Avid college basketball fans refer to it as NCAA March Madness. Because it is a one-and-done, single elimination format, it’s packed with excitement. Adding to the intrigue, are the smaller schools, known as Cinderella’s, who endear themselves to the hearts of college basketball fans. Former Ohio State University coach Harold Olsen initiated the idea back in 1939.

From what was originally an eight-school tournament, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has ballooned to 68 Division I schools. Deciding who is worthy, from over 300 division I colleges, is a difficult process. The final decision rests with the NCAA Selection Committee. Here is how that committee decides on which schools are worthy to make it to March Madness.


32 Automatic Bids

Each of the 32 Division I men’s college basketball conferences will send one representative. The winner of a single-elimination conference tournament earns this berth. The rest of the 64-team field is handpicked by the committee conference commissioners and athletic directors.


36 At-Large Bids

The NCAA Selection Committee chooses the rest of the field. This is a 10 member committee with a presiding chairperson. These members will follow a series of criteria to hand-pick the remaining 36 teams. Eight of these schools will be picked to play a single play-in game.

Those four winners round out the total 64-team field. While many of the large, mega-conferences will have a number of at-large invitations, the small conferences normally receive their single entry into the tournament field.


Who is the Selection Committee?

Year after year, these final 36 teams create an intense debate. There are schools listed as “on the bubble”, meaning they are in contention with a set of other schools to solicit their worthiness as a member of the field.

This whole process actually begins in November at the very start of the college basketball regular season. They are entrusted with monitoring the teams and the respective conferences. In mid-February, the committee meets to begin the month-long process of fine-tuning their evaluations.

During that month they begin to analyze teams and divide them into categories. On the Tuesday before “Selection Sunday” this committee will meet in New York to start the final selection process. There are criteria that are used to help separate the field, but in the end, it comes down to human emotions.


How Are the Chosen-36 Picked?

Emotions could be a factor swaying any given committee member. Therefore, that member must leave the room when a school from the conference affiliation is being discussed. The committee members begin to present month’s worth of performance as they gradually narrow down the field of worthy schools.

Most of the at-large bids are customarily awarded to the 10 largest conferences. This is one area that is frequently disputed. Occasionally, when a small conference school has a remarkable season, but lose in their conference tournament, that school will bump a major or mid-major school from consideration.

Big conference schools that have successful seasons are all but assured a spot in the tournament. Committee members discuss the strength of schedule statistics, wins against highly ranked opponents and simple human feelings about which teams are more deserving.

As the actual selection of schools progresses, members use the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), to weight teams according to season-long productivity. The RPI index is also a prominent factor in the final seeding. This is actually a very detailed formula.

The RPI includes the team’s winning percentage, their opponents winning percentage and even the opponents of their opponents winning percentage. This data is even further dissected into four quadrants that consider ‘good wins’ and even ‘bad losses’.

The final 64 teams are split into four regions. Teams are seeded from 1 to 16 and matched in reverse order of their seed. The number one seed opens against the lowest seed, and so forth, with the closest pairing being the #8 seed against the #9 seed.

The tournament itself has earned its worthy nickname of March Madness. However, the whole selection process can be akin to madness. While there are a series of formulas to help make tough decisions, in the end, it comes down to a good old-fashioned human discussion.
Until someone comes up with the perfect algorithm to pick which schools deserve a tournament bid, the process will be hotly debated. At first tip-off, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins to build to a fever pitch. However, the real madness starts way back in early November with the selection process.