The Z-Bracket: 2005 edition

It's the middle of March. Sixty-five teams have been inserted into a bracket to play for a national championship. That only means one thing - it's time for me to come up with my own bracket! In my world, the Z-Ratings reign supreme, and will be used to select and seed the teams, and to an extent, bracket them. Through four months and 4,675 games, the ratings look like this.

Selecting the field

Step 1: the automatic bids.

The thirty-one Division I conferences each get one automatic bid to the championship. The Ivy League doesn't conduct a tournament, awarding the bid to its regular-season champion; every other conference gives its bid to the tournament winner. This year's conference champions:

IllinoisBig Ten1
DukeAtlantic Coast4
Oklahoma StateBig 1210
GonzagaWest Coast11
LouisvilleConference USA12
SyracuseBig East13
New MexicoMountain West38
Texas - El PasoWestern Athletic48
CreightonMissouri Valley51
George WashingtonAtlantic 1060
Old DominionColonial Atlantic63
Wisconsin - MilwaukeeHorizon65
Utah StateBig West78
Ohio UniversityMid-American85
VermontAmerica East87
Louisiana - LafayetteSun Belt89
WinthropBig South105
PennsylvaniaIvy League121
Central FloridaAtlantic Sun148
Eastern KentuckyOhio Valley150
NiagaraMetro Atlantic Athletic156
Southeast LouisianaSouthland159
MontanaBig Sky176
Fairleigh DickinsonNortheast208
Delaware StateMid-Eastern Athletic214
Alabama A&MSouthwestern Athletic288

Step 2: the at-large bids.

Selecting the thirty-four at-large teams with the Z-Ratings is simple. The top 34 teams without automatic bids get invites - except Ohio State, which has a high enough rating for an at-large, but declared itself ineligible for postseason play. This year's at-large teams are:
North Carolina2
Wake Forest3
Boston College6
Michigan State16
Texas Tech24
Georgia Tech25
West Virginia28
Louisiana State32
Mississippi State33
Southern Illinois34
North Carolina State35
Texas A&M37
Notre Dame41
Iowa State42
Teams in italics were not selected for the actual tournament field. This year's Z-Bracket selections are much closer to the real tournament field than those from last year, with only three discrepancies (as opposed to eight in 2004). The three teams that got into the real Dance but were left out here are St. Mary's (46), UAB (57), and Northern Iowa (58).

Notre Dame and Indiana, two schools from the capital of basketball, were mentioned in the run-up to the tournament as bubble schools that played their way out. It's much harder to do that in this system, because every game is weighted the same. The Irish went 9-7 in the Big East, and the Hoosiers were 10-6 in the Big Ten; in both cases, just enough to get them into this field. Texas A&M benefits heavily from going undefeated in non-conference play; even a .500 mark in the Big XII and a first-round conference tournament loss didn't overcome that.

The three teams the committee chose over those in the previous paragraph are a fourth from Conference USA, a third from the Missouri Valley, and a second from the West Coast. If the motivation of the committee is to throw a couple of bones to mid-majors, then that isn't such a bad thing. But the Z-Bracket selects strictly by the numbers, and the numbers say the Big XII and Big East each get seven, and the Big Ten gets six. On the other hand, for the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conferences, it's a complete reversal from last year's Z-Bracket. Last year's SEC put an astounding nine teams in, and the ACC sent eight - each of these leagues got only five slots this year.

Seeding the teams

Maybe if the selection committee showed us its infamous "S-Curve" ranking of the teams in the field, we could understand the process better. Our seeds come straight from the Z-Ratings we already have. Teams will have to be bumped up or down, but the nominal seed numbers are:

Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team
111Illinois 51717Wisconsin 93333Mississippi State 137849Utah State
22North Carolina 1818Villanova 3434Southern Illinois 8550Ohio University
33Wake Forest 1919Florida 3535North Carolina State 8751Vermont
44Duke 2020Alabama 3636Stanford 8952Louisiana - Lafayette
255Washington 62121Utah 103737Texas A&M 1410553Winthrop
66Boston College 2222Cincinnati 3838New Mexico 12154Pennsylvania
77Kentucky 2323Pacific 3939Charlotte 12755Bucknell
88Arizona 2424Texas Tech 4140Notre Dame 14556Chattanooga
399Kansas 72525Georgia Tech 114241Iowa State 1514857Central Florida
1010Oklahoma State 2626Pittsburgh 4342Nevada 15058Eastern Kentucky
1111Gonzaga 2727Iowa 4443Indiana 15659Niagara
1212Louisville 2828West Virginia 4844Texas - El Paso 15960Southeast Louisiana
41313Syracuse 82929UCLA 125145Creighton 1617661Montana
1414Oklahoma 3030Texas 6046George Washington 19362Oakland
1515Connecticut 3131Minnesota 6347Old Dominion 20863Fairleigh Dickinson
1616Michigan State 3232Louisiana State 6548Wisconsin - Milwaukee
OR21464Delaware State
28865Alabama 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.

We've reached the point in the process where I talk about why a couple of teams are seeded where they are.

Boston College as a #2. Those who recall (as was stated above) that every game counts the same in the Z-Ratings won't be suprised by the Eagles being a No. 2. Neither the 4-4 end to the season nor their quarterfinal Big East tournament loss deflates the value of having won the Big East regular-season championship, or starting the season with twenty straight wins.
Iowa, UCLA, and Charlotte. These three teams differ by three from the seed given by the selection committee. In these cases, it's mainly a difference in schedule valuation - in other words, the Z-Ratings like the Big Ten and Pac-10, which favor Iowa and UCLA; on the other hand, they don't like Conference USA, which hurts Charlotte.
Oakland as a #16. Just as in 2003, a team with a losing record avoids the play-in game. And just as in 2003, that sub-.500 team played a significantly stronger schedule than the SWAC and MEAC champions (which, for the third straight year, would both be sent to Dayton in my bracket).

Establishing the bracket

(This year, I'm going to do as the NCAA does and refer to the regionals by the cities they're played in - Syracuse, Austin, Chicago, and Albuquerque.)

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. This procedure is unchanged from 2004. Let's go to work.

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

Number one overall team Illinois gets to stay close to home, and is assigned to Chicago. North Carolina goes to the Syracuse region; Wake Forest is placed in Austin; and Duke goes west to Albuquerque. We pair the regional winners such that should all the top seeds reach St. Louis, the overall No. 1 faces No. 4, and No. 2 plays No. 3. This produces the same matchups as the real bracket - Chicago v. Albuquerque, and Syracuse v. Austin. (Of course, I need not remind astute readers that in the twenty-six years of seeding, at least one No. 1 seed has always fallen before the national semifinals.)

Step 2: Place the No. 2 seeds.

Washington goes to Albuquerque; Boston College to Syracuse; Kentucky to Austin; and Arizona to Chicago.

Step 3: Place the No. 3 seeds.

Kansas to Chicago; Oklahoma State to Austin; Gonzaga to Albuquerque; and Louisville to Syracuse.

Step 4: Place the No. 4 seeds.

We can't put Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, so we send the Orange to Chicago. Oklahoma goes into the Austin regional; Connecticut goes to Syracuse; and Michigan State goes to Albuquerque.

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

No conflicts thus far. We check for balance by comparing the sums of the field (1-65) rankings of the four-team groups in each region. These sums range from 31 (Chicago) to 36 (Albuquerque); the balance 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:

Worcester, MA: Boston College, Syracuse
Cleveland, OH: Louisville, Connecticut
Charlotte, NC: North Carolina, Wake Forest
Nashville, TN: Duke, Michigan State
Indianapolis, IN: Illinois, Kentucky
Oklahoma City, OK: Kansas, Oklahoma State
Tucson, AZ: Oklahoma, Gonzaga
Boise, ID: Washington, Arizona

Unlike last year, top overall seed Illinois gets the geographic advantage (by playing in Indianapolis, a Thursday/Saturday site) rather than the strict seeding advantage (of playing the opening round winner). This is a purely subjective call - after a 32-1 season, I think that the Illini absolutely deserve to not have to step on a plane to get to any of their games.

Let's put some conference champions in this bracket - we make the 13 through 16 lines next. These teams, and the rest of the teams in the bracket, are placed so that they are as close to home for the first and second round games as possible. Well, at least that's what I try to do.

Step 7: Place the No. 13 seeds.

Utah State to Austin; Ohio goes to Syracuse; Vermont to Chicago; Louisiana - Lafayette to Albuquerque.

Step 8: Place the No. 14 seeds.

Winthrop goes into the Austin regional; Penn goes to Syracuse; Bucknell to Albuquerque, and Chattanooga to Chicago.

Step 9: Place the No. 15 seeds.

Central Florida to Chicago; Eastern Kentucky to Austin; Niagara to Syracuse; and Southeast Louisiana to Albuquerque.

Step 10: Place the No. 16 seeds.

Montana to Albuquerque; Oakland to Chicago; Fairleigh Dickinson to Austin; and the winner of the opening round game (Delaware State v. Alabama A&M) goes to the Syracuse region.

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

No conflicts here (all these teams but Utah State are the only teams from their respective conferences). The FR sums range between 223 and 229, so our balance works here.

33 in, and 32 left.

Step 12: Place the No. 5 seeds.

Wisconsin to Syracuse; Villanova to Albuquerque, since they can't be placed with Syracuse in the Worcester pod; SEC champion Florida to Chicago; and Alabama to Austin.

Step 13: Place the No. 6 seeds.

Utah goes to Albuquerque. I'd like to place Cincinnati in the Cleveland pod in the Syracuse regional, Louisville is already there, so the Bearcats go to the Chicago region. Pacific goes to the Austin regional, because Texas Tech can't be placed there; Coach Knight's Red Raiders go to the Syracuse regional.

Step 14: Place the No. 7 seeds.

The first No. 7 on the board is Georgia Tech, and they're not close to any of the regional sites or any of the 2/7/10/15 pod sites. So I'm putting them in Chicago - the best No. 7 against the worst No. 2 in the second round. Pittsburgh goes to the Austin region; Iowa to Syracuse; and West Virginia to Albuquerque.

Step 15: Place the No. 8 seeds.

UCLA, in the Z-Bracket for the first time, goes to the Albuquerque region; Texas can't go to Austin, so we send them to Chicago. This means Minnesota is headed to Austin, and LSU to Syracuse.

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

We got all the bracketing rules right; two regions have FR sums of 96, and the other two are 100, indicating sound balance. We're almost there - and we haven't had to flip a seed yet...

Step 17: Place the No. 9 seeds.

Mississippi State has to go to Albuquerque. Ideally, I'd put Southern Illinois in Chicago, but I need to leave that slot open for N. C. State. The Salukis instead are placed in the Austin regional. The Wolfpack get the aforementioned Chicago slot, and Stanford goes to Syracuse.

Step 18: Place the No. 10 seeds.

Texas A&M goes to Albuquerque. New Mexico goes to the Syracuse region; Charlotte to Austin; and Notre Dame to Chicago.

Step 19: Place the No. 11 seeds.

We finally have to bump a team. That team is Iowa State, who has to be bumped to a No. 12, because we've already got Big XII teams in the bottom of all four regions. That means Creighton comes up to a No. 11; we'll deal with the Bluejays later. Nevada goes to Albuquerque; Indiana goes to Chicago; Texas - El Paso goes to Austin, and Missouri Valley champion Creighton goes to Syracuse.

Step 20: Place the No. 12 seeds.

Iowa State is placed first, since they were bumped down; they go to Syracuse. George Washington to Chicago; Old Dominion to Austin; and finally, Wisconsin-Milwaukee to Albuquerque.

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

No conflicts with the principles, and with two FR sum at 160 and two at 163, the 9 through 12 seeds are balanced.

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

It's all good in this hood. Submitted for your enjoyment, the 2005 Z-Bracket.

Parting thoughts

The end of Appendix E of the men's basketball championship handbook (which deals with selection, seeding and placement) is worth quoting at length:

Each committee member independently evaluates a vast pool of information available during the process to develop individual preferences. It is these subjective opinions developed after many hours of personal observations, discussion with coaches, directors of athletics and commissioners, and review and comparison of objective data that dictate how each individual ultimately will vote on all issues related to the selection, seeding and bracketing process.

While the various elements of the RPI are important in the evaluation process, the tournament bracket each year is based on the subjectivity of each individual committee member to select the best at-large teams available and to create a nationally balanced championship.

To someone who has come to respect the selection process for the NCAA hockey tournament, this sums up everything wrong with the basketball makes its draw. The use of an objective, statistics-based system for selection ensures that the at-large teams are picked without regard to conference affiliation, regional bias, or reputation, to name a few factors. This might also cause teams to change their scheduling practices, to get tougher teams on their schedule to boost their rating. (Of course, if you don't win any of those games, it'll hurt you come selection time.) The point is that we know how every team got its spot in the Z-Bracket; nobody can really say for sure why Connecticut was given a No. 2, or why Louisville could only get a No. 4. At least my seed for Kansas matched the committee's seed this year.

That's all for this year - enjoy the tournament.