Making sense of the seeding process

Updated: February 16, 2006, 11:35 AM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Why was that team given such a low seed? Why was it sent so far away from its region? Why didn't it get an at-large berth?

NCAA Division I women's committee
NCAA photoThe committee, which watched well over 1,000 televised games last year, consists of 10 members who serve purely on a volunteer basis.

These questions and many more can be heard from coast to coast when the women's NCAA Tournament bracket is unveiled. This year, the questions will come on March 13, when the women's tourney switches to Selection Monday.

In the meantime, we figured we'd try to answer some of these questions ahead of time and give readers a better idea of how the 10-member NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee comes up with its final 64 teams, how the committee seeds them and determines where they are sent.

Keep in mind, this is a CliffsNotes version, though we did our best to cover the nuts and bolts from the NCAA's 40-page PowerPoint presentation, which is shared with schools and conferences around the country. The selection process is extremely detailed and arduous, enough so that the committee members -- who serve purely on a volunteer basis -- recently had a two-day meeting, not to discuss the nation's top teams, but just to further explain and make sure each member completely understands how the selection process will be handled about a month from now.

The best invention since sliced bread

The best way to get familiar with a team obviously is watching that squad in person. And when committee members travel out of their region, they try to stay an extra day just to squeeze in local games with teams they might not be familiar with.

When that's not possible, however, the committee members turn to their remote controls and are thankful for the latest technology.

"Almost all of the committee has TiVo, and all have DirecTV," said Sue Donohoe, the NCAA's vice president for Division I women's basketball.

The committee -- which watched well over 1,000 televised games last season, according to Donohoe -- will meet in the war room in Indianapolis March 10. If the committee members are early birds, the group will meet first thing in the morning. Here's a glimpse at the process:

What really matters

More than anything, teams need to win as many games as they can, particularly the games they're supposed to win. Teams also can bolster their profiles by scheduling the best possible nonconference competition, even if it means traveling great distances for quality nonconference games.

There are also three other major components the committee members use to help them ultimately decide which teams are in -- and in which order they're seeded:

Coaches' regional advisory committee rankings: One coach from each conference serves on a regional committee. These coaches discuss and rank the teams in that area. In turn, these coaches from each regional committee submit those rankings to the NCAA committee three times, in January, February and March.

The regional rankings are especially important when the committee is evaluating four or five very similar teams, Donohoe said.

Injured/unavailable report: The committee does take into consideration how a team performed when a critical player was hurt, when she might return and at what strength she's expected to be back.

For example, the committee closely examined how Minnesota fared two years ago after point guard Lindsay Whalen suffered a broken hand that forced her to miss the last five games of the regular season and conference tournament. Whalen was out a month, but she was expected to return in time for the NCAA Tournament. She did -- and Minnesota, which was 3-4 without Whalen -- received a seventh seed.

This season, the committee is likely keeping an eye on Iowa State. The Cyclones have lost four of their last six games, but were missing star Lyndsey Medders for four games as she recovered from a sprained ankle. Prior to that, she was hampered by back spasms. Medders' health in the final stretch of the regular season and Big 12 tournament could very well impact the committee's thought process when determining whether Iowa State deserves an at-large bid (assuming, of course, that the Cyclones do not win the league's automatic berth).

Conference monitor program: Each NCAA committee member is assigned three or four conferences to focus on. That committee member is usually in close contact with the conference representatives, particularly at the beginning of the season, prior to conference play and just before the selection process gets under way.

The committee member will get any crucial updates on what's going on in the conference, which teams to watch and any other superlatives someone closely associated with the conference might know. Once the selection process starts, this committee member is expected to educate and answer any questions the other members of the NCAA committee might have. Additionally, committee members also consult:

• Team information sheets for each of the 324 Division I programs, including the scores of each teams' games.

• "Nitty-Gritty" reports that compare teams that are under consideration in several different categories, including Division I record, overall RPI, nonconference RPI, conference record, conference RPI, road record, record in last 10 games, records against other teams that are being considered, records against teams ranked Nos. 1 to 25 by RPI, records against teams ranked Nos. 26 to 50 by RPI, etc.

What doesn't

Though many of us will weigh in on which bubble teams will get an at-large invitation to the Big Dance, no media speculation or projections ever influence the committee's decisions.

A team's performance in a previous NCAA Tournament also has no bearing on the process, nor does the number of teams taken from any one conference.

Additionally, brag sheets sent to committee members by schools or even lobbying of committee members by coaches or administrators are not to influence the process.

The truth about RPI

A team's RPI is one of many factors considered, but, more important, the committee discusses other information -- such as nonconference schedule, wins, losses, road wins, home losses, last 10 games, etc. -- because the committee also examines what makes up the RPI, which ultimately organizes key information.

The four factors the committee pays particular attention to are:
1. Division I winning percentage
2. Opponents' winning percentage (strength of schedule)
3. Opponents' opponents' winning percentage
4. Scheduling rating

The first three are obvious, so let's look at No. 4. The way to get a positive rating for scheduling is to schedule most of your nonconference games against top RPI teams, and for wins against these teams on the road.

So for example, if you're SMU, putting a team such as Mississippi State on your nonconference schedule has the potential to really bolster your rating. Mississippi State might not even have a great nonconference schedule, but the Lady Bulldogs play Tennessee twice during the season (not to mention several other highly rated SEC teams). In turn, Tennessee often plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and this season that includes road wins at places like Stanford. So, even though Mississippi State is in the lower tier of the SEC, SMU can bolster its RPI with a win over the Lady Bulldogs because of the great trickle-down effect.

However, teams can get a negative rating for scheduling if they schedule weaker teams (those in the lower half of the RPI rankings) and then lose to them. For example, UCLA's road loss to Baylor probably doesn't hurt much, considering it was the season opener and the Lady Bears are the defending champion with a solid RPI. But if UCLA had scheduled Oklahoma State on the road, and lost there, that would have resulted in a negative rating.

It should be noted that while factor No. 4 does provide bonuses and penalties, these bonuses and penalties are a small adjustment in the overall RPI formula.

The three phases of the selection process

The committee first selects the at-large teams, then seeds all 64 teams, then finally places the teams into the bracket.

The first step is for each committee member to submit a list of 64 teams that should be considered for the bracket (including the squads that have already or might subsequently earn automatic bids) in alphabetical order by secret ballot.

However, committee members may not vote for a team from their institutions. For example, if a committee member is an associate athletic director at LSU, she would not be allowed to include the Lady Tigers on her list of 64 teams. In fact, now that all voting is done electronically -- according to Donohoe, the committee switched over to this system four years ago, eliminating an "overwhelming amount of paperwork" -- that committee member's institution is never even on his or her computer screen because it's blocked out electronically.

Additionally, a committee member must leave the meeting room if the rest of the committee is discussing the selection or seeding of a team the individual represents. He or she also cannot answer any questions about that team, except for "factual questions," such as updating the committee on the status of an injured player or providing the date on which an injury occurred.

Once the ballots are received, any teams receiving all but one of the eligible votes advance to the at-large board.

Establishing the rest of the at-large berths: The rest, though, usually settle for the at-large nomination board. These are the teams that received at least one vote on the initial ballot, but not enough votes to advance right to the at-large board. This also includes teams that perhaps didn't receive a vote, but were later recommended by at least two members, and squads that won or shared a regular-season conference title or league divisional championship.

The first step in advancing any of these teams to the at-large board begins with each committee member submitting a list of his or her top eight teams, in random order, from the nomination board. The committee then ranks the top eight vote-getters, with the top four getting added to the at-large field.

Each committee member then submits another eight teams. The top four from that group, along with the four remaining teams from the first ballot, are pooled together and then ranked. Again, the top four join the at-large field. These steps are repeated until all of the at-large berths are filled.

The "S-curve": Once the 64-team field has been established, the committee then must work toward ranking them Nos. 1 to 64. Again, the first step is for each member to submit his or her top eight teams (in random order). These teams can come from the automatic qualifiers or the at-large board.

Again, the committee then ranks the top eight vote-getters, with the top four being placed onto the S-curve in order. The four that were not selected are held over for the next ballot. Each committee member then lists eight additional teams, with the top four vote-getters joining the four remaining teams on the second ballot. The top four teams join the S-curve in order, assuming spots Nos. 5 to 8. These steps are repeated until all the teams are seeded Nos. 1 to 64 to round out the S-curve.

It should be noted that while this might seem like a simple process, there is much discussion that goes on in the war room before each of these ballots is submitted. It is not unusual for the committee to discuss a group of teams 30 minutes to an hour prior to submitting a ballot. The members will spend this time comparing and reviewing data on each team under consideration.

Final rules to live by

The committee's No. 1 priority is to produce a balanced bracket in each region, meaning that the seeds on each line should be as equal as possible. Teams are assigned as close to home or their region, as possible, but if two teams from the same region are in contention for the same bracket position, the higher-ranked team on the S-curve will be picked to stay in its region. If a team is moved out of its region, the committee tries to place it in the next closest region.

Additionally, if three teams from one conference reach the 64-team field, the teams must be placed in different regions. So, for example, Duke, North Carolina and Maryland would be placed separately. And no more than two teams from the same conference will be in the same region (unless a ninth team from that league is selected for the field), which prevents teams from the same conference from meeting until the regional final.

In some instances, the committee has the right to move a team up or down a seed line. Donohoe says the committee tries to avoid doing so, but some scenarios make it unavoidable. For instance, regular-season rematches in the first and second-rounds are something the committee tries to prevent from happening, as well as rematches from the previous year's NCAA Tournament. The committee also tries to avoid moving a team out of its region for several consecutive seasons.

So there you have it. And remember, though everybody might not agree with the end result, it's clear the committee puts an incredible amount of thought into picking (and seeding) the 64-team field.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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