Every March, the NCAA selection committee makes decisions when crafting the men’s basketball tournament that leave some asking, how? Two of this year’s head-scratchers were the safe inclusion of Indiana, a perceived bubble team, as a No.-10 seed; and UCLA’s selection as a No.-11 seed.
The NCAA selection committee has a method to the Madness, arbitrary as its collective decision-making might seem. And the message reiterated with Indiana and UCLA both in the field is that history matters.
If college basketball had a Declaration of Independence, Indiana and UCLA’s respective signatures would be prominently featured. The two programs are indeed among the game’s founding fathers, helping to prop the NCAA Tournament up in its formative years and laying the foundation for the spectacle it is today.
Millions fewer would even care that UCLA and Indiana were selected for this year’s NCAA Tournament, much less why they were selected, without those great teams of the past elevating the tournament.
Such immeasurable contribution to the history of March Madness earns a program a certain amount of leeway, which manifests with “eye test” decisions.
Scott Barnes, speaking on behalf of the NCAA selection committee, described one such eye test in UCLA’s benefit. Speaking with CBS on the official Selection Show, Barnes said the UCLA team of February and March was not the same that struggled earlier in the season.
He specifically cited a pair of competitive games with West Regional No. 2 seed and Pac-12 champion Arizona.
Certainly there’s some validity to that point, though it’s a bit misleading.
UCLA just lost to Arizona State on Feb. 21…. Just saying.
— Full-Time Hoops (@FullTimeHoops1) March 15, 2015
The eye test is subjective, and Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated and The Cauldron writes what the NCAA selection committee was thinking:
Good thing the committee got UCLA and Indiana in there. #brandmatters
— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) March 15, 2015
UCLA and Indiana are college basketball brand names and will be for years to come.
Neither UCLA nor Indiana have been the heavyweights they once were for sometime now. The Bruins reached three straight Final Fours last decade, and Indiana played for the national championship in 2002. However, the last title between either was UCLA’s in 1995 — two full decades ago.
Other programs rose amid UCLA and Indiana’s stretches of dormancy. The Big Ten, Indiana’s stomping grounds, became Michigan State’s territory over the course of three-and-a-half decades.
Though Jud Heathcote — and later, Tom Izzo — built Michigan State into perennial contenders, the Spartans had seasons when their reputation mattered as much as their resumes.
The 2007 and 2011 tournaments were two such occasions, when Michigan State limped into Selection Sunday.
As for UCLA, the Bruins found a rival for Western supremacy in the 1980s in Arizona, a program that wasn’t even a member of the same conference for 10 of UCLA’s 11 national championships. Arizona and UCLA have continuously jockeyed for the now-Pac-12’s crown for the better part of thirty years.
Arizona held the active streak for consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1986 through 2009. The Wildcats built clout with four Final Four appearances and a national championship in that time, and that clout was arguably all that continued that streak for its final three years.
To wit, Arizona was swept in the season series against rival Arizona State in 2007-’08, but the NCAA selection committee tabbed the Wildcats on the big Sunday. The Sun Devils spent their postseason in the NIT.
UCLA has no such conference counterpart to compare its 2015 selection to, as the Pac-12’s next closest bubble team was Stanford. The Cardinal’s bubble burst weeks ago, thanks in part to dropping a regular-season sweep against the Bruins.
Instead, the teams with a gripe against Indiana’s or UCLA’s inclusion are Old Dominion, Richmond, Colorado State and Temple. None come from power conferences, yet three of the four finished with better RPI scores than the Bruins’ 49 or Hoosiers’ 56.
Certainly conference affiliation matters to the NCAA selection committee. Ole Miss benefited from sharing a league with No. 1-ranked Kentucky; 18-13 Oklahoma State earned a nine seed on the strength of the Big 12’s top half, and the same is true for a Texas team that was a dismal 3-12 against RPI Top 50 opponents.
UCLA and Indiana similarly benefited from playing in strong conferences with legitimate title contenders and built-in marquee matchups that Conference USA, Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and American lacked.
Perhaps Indiana would have been safely in without the benefit of its rich history, what with its four Top 50 wins. Maybe UCLA would be evaluated on the eye test without an NCAA record 11 national championships.
But until the NCAA selection committee speaks on it, we may never know the truth.