NCAA to give early peek of tournament field

By Ralph D. Russo
Associated Press
Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, right, with basketball coach Tom Izzo.

New York — The selection committee for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is getting into the bracketology business and borrowing an idea from the College Football Playoff, hoping it will get more fans thinking about March Madness in February.

The NCAA and CBS Sports announced Tuesday that for the first time the committee will give a look at its top 16 seeds one month before the 68-team field locks in on March 12.

The top four teams in each region will be revealed on Feb. 11 during a March Madness preview show on CBS. It’s the first time the men’s basketball selection committee has revealed its thinking during the season, giving teams an idea beyond outside rankings of where they stand heading into the tournament.

Bracketology, the art and science of projecting the final tournament field, has become a staple of college basketball coverage for media outlets. During the final month of the season, prognosticators are updating their brackets daily.

“We value the interest bracketologists bring to the process and the tournament,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president of men’s basketball championships. “All the bracketologists are good but only one group has the final say.”

Now the committee will reveal their thinking, too — though only at the top of the field. The 68-team field consists of 36 at-large teams and 32 conference champions who automatically qualify.

Gavitt said the complexity of building the full field made it difficult to consider going beyond the top 16.

“The committee felt the only reasonable place to end up was with the top 16,” he said.

Committee head Mark Hollis, the athletic director at Michigan State, is scheduled to take part in the reveal show.

The picks will come with plenty of games still to play, including conference tournaments.

“I think it will also hopefully spur even more interest in how the last several weeks of the season will unfold,” Gavitt said.

The move mirrors a similar early reveal for the women’s NCAA Tournament. The women’s committee revealed its top 16 seeds on Monday night, and plans to do so again twice more before the bracket is unveiled March 13. The new look behind the curtain also comes after three years of the College Football Playoff selection committee handing down a weekly top 25 before it picks the four semifinalists at the end of the regular season.

The NCAA has no involvement in the CFP, which is run by the leaders of the FBS conferences. The College Football Playoff’s 13-member selection committee was, however, inspired by the NCAA’s use of committees to set championship tournament fields — including the 10-member panel that fills out the most famous bracket in sports.

The CFP rankings begin nine weeks into the season and the committee chairman appears weekly on ESPN to get grilled about the rankings. The weekly rankings reveal was met with some skepticism from fans and members of the media, but ESPN and the CFP officials have been more than pleased with the results.

“We asked ourselves why not give the teams and the fans a glimpse into what the committee is thinking and we concluded that’s something we should do,” said College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock, who was director of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for 13 years. “If we didn’t produce weekly rankings then other rankings will be perceived to be reflective of the way the committee was thinking by teams and by fans. We wanted to get out in front of it.”

According to ESPN, the average viewership for the five CFP rankings shows in November was 1.21 million. Comparatively, the Florida State-North Carolina basketball game on Jan. 14 between two ranked teams drew 1.2 million viewers, making it one of the 10 most-watched games of the season through Jan. 16, according to the website Sports Media Watch.

Hancock said while there was some concern that releasing rankings that could change weekly might not have a lot of value and could leave fans a bit flummoxed they were outweighed by a desire to create a more transparent process that educates fans about the committee’s process and protocol.

“Weekly ranking are very good for the regular season,” Hancock said.

College basketball’s regular season could use a boost. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is one of the most valuable commodities in sports. CBS and Turner Sports pay the NCAA more than $1 billion per year for the media rights and those brackets lure in casual sports fans who might not know Gonzaga from Georgetown.

But college basketball gets overshadowed by college and pro football from November through January. The new top-16 seed preview will take place a week after the Super Bowl.