Monday, March 14, 2022

Final Thoughts on the NIT Selection Process

The NIT bracket was announced last night at 9 pm on ESPNU, ending weeks (or months) of speculation of which teams were going to be in the field. Ultimately, the committee was left with 17 at-large spots to select once the First Four Out and automatic bids were handed out by the NCAA.

What they did with those spots was a bit of surprise, but maybe it shouldn't have been.

It appears that the committee relied heavily on the NCAA's own internal formula, the NET rankings, to select the top four seeds. The two biggest surprises (at least to me): Utah St. and Washington St. received No. 4 seeds and home games after being ranked 60th and 61st in NET respectively. Three other at-larges (Vanderbilt, Santa Clara, Missouri St.) ranked between 66 and 68. You can see where those selections ranked versus the three teams I had instead in a number of metrics in the table below.

TeamSelectedSeed (Implied)NETKPISORBPIKenPomSagarinQ1/Q2 Ws
Utah St.Yes460831328644665
Washington St.Yes461811096255594
VanderbiltYes46675755665696
Santa ClaraYes56777877768783
Missouri St.Yes86888948163775
St. John'sNo6982804961464
BelmontYes57173636382824
OregonYes57665837679507
DrakeNo8286788985865
VirginiaYes68374676784657
South CarolinaNo9372558797907

The most surprising outcome when looking at these metrics is that St. John's was left out of the NIT. The Red Storm had a strong NET. Every eligible team ranked above them is playing in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. St. John's also had the strongest predictive metrics in BPI and Sagarin and a KenPom ranking right in range with the other contenders. Honestly, I'm not sure why they were left out.

The other surprise for me was that South Carolina was left out of the NIT in favor of Virginia or Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks had the best Strength of Record and second best KPI of all the teams in the table above. Those metrics are generally referred to as "Resume" metrics because they judge outcomes, how you played against the schedule you were given. South Carolina also tied Oregon for the most Q1/Q2 wins and swept Vanderbilt.

So what held South Carolina out? It appears to be its low "Predictive" metrics. South Carolina had by far the lowest KenPom and Sagarin of any team being considered. Theoretically these metrics explain how well a team will do in the future. I'm fine with using these as a seeding tool, but using them for selection seems to set a dangerous precedent. It encourages blowouts and undervalues a team's ultimate won/loss record. If the low predictive metrics are why South Carolina wasn't selected despite otherwise strong credentials that would be an important piece of information to understand moving forward. (It's worth noting though that selection and seeding seemed to follow general past principles except for this outlier case.)

Personally — if this is how selection was going to go — I would've taken St. John's and South Carolina over Missouri St. and a slumping Oregon.

The other interesting trend was the NIT's explicit move towards regionalization. I completely understand why this was done as we continue to come out of a global pandemic. The NIT has always tried to create more regional matchups, for television interest or just in the name of easy travel. (The first round starts only two days after the Selection Show.) This bracket leaned heavily into that idea, so much so that they removed the "seeds" from the visiting teams. That's great, I just wish I knew it was happening sooner. (Also, the implied seeds were pretty "reasonable" even without the lines.)

The regionalization probably favored teams like Utah St. and Washington St., where they needed a few more West Coast teams to fill out a bracket (though the fact that they received home games implies the committee was selecting them anyways). What's also interesting is the distinct lack of a Northeast presence. St. Bonaventure (at Colorado), Iona (at Florida) and Princeton (at VCU) are going to be taking some of the longest trips in the bracket because of a lack of regional competitors. (This seems to be another argument for the inclusion of St. John's.) Also, Rutgers being selected for the NCAA Tournament's First Four robbed us of either Rutgers/Iona or Rutgers/Princeton, which would've been a lot of fun. (Congrats though to the Scarlet Knights!)

Ultimately though this is the bracket. Enjoy the games! I can't wait to do this again next season.

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