The Z-Bracket: 2004 edition

Once again, it's NCAA Tournament selection time, and once again, we're forced to guess, second-guess, and third-guess the opinions of the ten people in the room in Indianapolis. For the second year now, I'll use the Bradley-Terry ratings system (which I now call the Z-Ratings) to select the field, and to seed and place the teams in the bracket. And I'll show you every last little step of this process. You can find the Z-Ratings with all games through Selection Sunday here.

Selecting the field

Step 1: the automatic bids.

No changes from last year here - the same 31 conferences each get one automatic bid to the dance. Thirty of those 31 award the automatic bid to their tournament champion - the Ivy League does not conduct a tournament, and awards its bid to its regular-season champion. The recipients of the automatic bids for 2004 are:

GonzagaWest Coast3
Oklahoma StateBig 128
ConnecticutBig East9
MarylandAtlantic Coast13
CincinnatiConference USA20
WisconsinBig Ten21
UtahMountain West38
XavierAtlantic 1047
NevadaWestern Athletic50
Western MichiganMid-American54
Central FloridaAtlantic Sun62
PacificBig West75
ManhattanMetro Atlantic Athletic76
Murray StateOhio Valley80
Northern IowaMissouri Valley84
East Tennessee StateSouthern85
Virginia CommonwealthColonial Athletic88
Illinois - ChicagoHorizon League94
Louisiana - LafayetteSun Belt97
PrincetonIvy League134
Eastern WashingtonBig Sky147
VermontAmerica East155
LibertyBig South209
Texas - San AntonioSouthland224
LehighPatriot League225
Alabama StateSouthwestern Athletic268
Florida A&MMid-Eastern Athletic295

Step 2: the at-large bids.

Selecting the thirty-four at-large teams with the Z-Ratings is simple - we take the top 34 teams without automatic bids. This year, these precious and lucrative slots fall to:
St. Joseph's2
Mississippi State6
Georgia Tech10
North Carolina State11
Wake Forest12
North Carolina14
South Carolina22
Boston College24
Florida State27
Texas Tech30
Louisiana State31
Seton Hall34
Southern Illinois36
Utah State41
Notre Dame43
Teams in italics were not selected for the actual tournament field. The eight teams that made the real Dance over those italicized above are Michigan State (44), Brigham Young (45), Alabama - Birmingham (46), Dayton (48), Texas - El Paso (51), Air Force (52), Washington (55), and Richmond (59).

This year, the Z-Ratings seem to really be rewarding the weaker teams in the two strongest conferences (the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conferences). It's been clear all along that the ACC and SEC were head and shoulders above the rest of college basketball this year; the Z-Ratings say that the distance between those two and the rest is more like a giraffe's neck. The conference ratings show that if every ACC team played every team outside that conference, the ACC teams win nine times out of ten. The percentage for the SEC is 85.24%; no other conference is over 78.2%. At this point last year, the SEC had the top conference BSWP - at 81.24%.

The Z-Ratings treat every game the same, whether it's an early season matchup, a heated league contest, or the conference tournament final. It doesn't matter that Virginia finished next to last in the ACC, or that Tennessee finished last in the SEC East. They played a tough enough schedule and got enough wins; multiply those together, and you get an at-large berth.

At the same time, if you can rack up enough wins (perhaps twenty-four in Div. I play against three losses), despite the fact that you play in a mid-major conference (oh, I don't know, like the Big West), the Z-Ratings will take care of you even if you don't take an automatic bid. The Utah State snub makes me think that it's urinalysis time for the committee.

Seeding the teams

The committee comes up with something called the "S-Curve" to rank the teams in the field from one to sixty-five. Since we already have all the teams in Division I ranked, we use the Z-Ratings we already have to produce our seeds. Slight adjustments will need to be made to these seed numbers to satisfy certain rules for establishing the bracket. This is what we get:

Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team
111Stanford 51717Syracuse 93333Louisville 137649Manhattan
22St. Joseph's 1818Vanderbilt 3434Seton Hall 8050Murray State
33Gonzaga 1919Illinois 3535Charlotte 8451Northern Iowa
44Duke 2020Cincinnati 3636Southern Illinois 8552East Tennessee State
255Kentucky 62121Wisconsin 103737DePaul 148853Virginia Commonwealth
66Mississippi State 2222South Carolina 3838Utah 9454Illinois - Chicago
77Pittsburgh 2323Providence 3939Oklahoma 9755Louisiana - Lafayette
88Oklahoma State 2424Boston College 4040Arizona 13456Princeton
399Connecticut 72525Kansas 114141Utah State 1514557Valparaiso
1010Georgia Tech 2626Virginia 4242Tennessee 14758Eastern Washington
1111North Carolina State 2727Florida State 4343Notre Dame 15559Vermont
1212Wake Forest 2828Alabama 4744Xavier 18060Monmouth
41313Maryland 82929Memphis 125045Nevada 1620961Liberty
1414North Carolina 3030Texas Tech 5446Western Michigan 22462Texas - San Antonio
1515Texas 3131Louisiana State 6247Central Florida 22563Lehigh
1616Florida 3232Georgia 7548Pacific
OR26864Alabama State
29565Florida A&M
Rk = overall ranking by the Z-Ratings.
FR = Field ranking - the ranking of the team among the field of 65.
OR = opening round.

Most of these seeds are close to what the committee came up with and where the college hoops heads say the teams should be, but three teams deserve comment.

Gonzaga as a #1. Most said the Zags weren't deserving of a #1 slot, but they lost only to two other No.1s, Stanford and St. Joseph's. They beat Washington, Maryland, Georgia, and Missouri. They ran the table in the West Coast Conference. There's no question in my mind they deserve this seed.
Kansas as a #7. For the second year in a row, the Z-Ratings give the Jayhawks a much lower seed than the committee did. The Big 12 North was somewhat stronger this year, but those eight losses (including to Nevada, Richmond, and Nebraska), combined with a non-conference schedule that included Binghamton and Chattanooga, deflate the Jayhawks' standing.
Xavier as a #11. Two losses to Duquesne in conference play don't exactly help your seeding. The Musketeers may be hot right now, coming off an Atlantic 10 title and a win over St. Joseph's, but those games are valued exactly the same as the rest of Xavier's season, over which the Musketeers went only 19-10.

Establishing the bracket

(From here out, for ease of reference, I will refer to the East Rutherford regional as the "East", the Atlanta regional as the "South", St. Louis as the "Midwest", and Phoenix as the "West".)

Again, we adhere to the bracketing principles established by the committee. The key points to remember are:

We also adhere to the bracketing procedure outlined in the championship handbook. There is one big change to that procedure this year, and it comes right off the bat.

Step 1: Place the No. 1 seeds, and pair the regional winners for the national semifinals.

As the top overall seed, Stanford goes to the West; St. Joseph's to the East; Gonzaga to the Midwest; Duke to the South. The four regional winners are paired to that if all four No. 1 seeds make it to the Final Four (which has never happened since seeding began in 1979), the overall No. 1 plays No. 4, and No. 2 faces off against No. 3. This sets up the Phoenix and Atlanta regional winners in one national semifinal, and the St. Louis and East Rutherford regional winners in the other (coincidentally, the same pairings the committee made).

Step 2: Place the No. 2 seeds.

Kentucky goes to the Midwest; Mississippi State to the South; Pittsburgh to the East; Oklahoma State to the West.

Step 3: Place the No. 3 seeds.

Connecticut's natural region is the East, but with Pittsburgh already there, we send the Huskies to the South (also sensible since Georgia Tech cannot be placed there). And now we deal with the glut of ACC teams (the next five teams are all from that conference). The Yellow Jackets go to the East; North Carolina State to the Midwest; and Wake Forest to the West.

Step 4: Place the No. 4 seeds.

I'm going to put Maryland in the Midwest. I want to put them in the East, but that would require placing Florida in the West to avoid Mississippi State and Kentucky, and would leave a very weak top four in the West (save for Stanford). (We are allowed to put multiple ACC teams in the top four of same region, because the ACC has six teams in the top 16. I instead send North Carolina to Phoenix, and place Texas in the South and Florida in the East.

Step 5: Check for conflicts and balance in the Nos. 1 through 4 seeds.

No conflicts thus far. The balance of the bracket is measured by the sum of the field rankings of this group of four teams for each region. The lowest FR sum is 32, and the highest is 35; the balance at the top is sound.

Step 6: Assign first and second round sites.

We assign the top 16 teams to pods in order of their overall ranking. We get this:

Buffalo, NY: St. Joseph's, Connecticut
Columbus, OH: Pittsburgh, Kentucky
Raleigh, NC: Duke, Wake Forest
Orlando, FL: Mississippi State, Georgia Tech
Milwaukee, WI: North Carolina State, Maryland
Kansas City, MO: Oklahoma State, Texas
Denver, CO: Stanford, North Carolina
Seattle, WA: Gonzaga, Florida

One quick note. Stanford is more than 400 miles closer to Seattle (837) than to Denver (1295), but I sent the Cardinal to Denver because that is a Friday/Sunday pod, which allows them, as the top overall team, to play the winner of the opening-round game in the first round.

Down to the bottom of the bracket now.

Step 7: Place the No. 13 seeds.

Manhattan to the East; Murray State to the Midwest; Northern Iowa to the West; East Tennessee State to the South.

Step 8: Place the No. 14 seeds.

Virginia Commonwealth to the South. Illinois - Chicago goes to the West (placing them in the Midwest would put them in Milwaukee, only 90 miles away, which could potentially disadvantage N.C. State). Louisiana - Lafayette to the Midwest, and Princeton to the East.

Step 9: Place the No. 15 seeds.

Valparaiso to the Midwest; Eastern Washington to the West; Vermont to the East; Monmouth to the South.

Step 10: Place the No. 16 seeds.

Liberty to the South; Texas - San Antonio to the Midwest; Lehigh to the East; and the winner of the opening round game between Alabama State and Florida A&M goes to the west to face Stanford.

Step 11: Check for conflicts and balance in the Nos. 13 through 16 seeds.

No conflicts here. The FR sums range between 224 and 227, so our balance is very good here.

Halfway through - now the fun begins.

Step 12: Place the No. 5 seeds.

I want to place defending champion Syracuse in the East, but with Pittsburgh already there, we send the Orangemen to the Midwest. Vanderbilt goes to the South. Next we have the first teams from two power conferences (the Big Ten and Conference USA); Illinois is placed in the East and Cincinnati in the West.

Step 13: Place the No. 6 seeds.

Big Ten champion Wisconsin goes to the South, because all the other six seeds are SEC or Big East, and the South already has one team from each of those conferences. South Carolina goes to the East, and then a pair of Big East teams - Providence to the West, and Boston College to the Midwest.

Step 14: Place the No. 7 seeds.

Kansas goes to the Midwest. Next are the final two ACC teams, Virginia and Florida State. One of them is going to have to be bumped to a No. 8 seed. Since the Z-Ratings didn't put any stock in conference standing at selection time, we won't consider the ACC standings when deciding to bump the eighth place team rather than the seventh. Virginia gets #7 in the South; Florida State gets bumped and will be dealt with later. As the highest ranked true No. 8, Memphis gets brought up. The places of both Alabama and Memphis are controlled by previously placed teams; the Crimson Tide have to go to the West and the Tigers to the East.

Step 15: Place the No. 8 seeds.

Florida State is placed first, and the Seminoles have to go to the East. Texas Tech goes to the West. Louisiana State goes to the Midwest, and at this point, I'm going to exercise my option to have two SEC teams potentially meet in the third round by placing Georgia in the South.

Step 16: Check for conflicts and balance in the Nos. 5 through 8 seeds.

We successfully followed all the bracketing rules; three regions have FR sums of 97, and the West's sum is 101, indicating sound balance.

Step 17: Place the No. 9 seeds.

Louisville goes to the Midwest. Seton Hall should naturally be placed in the East, but that would cause problems later in this step. The Pirates end up in the West. Charlotte's 49ers go to the South, and the Salukis of Southern Illinois end up in the East.

Step 18: Place the No. 10 seeds.

DePaul is dropped in the Midwest. Utah, the only Mountain West Conference representative in this field, goes to the West. Oklahoma is placed in the East; and Arizona to the South.

Step 19: Place the No. 11 seeds.

Utah State goes to the West. Tennessee has to be placed in the top half of the West; to accommodate this, the Volunteers are bumped down to a No. 12. Notre Dame also has to be bumped down because Big East teams already occupy already all four bottom halves. Benefiting from this are Nevada and Western Michigan. Xavier gets placed first, and the Musketeers go to the Midwest. Western Michigan goes to the Midwest, and Nevada to the East.

Step 20: Place the No. 12 seeds.

As previously stated, Tennessee goes to the West; Notre Dame to the East; Central Florida to the South; and finally, Pacific to the Midwest.

Step 21: Check for conflicts and balance in the Nos. 9 through 12 seeds.

No conflicts with the principles, but the balance here is not good, with the West's FR sum at 155 and the South's sum at 168. One simple change will alleviate this: swapping Western Michigan and Utah State on the No. 11 line. Now the FR sums range from 160 to 163, so we're good to go.

Step 22: Re-check the entire bracket for conflicts.

Everything is sat. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2004 Z-Bracket.

Parting thoughts

I love that the NCAA took my second suggestion from last year and junked the Final Four static rotation. I don't like the fact that they're now referring to the regionals by the cities they're played in. It's much easier to use the regional names (East, South, Midwest, and West).

A quick note on the committee's handling of the bubble, since I didn't discuss it above. I think the committee was a little inconsistent, especially when it came to rewarding mid-major conference regular-season winners who lost in their conference tournaments. UTEP, Air Force, Southern Illinois, all in - but Utah State out? And at 25-3? The other thing here is the committee's contention that there's no limit to the number of teams that can be selected from one conference. Rarely are more than six teams picked from one league. This definitely benefited the Big Ten and Pac-10, two big-name conferences that had down years, by allowing them to each get a third team in. That said, all eight of the teams above have good credentials and should make for some fine tournament play.

I won't repeat my spiel from last year about the transparency of the selection process; my stance is unchanged.

That's all I got. Let's play some hoops.