A decade ago, when the late Mike Slive was serving as chair and gifting the NCAA men’s basketball committee with his unique combination of brilliance, wisdom and affability, the group that runs the NCAA Tournament made one of the most important (and least acknowledged) decisions in its history: The people we know as the “selection committee” decided the entire college hoops season should count.
If the regular season consists of 30 or 33 games, they announced, all shall count the same. The old “last 10 games” factor no longer would be considered as part of the process for selecting and seeding the NCAA Tournament field.
There are some who follow the sport, or at least the tournament, who still don’t know that happened.
Dana Altman only wishes it hadn’t.
“For a while, it was the last 10 games and how you finished. Now, it has swung to how good your conference does in the non-conference games,” the Oregon coach told Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury-News. “I’m not sure what the happy medium is, but we definitely have way, way too much emphasis on November and December.”
Altman contends that teams evolve during the season and that early on, when most non-conference games are played, “teams aren’t who they are.” In other words, a team dependent on freshmen or transfers is likely to be changed by the process of going through those 30-33 games.
He’s right about that. He’s wrong about everything else in his argument.
Years before the selection committee finally acted to remove the “stretch-run” factor from its deliberations, I began charting whether performance over the final 10 games correlated to NCAA Tournament success. The numbers said it mattered not at all.
A team’s record over the final 10 games had about as much impact on its tournament advancement as whether the school had a cool nickname like “Ducks.”
The emphasis Altman cites on “November and December” is a reference to what comprises the non-conference portion of most Division I schedules. Most teams play non-league games at the start of the year, then move exclusively into league play in the latter part of the season. How the members of a league perform in those non-league games forms a significant part of their tournament resumes because they then play two-thirds of their schedules against league members.
What is the value of those league results? Well, that depends on how good teams in the league are; and that’s determined by whom they beat and who beats them in non-conference games. I compare it to the currency market; non-league performance helps establish the worth of a conference win. A Big Ten win was worth a lot last season because its members excelled outside the league; a Pac-12 win was worth little.
This certainly is preferable to the scenario in football, where there is little conference interplay and much of what the College Football Playoff committee does is based on assumption.
“If you’ve got players back, you’re at a big advantage,” Altman said. “It’s really a disadvantage to less experienced teams, the really talented teams that come on at the end.”
Duke started four freshmen in its opener against Kentucky last season and won by 34 points; the Devils lost only once in their first 15 games. K-State lost four of its first six games against major opponents last year, although it returned the top six scorers from an Elite Eight team in 2017-18. Some veteran teams struggle to find their way, and some young teams streak out of the blocks.
Altman’s position likely is affected by two items: 1) The Pac-12’s poor recent performance surely is a source of frustration. 2) His 2018-19 team went 8-2 down the stretch, won the Pac-12 Tournament championship and still earned only a No. 12 seed in the NCAAs.
Pac-12 teams won only 61 percent of their non-league games last year, the only top-seven conference to win fewer than 71 percent. The conference received just three NCAA Tournament bids as a result.
After some early injuries that affected the development of freshman forward Louis King and ended the season of freshman center Bol Bol, the Ducks recovered from an 11-8 start to win four games at the Pac-12 tournament and enter the NCAAs at 23-12. The Ducks reached the Sweet 16 by defeating No. 5 seed Wisconsin and No. 13 UC Irvine in the first two rounds, then played eventual national champion Virginia to a tough game before losing by four points.
By contrast, Mississippi State finished 7-3 in its final 10 games, earned a No. 5 seed – and still lost its NCAA tournament opener against Liberty. K-State went 7-3, won a share of the Big 12 regular-season title and could not avoid being an upset victim of UC Irvine.
Virginia Tech and Tennessee both reached the Sweet 16 after going 6-4 down the stretch. The Vols only lost five times entering the tournament, and four of them came in that stretch. It still took three games – and an overtime period – before they were eliminated.
The stretch run can be a source of momentum, or it can be something to overcome, or it can be no factor. A team’s success is impacted by which teams it plays, when key players are injured or hitting a rough stretch that can be resolved inside the tournament. If it’s statistically provable that it’s not material to a team’s advancement in the tournament, though, why should it matter?