The 'Pre-Gripe': How NCAA Seeds Its Tournaments

March Madness bracketing will begin next Sunday when the NCAA selects the top teams to compete for the championship. NPR's Mike Pesca talks with host Rachel Martin about the flaws of that process.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is just one week until Selection Sunday. What is Selection Sunday you ask? Well, that is the day when the NCAA announces the teams that will compete in this year's men's basketball tournament. NPR's Mike Pesca wanted to give us a heads-up now before the griping begins about which teams made the cut and which didn't. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Consider this the pre-gripe gripe.

MARTIN: Yeah. I figured you might have some - I mean, you have a lot of issues - but you have specific issues with the NCAA selection process.

PESCA: Do have a lot of issues. Some of them concern sports. right. So, when teams are left out, there's always complaining, and this doesn't really do much for me. So many teams are allowed in the tournament these days that, yes, certain teams with eight or nine losses - sure, if you'd won one other game, you'd been allowed to play. My main problem is this: the NCAA seeds its tournaments based on something called the RPI, the ratings percentage index. It's a formula that gives them some sort of insight into how good teams are. It's composed of 25 percent of a team's record, 50 percent of the team's opponents' record and then 25 percent of their opponents' opponents' records. Like when this thing was invented 30 or so years ago, it was kind of cutting edge. It was kind of cool. It was a good tool. But it's never been updated. And as a result, they're going to be ranking teams far disproportionate to what advanced statisticians would tell you where the teams belong. So, there are a number of guys out there doing much better rankings. One of them's named Ken Pomeroy. A lot of coaches consult his stuff. And when you look at Ken Pomeroy's rankings, he says that Pittsburgh is about the seventh-best team in the country. And then you look at the RPI's official rank and you see that they have Pittsburgh as the 38th best team in the country. It's widely out of whack, and it means that Pittsburgh probably is one of the ten best teams in the country but they're only going to get, you know, a ninth seed. It's screwing Pittsburgh over. And Wisconsin's in this category and a lot of others.

MARTIN: OK. So, there are these huge discrepancies. Then is there a team that you feel is unfairly going to land a top spot as a result of this antiquated system?

PESCA: Maybe New Mexico will. The RPI seems to love New Mexico, but the advanced statisticians don't. I mean, in a word, the problem is the RPI does not take into account margin of victory. They don't even take into account home and away. So, a team like Pittsburgh loses a close game to an excellent Louisville team on the road, it's just counted as a loss. And it's ignorant, and the computers that are used by the NCAA are somewhat castrated, if you will. That's what one sports commentator calls it, and I happen to agree. We're going to see a tournament that's wildly inaccurately seeded.

MARTIN: In a word - right, that was many words. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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