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5 biggest decisions facing the NCAA men's tournament selection committee

Jeff Eisenberg
·10-min read

Sometime before 6 p.m. EST on Sunday evening, the NCAA tournament selection committee will email a completed bracket to CBS to unveil on the selection show. Here’s a look at some of the biggest decisions that the committee will have to make between now and then:

1. Are the No. 1 seeds set?

This year, Selection Sunday may be devoid of its usual drama at the top of the bracket.

Gonzaga, Michigan, Baylor and Illinois appear to have separated themselves in the race for the NCAA tournament’s four No. 1 seeds.

Barring a major surprise, Gonzaga (26-0) will be the No. 1 overall seed. The undefeated Zags are 14-0 in Quadrant 1 and 2 games, including a trio of victories over BYU and four marquee non-league wins against Iowa, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Michigan (20-4) will also be a No. 1 seed despite its Big Ten semifinal loss to Ohio State on Saturday, as will Baylor (22-2) despite taking its second loss of the season on Friday night. Both teams have eight Quadrant 1 victories. Michigan has a 7-0 Quadrant 2 record compared to 2-0 for Baylor, but the Wolverines do have twice as many losses, including an 18-point drubbing at sub-.500 Minnesota.

Illinois tightened its grip on the final No. 1 seed by ousting Iowa in Saturday's second semifinal. Not only are the Illini a lock for the top seed line if they win the Big Ten title game on Sunday, they don't seem likely to be overtaken by anyone even with a loss. Here's a look at how Illinois, Ohio State and Alabama would stack up if the Buckeyes beat the Illini on Sunday and the Crimson Tide claim the SEC tournament title:

Illinois star Kofi Cockburn celebrates with his teammates after a dunk against Rutgers on March 12. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Illinois star Kofi Cockburn celebrates with his teammates after a dunk against Rutgers on March 12. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Illinois (22-7, NET: 4, KenPom: 3)

  • Q1: 12-6

  • Q2: 5-1

  • Marquee wins: at Michigan, at Ohio State, Iowa (2), Purdue, Wisconsin (2)

  • Losses: Baylor, Ohio State (2), at Maryland, at Missouri, at Michigan State, at Rutgers

Ohio State (22-8, NET: 9, KenPom: 7)

  • Q1: 10-7

  • Q2: 6-1

  • Marquee wins: Michigan, Illinois (2), Iowa, Purdue, at Wisconsin

  • Losses: Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue (2), at Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Northwestern

Alabama (24-6, NET: 7, KenPom: 8)

  • Q1: 8-4

  • Q2: 9-1

  • Marquee wins: Arkansas, Tennessee (2), LSU (2), Florida, Ole Miss

  • Losses: at Arkansas, Clemson, at Oklahoma, at Missouri, Stanford, Western Kentucky

Not all that close, right? 

Even in the worst-case scenario for Illinois on Sunday, the Illini still have the most Quadrant 1 wins of any contender for a No. 1 seed. Ohio State's eight losses would be the most for a No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history, while Alabama would have a less impressive collection of wins and losses to two non-at-large caliber teams.

2. How many mid-major bubble teams belong in the field?

When evaluating the bubble in recent years, the committee has placed great emphasis on the number of top 50 or Quadrant 1 wins teams have amassed. As a result, making the field has become harder and harder for mid-major at-large hopefuls who have fewer opportunities to play those games than their power-conference peers.

Consider UNC Greensboro, left out of the 2019 NCAA tournament despite a 28-6 record and just a single loss to teams outside the top 15 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Or Monmouth, somehow snubbed in 2016 despite a conference title and non-league victories over Notre Dame, USC, UCLA and Georgetown.

This year, COVID-19 limited non-conference scheduling, making it even more difficult than usual for upwardly mobile mid-majors to get opportunities to face power-conference teams. As a result, this year’s committee will have to make a few decisions between successful mid-majors who didn’t have many cracks at marquee wins and middling power-conference teams who had lots of opportunities but squandered most of them.

The most deserving mid-major bubble team is Drake, whose only three Quadrant 1 opportunities came against formidable league rival Loyola Chicago. The Bulldogs (25-4) did win one of those three games, however, the next best team they beat is a Missouri State team that is 95th in the NET rankings.

Drake (25-4, 15-3 Valley, NET: 47, KenPom: 56)

  • Q1 record: 1-2

  • Q2 record: 5-0

  • Q3 and Q4 losses: 2 (Valparaiso, Bradley)

Also in contention are a trio of Mountain West teams with similar profiles. Utah State has the best case after backing up a second-place league finish by reaching the Mountain West title game. Colorado State has not lost to a team outside the top two quadrants all season, while Boise State boasts the best non-league result, a win at BYU.

Utah State (20-7, 15-4 MWC, NET: 37, KenPom: 38)

  • Q1 record: 3-4

  • Q2 record: 1-1

  • Q3 and Q4 losses: 2 (UNLV, South Dakota State)

Colorado State (18-6, 14-4 MWC, NET: 51, KenPom: 63)

  • Q1 record: 2-4

  • Q2 record: 1-2

  • Q3 and Q4 losses: 0

Boise State (18-8, 14-6 MWC, NET: 50, KenPom: 14-6)

  • Q1 record 2-4

  • Q2 record: 2-3

  • Q3 and Q4 losses: 1 (Fresno State)

The power conference teams that the selection committee will compare those mid-majors to include UCLA, Syracuse, Ole Miss and Seton Hall. That quartet has a combined record of 9-24 in Quadrant 1 games.

3. Where should Villanova be seeded?

Having won the Big East title, beaten Texas and avoided any unsightly losses, Villanova boasts the résumé of a No. 4 seed entering Selection Sunday. The trouble is that anything good the Wildcats accomplished came before Big East co-player of the year Collin Gillespie tore his MCL in a March 3 win over Creighton.

In its first game without Gillespie, a loss at Providence last Saturday, Villanova tallied a season-low 52 points. The Wildcats weren’t much better in their opening Big East tournament game, squandering an 11-point second-half lead and falling 72-71 to a sub-.500 Georgetown team they had beaten twice by double figures earlier in the season.

For Villanova, the common thread in both games was a lack of late-game execution. Empty possessions, missed free throws and wayward 3-pointers were the norm. Sophomore Chris Arcidiacono received his first start against Georgetown, and while he played a turnover-free 34 minutes, he was no Gillespie. He finished with three points and missed the only two shots he attempted.

Villanova coach Jay Wright gestures before the team's NCAA college basketball game against Creighton, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
Villanova coach Jay Wright gestures before the team's NCAA college basketball game against Creighton, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

What the selection committee must decide is whether to award Villanova the NCAA tournament seed it has earned with its season-long performance or one more representative of the team the Wildcats are without Gillespie.

Though it hasn’t happened often, there is precedent of previous committees taking injuries into account. In 2000, clear-cut No. 1 overall seed Cincinnati instead received a No. 2 seed days after national player of the year Kenyon Martin broke his leg. A Purdue team in contention for a No. 1 seed all season landed on the No. 4 line in 2010 after the first of Robbie Hummel’s late-season ACL tears.

A drop like that seems appropriate for Villanova. Yes, we’ve only seen Villanova for two games without Gillespie. Yes, another week of practice will help the Wildcats adjust to life without him. But this is a senior point guard who averaged 14.0 points and 4.6 assists. Villanova isn’t the same team without him, and its seeding should reflect that.

4. Where should Loyola (Chicago) be seeded?

The team that could spark the most discussion among the selection committee is a mid-major who reached the Final Four only three years ago. Loyola Chicago (24-4) will be a challenge to seed because of the discrepancy between its dearth of marquee wins and its sky-high ranking in most advanced metrics.

Whereas power conference teams seem to have weekly opportunities to secure quality wins, Loyola doesn’t get many chances to bolster its résumé. The Missouri Valley Conference seldom produces more than one or two top teams each season and elite non-league foes are often hesitant to schedule the Ramblers.

Only four of Loyola’s 28 games this season came against opponents in the top 50 of the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Ramblers lost at Wisconsin in mid-December and took two of three against Valley runner-up Drake.

Two top-50 victories isn’t exactly going to dazzle the committee — Oklahoma State has three times that many since Valentine’s Day — but Loyola’s efficiency numbers make up for it. The Ramblers are ninth in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and 10th in the NET. They are outscoring opponents by 24.7 points per 100 possessions.

Where does that leave Loyola? Which aspect of the Ramblers’ résumé will the committee weigh most heavily? An example from a few years ago offers some insight.

In 2016 and 2017, Wichita State received double-digits seeds despite entering the NCAA tournament with top-15 KenPom rankings. The Shockers reached the round of 32 both times, falling to Miami the first year before nearly ousting the De’Aaron Fox-Malik Monk-Bam Adebayo Kentucky team a year later.

Hopefully, this committee treats Loyola better. A double-digit seed wouldn’t be fair to the Ramblers, nor their opening-round opponent.

5. How will COVID-19 pauses impact the committee’s decision making?

In a season defined by stoppages and outbreaks, many college basketball teams can tell sob stories about how COVID-19 impacted their season. Few have a more compelling case than Saint Louis, whose NCAA tournament hopes may rest on the selection committee considering the context of its worst two losses.

Saint Louis was sailing along at 7-1 with victories over LSU and NC State when a rash of positive COVID-19 tests forced the Billikens to pause. They scarcely practiced or played for a month before returning in late January and promptly losing at home against Dayton and on the road against lowly La Salle.

Remove those two losses, and the rest of Saint Louis’ résumé is NCAA tournament-caliber. The Billikens would be 14-4 with marquee victories over LSU and St. Bonaventure.

Will the committee take that into account? Should it? Those are questions unique to this year’s selection process.

If Saint Louis gets the benefit of the doubt about losses coming off a COVID-19 pause, surely Clemson would like the same. The Tigers lost three mid-January games by a combined 82 points before regaining their footing and returning to NCAA tournament-caliber form.

On the flip side of that are teams like Virginia Tech, which has played all of three games since Feb. 6. Or teams like Kansas and Virginia, which are currently in quarantine and likely won’t be able to prepare normally for the NCAA tournament.

Ultimately, the fairest option for the committee is probably to ignore the effects of COVID-19 as much as possible and select and seed teams on what they have accomplished on the court. Maybe rust and inactivity will make Virginia Tech an easy out. Maybe Clemson should be a seed line or two higher than its record indicates. Maybe Kansas or Virginia will be vulnerable. But those are hypotheticals, not certainties, and the committee simply has to use its best judgment.

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