen years, joined Gonzaga as a favored team. Cincinnati, like Gonzaga, received a seeding of 6.2 on average; by my estimates they also should have averaged close to eight.
When I look for favoritism by conference, I find only a slight advantage given to the famous Atlantic Coast Conference, and significantly lower seedings given to teams from three mid-majors, the American Athletic, Colonial, and Western Athletic Conferences. WAC teams are discounted a full seed, and teams from the other two conferences suffer a disadvantage closer to 1.5 seed ranks.
I included a test for Connecticut (with only eleven appearances it was not included above) and find that it, too, was awarded a bonus of about one full seed point. Unlike Gonzaga and Cincinnati, though, the Tournament Committee’s confidence in UConn has been demonstrated on the floor. UConn has won the Tournament three times in this period and averaged 2.91 wins per Conference appearance, behind only North Carolina at 3.07. Since seeding so strongly determines a team’s overall performance, we might wonder whether Connecticut’s impressive record was the result of favoritism. The other two advantaged teams, Gonzaga and Cincinnati, have not fared especially well on the floor. Gonzaga has averaged only 1.41 wins per appearance, and Cincinnati just 0.83.