How to Fix the Bias in the NCAA Selection Committee

After reading Christian Jensen’s post on the hidden losses in conference realignment last week, my first thought concerned whether the athletic directors and conference commissioners might favor teams from their conferences due to the incredible monetary incentives to do just that.

A few days later I opened up an article statistics Prof. Jim Lackritz wants us read and analyze on the very subject, and just as I suspected there is statistically significant bias.

The article entitled “Evidence of Bias in NCAA Tournament Selection and Seeding” — which was published in March 2010 by Coleman, DuMond and Lynch — analyzed the 10 NCAA Tournaments between 1999-2008 and found “substantial evidence of bias” in both how the Committee selected the field and how it seeded it.

For example, Pac-10 squads had “more than 10,000 times better odds of receiving bids than comparable minor conference squads” and the Big 12 and Conference USA (pre-2006) teams also had a significantly better shot at earning a bid.

In addition, conference membership and the presence of a committee member from the respective conference was “statistically significant as they relate to the seed assigned to a given team, beyond that which would be expected based on [their] set of team performance factors.”

Back in 2008, each conference received $19,103 for the next six years for each NCAA Tournament game one of its schools played in, and this year each unit is worth $40,919, per Forbes. That makes for an extraordinary economic incentive to ever so slightly shift the odds in your conference’s favor through favorable seeding or by letting a shaky bubble team from your conference join the field. In some ways, such a conference representative would not be responding to economic incentives if they didn’t at least try.

Now granted there are guidelines in place to prevent such cheating such as having biased parties sit out any discussions about their conference’s teams yet by talking about the other bubble teams involved they are still influencing the process.

In any case, whatever they were doing between 1999-08 clearly wasn’t working, at least according to this statistical study, and it certainly makes common sense that such committee members would respond to economic incentives since that seems to be all that people in college athletics do these days.

My radical solution to this problem entails completely altering the composition of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Instead of conference commissioners and athletic directors who are inherently biased, why not turn it over to people without a horse in the race?

I would hire noted bracketologists like Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm and Ken Pomeroy — people who know college basketball inside and out — to take seats on the Committee. I would even be in favor of adding lower profile people with incredible college hoops knowledge and have them make this their full-time job during college hoops season rather than ADs and commissioners who can’t possibly know everything about every team even if they were unbiased.

It’s kind of like how it’s crazy that college football coaches who can’t possibly watch the rest of the nation play every weekend have some percentage of a say in choosing a national championship game participant, especially when there is a clear incentive for them to fudge their ballot a bit to aid their team (and thus their future salary and job opportunities).

When the incentives are misaligned this badly in a group like the NCAA Selection Committee, it’s no surprise that heavy bias would be detected.

As the stakes continue to rise, I anticipate this bias to only get worse unless corrective action is taken to reform the committee.

The Ed Rush debacle

I went to the University of Arizona, covered Arizona basketball for two years in college and am an unabashed Wildcats hoops fan.

Yet the Ed Rush debacle — in which the Pac-12’s former head of refs allegedly offered a $5,000 bribe or a trip to Cancun to any official who gave UA head coach Sean Miller a technical — is more than an Arizona issue. It’s an issue that cuts right into the heart of the integrity of the game for the conference at large.

The technical called on Miller at a critical juncture of the Arizona-UCLA Pac-12 semifinal was so fishy it just felt like something was up, like with the hits on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre during Bounty Gate and some of those odd games officiated by Tim Donaghy.

The scope and intentions weren’t as bad with Rush’s ill-fated “joke” as they were with Donaghy fixing games, yet the core issue remained the same. When officials are incentivized to do anything other than call a game as they see it, the trust between the fans and the product completely breaks down. Even after Rush’s resignation, you can be sure the next time something strange happens in a Pac-12 game, the refs will not receive the benefit of the doubt.

There’s more to this story with Rush being seen as a bully who intimidated his refs into acting how he wanted them to, and because of that it’s a shame that commissioner Larry Scott tried to sweep this story under the rug. He’s made a number of savvy moves as commish, but thinking this story would just blow over isn’t one of them. Indeed it’s kind of alarming that he thought the fact that Rush was “joking” made it OK even after an official seemed to act on the supposed joke to make a game-altering call.

After all, there’s no joking when it comes to bribing refs to take a certain action.