KLEE: With DU on rise, an idea for NCAA selection committee

By: Paul Klee
March 11, 2013
photo - Members of the Denver Pioneers celebrate at center court after defeating Louisiana Tech 78-54 to claim a share of the WAC men's basketball title Saturday in an NCAA basketball game in Denver.  Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Members of the Denver Pioneers celebrate at center court after defeating Louisiana Tech 78-54 to claim a share of the WAC men's basketball title Saturday in an NCAA basketball game in Denver. Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

DENVER — Through the echoes inside the Magness Arena practice gym, Denver basketball coach Joe Scott preached the value of every possession.

"One trip down the floor can be the difference between winning and losing,” Scott shouted during practice Monday.

And one loss might be the difference between DU advancing to the NCAA Tournament — or not. If you have seen the Pioneers play in 2013, that's a shame.

Selection Sunday is this Sunday. If there are 37 at-large teams more deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid than DU, this is the finest pool of college teams since the 1980s.

And it's not. This pool is one level above Just OK. Don't confuse parity with mediocrity.

Here's the issue: Somewhere along the way, the old-fashioned eye test went the way of cursive handwriting. My hope is that as much emphasis is placed on actual basketball sense — watching the teams — as there is on the metrics, many of which can be gamed.

Don't let the selection process become a mathematical equation. Playing in the WAC, where favorable numbers go to die, DU's problem is in the numbers. DU’s numbers — 58 RPI, 141 strength of schedule, 0-1 vs. top-25 RPI — don’t add up into an at-large berth.

You know it. I know it. Scott, the former Air Force coach, won’t say it, but he knows it: The WAC Tournament opens Tuesday in Las Vegas, and DU must win the title to reach the NCAAs.

An at-large bid is about as likely as Indiana scheduling a true road game in December.

"I would like to think the committee uses all of those factors. First, watch the games. That's most important," Scott said. "Then include the RPI and the other numbers when you have multiple teams to decide from. I would like to think that's how the committee goes about it."

DU is a small example in a larger problem.

College basketball is light years closer than its football brother when it comes to competing on an even playing field and crowning a true national champion. But the process still is wildly in favor of the power-conference programs.

I've seen Middle Tennessee State, which lost in the Sun Belt Tournament. And I've seen Iowa and Virginia and Alabama, three teams perceived to be on the bubble.

If the NCAA selection committee decides Iowa or Virginia and Alabama is more deserving than Middle Tennesssee State, cool. But I won't buy it, not in a thousand basketball seasons.

Relying on numbers that can be gamed — RPI and strength of schedule, among them — only widens the chasm between the haves and have-nots.

Too often, competing in an ACC or Big Ten or Big 12 is perceived as an obstacle in reaching the NCAA Tournament. And those leagues usually are tougher to win.

But those league schedules also provide beaucoup opportunities for marquee wins. In the Big Ten, you can finish 8-10 in league play and backslide into the bracket.

In the WAC, you better go 17-1 or 18-0 — and win your conference tournament — to avoid sweaty palms on Selection Sunday.

"I don't know what RPI and BPI even stand for," said Nate Engesser, a smart guy, DU freshman and Colorado Springs Christian product. "If we take care of business this weekend, we won’t have to worry about all of the numbers."

This is not to trash the RPI, BPI or other metrics. The numbers built into their formula are valuable.

Ken Pomeroy's formula is most useful in identifying the better teams. Use his formula before the others. At Kenpom.com, DU is strong at No. 28 — one spot ahead of North Carolina.

(That isn't to say DU is more deserving than Carolina. It is simply a reference point.)

Like its possessions, DU had to value every game. With a 21-8 record and a WAC co-championship, it doesn't have a terrible loss. Its worst loss: Iona, way back on Nov. 9.

That type of season-long consistency is a more telling indicator of an NCAA-worthy team than a team that got hot one night and upset Duke or Kansas or Michigan.

"To me, a big part of those metrics is: Did you beat the teams that an NCAA Tournament team is supposed to beat?" Scott said.

The committee usually does a good job in assembling a 68-team bracket that makes sense.

Here’s how it could do a better job: Assign a former college coach and a national college basketball writer to the committee.

Committee members evaluate games and not simply printouts of numbers. But do they know what to look for? The true value of a road win in conference? A consistently good team vs. a team that got hot one night? A former coach knows the difference.

And perhaps no one watches more teams and has a better grasp of the landscape than national writers such as Gary Parrish of CBSSportsline.com or Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News, for examples.

Parrish needs only Sunday afternoon to seed a fair, comprehensive bracket. I would stack his bracket against any the committee produces. Give him a spot at the table.

“Most metrics don’t consider what it’s like to win on the road in February,” Scott said. “Basketball people know.”

The NCAA Tournament remains our best avenue in determining a national champion.

Make it even better.

In the biggest basketball process of the year, doesn’t it make sense to involve basketball people to evaluate the basketball teams?

Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. He can be reached via email (paul.klee@gazette.com) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette)

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