Z-Bracket XIV: Make College Basketball Great Again!

Once again, I'm back at this quixotic attempt to use sound, objective data and criteria to produce a collee basketball championship. Although I've heard suggestions we should build a wall around the big conferences, that hasn't happened quite yet. And like a candidate on the other side, the NCAA apparently has some problems with its email security. Starting from the final 2016 regular season Z-Ratings based on 5,369 games between Division I teams through March 13, we'll select 36 at-large teams, seed them and the 32 conference champions into the field, and then use the NCAA's own criteria to come up with a bracket for the Division I Men's Basketball Championship.

(Summary of previous brackets | Jump to this year's bracket)

Selecting the field

Step 1: the automatic bids.

As in the last two years, the same 32 teams with automatic berths in the actual tournament are admitted here. For the last time, the Ivy League's regular season winner qualifies; starting next year, the Ancient Eight joins the rest of college hoops by playing a conference tournament.
KansasBig 121 Northern IowaMissouri Valley90
Michigan StateBig Ten5 Stony BrookAmerica East100
North CarolinaAtlantic Coast8 Stephen F. AustinSouthland107
OregonPacific-129 Middle Tennessee StateConference USA114
Seton HallBig East12 IonaMetro Atlantic Athletic118
KentuckySoutheastern24 BuffaloMid-American120
Saint Joseph'sAtlantic 1030 Green BayHorizon League128
ConnecticutAmerican Athletic39 Cal State BakersfieldWestern Athletic140
GonzagaWest Coast45 Weber StateBig Sky149
HawaiiBig West60 UNC AshevilleBig South154
Arkansas - Little RockSun Belt65 Florida Gulf CoastAtlantic Sun203
ChattanoogaSouthern72 Austin PeayOhio Valley208
UNC WilmingtonColonial Athletic79 HamptonMid-Eastern Athletic211
Fresno StateMountain West81 SouthernSouthwestern Athletic240
South Dakota StateSummit League84 Fairleigh DickinsonNortheast247
YaleIvy League89 Holy CrossPatriot League278

Step 2: the at-large bids.

Filling out the field in the Z-Bracket is entirely straightforward - we take the thirty-six highest rated teams who didn't claim automatic berths. This year, there are two exceptions - Louisville and Southern Methodist would both be in, but they both declared themselves ineligible for postseason play; self-imposed in the former case, while the Mustangs were told by the NCAA they'd be sitting out this year.
Villanova2 Maryland19 Pittsburgh34
Xavier3 California20 Oregon State35
Oklahoma4 Indiana21 Michigan36
West Virginia6 Providence22 Southern California37
Virginia7 Duke23 Wisconsin38
Miami (FL)10 Texas A&M26 South Carolina40
Utah11 Butler27 Virginia Tech41
Baylor13 Texas Tech28 Georgia Tech42
Iowa State14 Iowa29 Cincinnati43
Arizona16 Notre Dame31 Syracuse44
Purdue17 Dayton32 Kansas State46
Texas18 Colorado33 Marquette47
31 of the 36 teams in the table above match actual at-large selections; the five that don't are denoted in italics. Temple (52), Virginia Commonwealth (54), Vanderbilt (56), Wichita State (61), and Tulsa (67) are the five teams actually selected that aren't in my bracket. I'm not surprised to see that; generally, looking closely at the those differences reveals that the selection committee took higher-placed teams from conferences ranked not far below the "big six." VCU and Wichita State both reached their respective conference tournament finals, and Temple won the American outright by two games. Because the Z-Ratings don't weight conference and tournament play any differently than the non-conference schedule, they tend to favor middling teams in the bigger conferences.

Seeding the teams

The first round

No changes in the way we set up the four games in Dayton; we use the one change specified by the NCAA last year (listed first below) and the other rules I've been using the since the First Four was introduced five years ago:

Creating the seed list

Years back,the committee used to develop an opaque "S-Curve" to come up with an ordering of the teams in the field from 1 to 68; now, in the supposed interest of transparency, they use a seemingly interminable series of ballots. Since all the teams are already ranked by our Z-Ratings, that's the basis for developing the seeds for our bracket. When you see two teams shring a cell in the table below, they're facing off in the first round.

Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team Seed Rk FR Team
111Kansas 51817Texas 93533Oregon State 138451South Dakota State
22Villanova 1918Maryland 3634Michigan 8952Yale
33Xavier 2019California 3735Southern California 9053Northern Iowa
44Oklahoma 2120Indiana 3836Wisconsin 10054Stony Brook
255Michigan State 62221Providence 103937Connecticut 1410755Stephen F. Austin
66West Virginia 2322Duke 4038South Carolina 11456Middle Tennessee State
77Virginia 2423Kentucky 4139Virginia Tech 11857Iona
88North Carolina 2624Texas A&M 4240Georgia Tech 12058Buffalo
399Oregon 72725Butler 1143
1512859Green Bay
1010Miami (FL) 2826Texas Tech 4543Gonzaga 14060Cal State Bakersfield
1111Utah 2927Iowa 46
Kansas State
14961Weber State
1212Seton Hall 3028Saint Joseph's 6046Hawaii 15462UNC Asheville
41313Baylor 83129Notre Dame 126547Arkansas - Little Rock 1620363Florida Gulf Coast
1414Iowa State 3230Dayton 7248Chattanooga 20864Austin Peay
1615Arizona 3331Colorado 7949UNC Wilmington 211
1716Purdue 3432Pittsburgh 8150Fresno State 247
Fairleigh Dickinson
Holy Cross
Rk = overall ranking by the Z-Ratings.
FR = Field ranking - the ranking of the team among the field of 68.

What I said about conference versus non-conference play in the section on team selection goes doubly so here - particularly as regards the Big East. The committee seeded every representative of that conference lower than the Z-Ratings would - in the cases of Providence and Seton Hall, three spots lower. I wonder to what extent Seton Hall was already locked into its position during the voting process - and conversely, how much weight was given to their victory over the second-ranked team in the country. In the other direction, the SEC co-champions, Kentucky and Texas A&M, were both relatively rewarded by the selection committee. That league isn't without its share of good teams, but doesn't have quite the depth of top-50 ranked clubs that the Big East has; it seems that those administering the eye test discount that factor.

Establishing the bracket

In 2016, the four regionals are in Philadelphia (East); Louisville (South); Chicago (Midwest); and Anaheim (West).

Selection and seeding are by the ratings, and are thus objective. The place for subjectivity comes in this third stage - the actual bracket construction. Going all the way back to the first Z-Bracket in 2003, I've used the same principles and procedures as the NCAA's representatives. We will see one interesting change as we step through the procedure, but the general principles are as they were in 2015, and are as follows:

We also adhere to the bracketing procedure outlined in the championship handbook (also at the link just above). As always, the three "additional considerations" listed after the procedure (relating to rematches of games from the regular season and last year's championship, and moving teams out of their natural region an inordinate number of times) and are not used in the construction of the Z-Bracket.

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

Top overall seed Kansas is almost exactly equidistant (by road) from Chicago and Louisville; I'm going to follow the actual bracket's lead and put the Jayhawks in the South. Villanova only played three games at the Wells Fargo Center, so they are eligible for the East and go there. Xavier to the Midwest and Oklahoma to the West. Since 2004, the regional winners have been set so that if these four teams win the regionals, the overall one plays the four and two versus three. This gives us South v. West and East v. Midwest in the national semifinals - equivalent to the actual tournament, albeit with three different top seeds.

Step 2: Place the No. 2 seeds.

This is where some new language has been inserted into the process, and I'm going to quote it verbatim here:
The committee may relax the principle of keeping teams as close to their area of natural interest for seeding teams on the No. 2 line to avoid, for example, the overall No. 5 seed being sent to the same region as the overall No. 1 seed. The committee will not compromise the principle of keeping teams from the same conference in separate regions.
The first number two seed under consideration is Michigan State; the Spartans go to the Midwest. With Big 12 teams already in the South and West, I then have to put West Virginia in the East. The other two #2 seeds are both out of the ACC; since Virginia has the higher rating, it goes to the South and UNC heads West.

Step 3: Place the No. 3 seeds.

Oregon stays (relatively) close to home in the West; Miami to the East; Utah to the Midwest, which is also forced by not being able to place Seton Hall there, so the Pirates end up in the South.

Step 4: Place the No. 4 seeds.

As much as it would be a more natural fit to put Iowa State in the Midwest, they're behind Baylor, who must therefore get that slot as the fourth Big 12 team. The next closest regional for the Cyclones is the South, but I prefer not to have them possibly matching up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. So I'm sending them East instead, where they might play West Virginia in the Elite Eight. That leaves Arizona in the South and Purdue in the West.

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

With the exception of the unavoidability of two Big 12 teams in the East, conference separation is maintained. The top of the bracket is checked for balance by adding up the field rankings of the four teams we've places in each region. The East and Midwest sum to 32, the South is 35, and the West is 37. That's right on the edge of unbalance (five points separation between lowest and highest totals), so I'm not going to make any adjustments.

Step 6: Assign first and second round sites.

Each of the eight first/second round sites gets two of these top 16 teams assigned to it, in order of ranking and subject to any restrictions noted above on schools playing where they are hosting. Des Moines, IA: Kansas, Purdue
Brooklyn, NY: Villanova, West Virginia
St. Louis, MO: Xavier, Michigan State
Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma, Baylor
Raleigh, NC: Virginia, North Carolina
Spokane, WA: Oregon, Arizona
Providence, RI: Miami (FL), Seton Hall
Denver, CO: Utah, Iowa State

This year, the hosting-school prohibition did come into play; a Des Moines "pod" was still available when I got to them, but had to instead send the Cyclones to Denver.

Step 7: Place the No. 5 through 16 seeds.

If the seedings hold, the fifty-two teams not yet placed won't reach the regional sites, so the rest of the field is assigned by geographic proximity to the available first and second round sites on their seed line, subject to the constraints of the other principles.

Step 7a: Place the No. 5 seeds. (Denver, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Spokane)

Last year, I did not have to bump a team off its seed line. This time around, I'm doing it early.

The next four teams are Texas, Maryland, California, and Indiana. Due to conference separation constraints, Cal has to go to the East, and Maryland and Indiana can't be in the Midwest or West. So something has to give. When a team is bumped, it is always to the other side of a regional bracket (in this case, top half to bottom half). So a team would be going down to a no. 6 seed; the fairest and also most helpful move is to drop Indiana a line. In its place, the natural move would be to bring up Providence, but the Friars would be locked into the West - and with Arizona locked into the East, that forces Maryland to the South and would set up a potential round of 32 game between Texas and Baylor, who just met in a Big 12 tournament quarterfinal.

So instead, I'm going to bring up Duke, and since the Blue Devils are the fourth ACC team being placed, they go to the Midwest. As stated before, Cal and Maryland are forced to the East and South respectively. This gives us a possible Texas v. Oklahoma matchup in a West Regional semifinal, which I'm much more comfortable with (and which the rules allow) as they didn't meet in the Big 12 championship.

Step 7b: Place the No. 6 seeds. (Denver, Providence [2], Spokane)

The fourth teams from the Big Ten and Big East are up next; Indiana goes to the East and Providence to the West (fortunately, keeping them away from either of the two pods at the Dunkin' Donuts Center). Hey, I thought there were six big conferences... ah, there's the SEC! Glad you could make it, Kentucky and Texas A&M. Finally back to geographical considerations; the Wildcats head to the South and the Aggies to the Midwest.

Step 7c: Place the No. 7 seeds. (Brooklyn, Raleigh [2], St. Louis)

Butler to the Midwest (fifth Big East team, plus Xavier is on the other side of the bracket); Texas Tech to the South (could have sent them West as well, but the regional site is closer); Iowa to the West; and Saint Joseph's heads East, back to the site of their Atlantic 10 tournament victory.

Step 7d: Place the No. 8 seeds. (Brooklyn, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, St. Louis)

This line actually went very smoothly - Notre Dame to the South; Dayton to the Midwest; Colorado to the West; Pitt to the East.

Step 7e: Place the No. 9 seeds. (Brooklyn, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, St. Louis)

We consider Oregon State first; the Beavers played Cal three times (East is out), but Utah twice and Arizona only once (both okay). I'll delay the intraconference matchup as late as possible and put Oregon State in the Midwest. Michigan goes to the East to avoid Maryland and Purdue. USC only faced off against Arizona twice, so they go to the South, leaving Wisconsin in the West, which is fine because the Badgers and Boilermakers also only saw each other twice.

Step 7f: Place the No. 10 seeds. (Brooklyn, Raleigh [2], St. Louis)

Connecticut is the first team on this line slated to be placed, but leaving them on this line will run me into trouble with the ACC teams coming up later. So I'm bumping the Huskies up to a No. 9 and putting them in Wisconsin's spot, bringing the Badgers down and placing the, in the South. From there, South Carolina goes to the West, and since Miami and Virginia Tech played three times, Georgia Tech gets the East slot while the Hokies go into the Midwest.

Step 7g: Place the No. 11 seeds. (Denver, Providence [2], Spokane)

Now we get to seeding the winners of two of the First Four games. The Cincinnati/Syracuse winner to the South. Gonzaga is next, and since the University of Idaho is hosting the Spokane sub-regional and its opponent isn't a top four seed, the Bulldogs get to stay home by going to the West. The Kansas State v. Marquette victor goes to the East (K-State didn't play West Virginia in the conference tournament)... and with all the at-large teams loaded in, we're done with conference conflicts. Big West champ Hawaii gets the last spot on this line in the Midwest.

Step 7h: Place the No. 12 seeds. (Denver, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Spokane)

Arkansas - Little Rock to the Midwest; Chattanooga to the West; UNC Wilmington to the East; Fresno State to the South.

Step 7i: Place the No. 13 seeds. (Denver, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Spokane)

South Dakota State to the West; Yale to the Midwest; Northern Iowa to the East; Stony Brook to the South.

Step 7j: Place the No. 14 seeds. (Denver, Providence [2], Spokane)

Stephen F. Austin to the Midwest; Middle Tennessee State to the South; Iona to the East; Buffalo to the West.

Step 7k: Place the No. 15 seeds. (Brooklyn, Raleigh [2], St. Louis)

Green Bay to the Midwest; Cal State Bakersfield to the West; Weber State to the South; UNC Asheville to the East.

Step 7l: Place the No. 16 seeds. (Brooklyn, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, St. Louis)

Florida Gulf Coast to the Midwest (yes, St. Louis is the closest of the four available cities to Fort Myers); that's unfortunate for Austin Peay, as they're much closer to St. Louis, but they instead get the South and top overall seed Kansas in Des Moines. Since Hampton is ranked higher than Southern, the winner of that matchup goes to Brooklyn and the East, and the Fairleigh Dickinson - Holy Cross winner goes into the West.

Step 8: Re-check the entire bracket for conflicts.

The big thing I do at this stage is look back at what intraconference matchups are possible prior to the regional finals. No problems on that front. Here's the 2016 Z-Bracket!

SOUTH (KFC Yum! Center, Louisville)EAST (Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia)
1KansasWells Fargo Arena
Des Moines, IA
Barclays Center
Brooklyn, NY
16Austin Peay16
8Notre DamePittsburgh8
9Southern CaliforniaMichigan9
5MarylandSpokane Vet. Mem. Arena
Spokane, WA
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
12Fresno StateUNC Wilmington12
4ArizonaIowa State4
13Stony BrookNorthern Iowa13
3Seton HallDunkin' Donuts Center
Providence, RI
Dunkin' Donuts Center
Providence, RI
Miami (FL)3
14Middle Tennessee StateIona14
7Texas TechPNC Arena
Raleigh, NC
Barclays Center
Brooklyn, NY
Saint Joseph's7
10WisconsinGeorgia Tech10
2VirginiaWest Virginia2
15Weber StateUNC Asheville15
(NRG Stadium, Houston)
South v. West
East v. Midwest
WEST (Honda Center, Anaheim)MIDWEST (United Center, Chicago)
1OklahomaChesapeake Energy Arena
Oklahoma City, OK
Scottrade Center
St. Louis, MO
16Florida Gulf Coast16
9ConnecticutOregon State9
5TexasWells Fargo Arena
Des Moines, IA
Chesapeake Energy Arena
Oklahoma City, OK
12ChattanoogaArkansas - Little Rock12
13South Dakota StateYale13
3OregonSpokane Vet. Mem. Arena
Spokane, WA
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
14BuffaloStephen F. Austin14
6ProvidenceTexas A&M6
7IowaPNC Arena
Raleigh, NC
Scottrade Center
St. Louis, MO
10South CarolinaVirginia Tech10
2North CarolinaMichigan State2
15Cal State BakersfieldGreen Bay15
FIRST FOUR (UD Arena, Dayton) - TuesdayFIRST FOUR (UD Arena, Dayton) - Wednesday
Cincinnati(to South #11)(to East #16)Hampton
Kansas State(to East #11)(to West #16)Fairleigh Dickinson
MarquetteHoly Cross

Bracket simulation

I'm going to be doing some significant reprogramming work on the bracket simulator to make it easier to load the teams in and account for the shifting around of where the First Four winners end up going. I ended up just using the same oldprogram as I always have. Both the Z-Bracket you see above and the actual NCAA Tournament were run through one million playings. The results of each look pretty similar, with the Jayhawks having about a 30 percent chance of bringing the trophy home (both the real one and my hypothetical one).


They're the same as they always are. Although I haven't followed Cornell hockey as closely this year as in years past, that was the original seed for me starting this nearly a decade and a half ago, and credit for that goes to Ken Butler and John Whelan as always. Finding QB64 has been such a boost to keeping the Z-Ratings going - without it, the expansion of Division I might be pushing the memory limits of the old QBasic 4.5. And last but perhaps most important, Ken Pomeroy's advanced analysis generates an important component ofmy more simplistic one - the plain-text file of every Division I played this season. Having that at my disposal makes the task of keeping the ratings up to date a whole lot easier.

One last question... is the selection show over yet?

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