Sneak peek hopes to gives March Madness a boost

John Weast/Getty Images

 

BY DAVID WHARTON

Los Angeles Times Contact Reporter

Feb. 12, 2017

 

The point of the first-ever March Madness bracket preview was to instigate some discussion, for good or bad.

The NCAA’s selection committee did its part on Saturday by offering a sneak peek — on national television — of the current top 16 seeds, four in each regional.

Villanova grabbed the overall No. 1 spot in the East, with Kansas, Baylor and Gonzaga heading the other three regionals. UCLA stood at No. 15 with a projected first-round trip to New York.

Let the water-cooler arguments begin.

“No question this is an opportunity to get more exposure,” said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches. “Our hope is to add excitement to the month before the tournament.”

The regular season could use a shot of adrenaline after years of steady declines in attendance and television ratings. Not until football ends and the tournament begins do many fans truly focus on the game.

So the NCAA has been looking for ways to inject a little madness into the February grind.

The coaches association suggested a bracket preview, in part because its members had noticed the success of the College Football Playoff system, which issues weekly rankings during the final stretch of the season.

The CFP’s Tuesday evening television show has drawn sizeable audiences eager to see which teams have slipped in or out of the coveted top four spots.

“We didn’t really think football’s regular season needed a boost, but the rankings have given us one,” said Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director. “They generate so much buzz.”

Hancock has a unique perspective on the issue because he previously spent 13 years as director of the men’s basketball tournament. He knows his former sport needs help.

“The regular season can always use some extra energy,” he said.

Though the NABC pushed for a preview, reaction among individual coaches varied this weekend.

John Calipari of Kentucky voiced his support during CBS’s telecast. UCLA Coach Steve Alford did not seem to mind that his team was projected to play in the East Regional, even after last week’s emotional victory over higher-seeded Oregon.

“It’s great that people are talking about March already,” he said. “But as far as our team goes, there’s no March without February. That’s our focus.”

At USC, Coach Andy Enfield — whose team did not make the Top 16 — wasn’t as enthusiastic.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “People come out with mock brackets all the time. You look online, every website has a mock bracket right now.”

Unlike those Internet “bracketologists,” the NCAA decided not to issue a full 68-team preview or even a shortened 16-team version over multiple weeks.

“There are a lot of logistical challenges with that, not the least of which is the frequency with which basketball games happen on a nightly basis,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball.

Still, the committee has a tradition of gathering in mid-February for a trial run. It’s a refresher course for veteran members and an introduction for newcomers such as the most recent additions, Mitch Barnhart of Kentucky and Paul Krebs of New Mexico.

Their task seems especially daunting this season with no team pulling away from the pack and six of the Top 10 suffering upset losses in the past week.

“The difference between the top teams and the bubble teams is really thin,” said Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton’s athletic director who also serves as vice chair of the selection committee. “So we have to slice each of those resumes very thinly and take a look at a number of things.”

If it wasn’t the best-possible time to debut a preliminary bracket, the NCAA has proceeded cautiously.

There are more than 1,300 games to be played in the remainder of the regular season and 32 conference tournaments, officials said. And, unlike football, nearly half of the postseason slots will be determined by conference results, not by committee.

So NCAA officials have emphasized that a lot can change between now and Selection Sunday on March 12. Hancock said his CFP selection committee has always stressed a similar message.

“You have to make it clear these are the rankings as of today and you’re not going to project what might happen in three or four weeks,” he said. “This is not a predictor, it’s a benchmark of how things stand.”

If nothing else, Saturday’s preview allowed the basketball committee to let the fans know where they stand and how they do their work. There was plenty of talk about duplication and geographical priorities, as well as hints of a changing methodology.

For decades, the tournament has relied on the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which takes into account not only wins and losses but also opponents’ winning percentage.

The NCAA recently met with analytics experts to discuss employing other measurements and, perhaps, establishing a composite of several methods.

“The coaches feel strongly that using more advanced metrics that are available in the game now, as compared to when the RPI was introduced over 30 years ago, makes the game more relevant,” Gavitt said.

The same might be true for the new preview.

During football season, one of the CFP’s weekly broadcasts drew more viewers than two high-profile basketball games — Duke versus Kansas and Kentucky versus Michigan State — played on the same day.

Though the NCAA seems reticent about adding one or two more previews — or even committing to an early bracket next season — Hancock said he thinks they should consider the possibility.

If it works for football, it could work for basketball.

“We never thought of doing this when I was there,” Hancock said of his previous job with the tournament. “I don’t really know why.”

Times staff writer Zach Helfand contributed to this story.