It happens every year on the Monday after the NCAA's selection committee has announced, Heidi Klum-style, which teams are "in" and which teams are "out." While the invited teams are overjoyed and start booking flights and reviewing tapes of their opponents, there are always those on the outside looking in, declaring shenanigans. How could they get in over us? Look at our record! Look at who we beat! Look at how tough our schedule was! What gives?
Of course, the reason there's so much outrage is that there truly isn't any criteria for selecting the 34 at-large teams. The selection committee's own guidelines state, "The tournament bracket each year is based on the subjectivity of each individual committee member." There's no secret formula, like winning 20 overall games, or finishing as one of the top four teams in a major conference or having the toughest schedule, that gets you in automatically. Unless you're in the Ivy League, the only sure way to get in is to go on a three- or four-game winning streak at the end of the season in your league's conference tournament. Other than that, you put yourself at the mercy of the selection committee's whim.
But having said that, we all know there are certain key factors that go into the committee's decisions. Every year, when questioned by the media, the same phrases get bandied about as excuses for why they picked Team X over Team Y: Strength of schedule, finishing strong, winning games on the road, out-of-conference schedule, a strong RPI, wins against teams in the top 50 -- these are clearly very important to the selection process. Certainly no one factor can be taken on its own -- if that were the case, Georgia Tech's strength of schedule rank of 7 would give them a chance to dance, but with a record of 15-17, we know that's not going to happen, nor should it. But if we can combine all those factors into a single value, we can figure out which of the "bubble teams" deserving got into the field, and which truly got the shaft.
So that is exactly what I have done. I've taken the top 100 teams in the RPI, removed the automatic qualifiers from the discussion (plus the aforementioned sub-.500 Georgia Tech) and then compared the remaining teams in the following completely non-subjective areas: net win-loss totals, overall strength of schedule, non-conference SOS, record in past 12 games, road/neutral site wins and record in games against the RPI top 50. The result is a single number, which I call a team's Atomic Mass. The larger the number, the heavier a team is and the more they sink to the bottom of the list. Using the formula at the conclusion of this season's games, we have come up with the following "periodic table" of bubble teams:
At first glance, we have five teams who would appear to have a right to complain about being snubbed. These are the teams that finished with an Atomic Mass in the top 34, which should have earned them an at-large bid, according to the criteria set out by the committee: Illinois State, Dayton, Massachusetts, Southern Illinois and VCU. However, the selection committee gets a free pass on what I like to call the "20-10-5" teams, that is, the teams in the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, SEC and Pac-10 with at least 20 wins overall, 10 wins in conference and finish in the top 5 in their conference standings. While most of these teams usually finish with a high enough Atomic Mass to be included in the at-large group of 34, there are usually one or two stragglers every year who finish a bit too heavy. This year is no exception.
Purdue, who would have been in the top 34 had Arkansas not lost to Georgia in the SEC final, won 24 games and 15 in the Big Ten. You cannot argue its inclusion in the tournament. Kentucky also gets in without an argument from me. Yes, the Wildcats won only 18 games, but with 12 SEC wins, I can see the committee extending its own logic to include them. (Twenty wins, 10 in conference equals 19 wins, 11 in conference equals 18 wins, 12 in conference.) I do find it amusing that the people who were arguing against the Wildcats a few weeks ago cited the loss to San Diego as a "bad loss," but after the Toreros won the WCC's automatic bid, people in favor of Kentucky are using the "good loss to a tournament team" as an argument for the Cats' inclusion. It just goes to show how without hard and fast rules for how we determine which teams get bids, we're going to have this same debate every year.
If we allow Purdue and Kentucky to get in, we have to take out the lowest two teams, VCU and Mississippi State. However, Mississippi State also qualifies under our exception, with 22 wins and 12 in conference. Therefore, Southern Illinois would get the boot instead. This leaves only three teams who still have a right to be upset: Illinois State, Dayton and Massachusetts. They all have better résumés than Baylor, Oregon and Kansas State, if you look at the numbers dispassionately.
Am I surprised the committee opted for super freshman Michael Beasley over the team that got blown out by Drake by 30 on national television in its title game? No. But does Illinois State have a right to be angry that the committee did? No question. If you look at the blind résumés, Dayton and Massachusetts were far more deserving than Baylor or Oregon. Again, am I surprised that the committee opted not to select five teams from the Atlantic 10 despite its claims that "every team is looked at without regard to conference affiliation"? Not in the least. After all, the committee is human and draws conclusions that may not be universally accepted by everyone who watches the same teams play. As selection committee chair Tom O'Connor told ESPN.com about Baylor, "It wasn't close. They did it all on the court." If "all" means padding your résumée by going 13-1 against teams with an RPI over 100, then yes, they did it all. Other than that, I have no idea what he's talking about.
But again, we're talking about something that in reality is completely subjective. The fact is, except for independents and a few scattered conference bottom feeders, everybody gets in the NCAA tournament. That's what all these automatic berths are about, aren't they? Teams get a chance to play their way into the Dance, no questions asked. And for squads like San Diego, Temple, Georgia and Coppin State, that's just what they did. Fail to win your conference tournament and you're no better than a contestant on Big Brother, leaving yourself subject to the whim of a group of people locked in a hotel suite, hoping they'll vote you back into the competition.
I am a Syracuse alum, and I certainly have my issues with the way my alma mater has been treated by the committee these past two years. While I didn't expect to see the Big East get nine teams in, and knew the Orange would be NIT-bound, I still got upset when I saw Oregon and Baylor get in. I also silently fumed when I heard Tom O'Connor talking about Arizona's injuries as a factor the committee took into account when evaluating their record. Hey, didn't we lose both Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf? Why didn't we get some "consideration" for those crippling injuries? But in the end, Syracuse has no right to be angry with anyone but itself. If the Orange had won just one more game over the course of the season, they probably would have been in the Dance instead of Villanova. That's on them, and not the committee.
While my snubbed trio of Illinois State, Dayton and Massachusetts all had the chance on the court to take the decision out of the committee's hands, they are the only teams which, from a completely objective point of view of the numbers, did enough to get in, yet did not. These three teams alone have every right to rant. For everyone else, I offer this observation: It's impossible to dance when you don't even have a leg to stand on.
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.