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Today's word on journalism

March 17, 2009

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1863-2009

"Can Seattle's oldest newspaper be successfully transformed into a child of the information age? The Northwest is a land of big dreams. With the demise of the Soviet Union, one quipster noted that Puget Sound is now home to three empires still bent on global dominion: Microsoft, Amazon.com and Starbuck's. If the stars align properly and with a quality product, Seattle will show the way to a new model for journalism of the written word."

--Joel Connelly, columnist, in today's final print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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A primer on how USU can be ranked and still get shut out of March Madness

By Connor H. Jones

February 9, 2009 | Plenty of sports fans have become interested in the college sports championship system -- NCAA baseball's system where a team can lose four times and still be champions, the endless controversy with the BCS that even the president has thrown in his two cents at, and of course March Madness, three weeks of hard-fought war to crown the nation's best Division I basketball team.

But how do the basketball teams that get to play for that one title spot get picked, and could a team that deserves a shot be left out?

The tournament bracket comprises 65 teams. Two teams compete in the opening game, leaving 64 teams to play in the first round. The 32 winning teams then make 16, 8, 4, 2, and finally the championship game.

Thirty-one of the 65 teams automatically qualify by winning their conference, and according to the NCAA's Web site, the selection of the remaining 34 teams is made by the Division I Men's Basketball Committee. It makes its decisions by studying reports from the coaches' regional advisory committee. There is no limit to how many teams from each conference the committee can choose, so it often works out that six teams will be selected from one conference, say the ACC or Big East, and the only team representing a conference such as the WAC will be the conference champions.

The official transcript for the NCAA Tournament structure says, "It is the intention of the committee to select the best at-large teams in the nation, regardless of geographical location. There is no limit to the number of teams the basketball committee may select from one conference."

Is this fair?

Some Aggie fans sure don't think so. In the 2003-04 season USU's record was 25-4, and 17-1 in Big West Conference play. Throughout the year they had been ranked in the AP poll, and on Feb. 9 they were ranked as high at No. 19. They ended up finishing the season tied for first in the conference but because they lost in the Big West Tournament they missed out on an automatic NCAA bid. And although they had one of the top 20 records in the nation, sixth-best winning percentage, seventh-best defense, sixth-best road record, and sixth-longest winning streak that season, they were still snubbed out of a tournament nod.

A couple of the contributing factors the committee looks into while making their decisions are stats like the RPI and the SOS.

According to Sports Illustrated.com, "the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) has been used by the NCAA since 1981 to supplement the selection of at-large teams and the seeding of all teams for the NCAA basketball tournament. This list is an independent duplication of the RPI without input from the NCAA, which does not release the RPI to the public. It is derived from three component factors:

-Division I winning percentage (25 percent)

-Schedule Strength (50 percent)

-Opponent's schedule strength (25 percent)"

The RPI formula is 1/4x(Winning Percentage) + 1/2x(Opponents' Average Winning Percentage) + 1/4x(Opponents' Opponents' Winning Percentage).

Utah State's current RPI ranking is 33 in the nation. That's behind in-state rivals BYU (32) and Utah (12).

SOS refers to each team's strength of schedule. The SOS is the last two components of the RPI formula: (2/3)xOpponents winning percentage + (1/3)xOpponents opponents winning percentage.

The strength of schedule is often Utah State's downfall. This season USU's strength of schedule is ranked 287 out of 344. It's hard to impress the selection committee when the hardest team played is in-state rival Brigham Young. Columnists and NCAA fanatics around the country often criticize Coach Stew Morrill's easy schedule.

"Morrill has built a pretty good program in Logan, but it could be so much more," Adam Papagiorigo a columnist for fanhouse.com, said. "Utah State does have all of those 20-win seasons. None of them are that impressive. Morrill seems obsessed with winning 20 games. Not so obsessed with playing the best schedule possible.

"The Aggies have not played a team currently ranked in the Top 25. There are the rivalry games against BYU and Utah, but that's about it. Weber State, Cal Poly, Utah Valley State, Idaho State, Howard and Houston Baptist are not going to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee. And what's funny is that Utah State thinks it is getting into automatic bid territory," he said.

And the fact is Papagiorigo is right. Although the 24 wins of seasons such as 2004 sound impressive, how can the committee take a serious look at USU when its 24 wins come against teams such as Long Beach State, San Fransisco, Fort Lewis College and Jackson State?

So although Aggie fans might pout, moan, blame the selection committee and the made-up formulas like the RPI and SOS for not being picked to play in the Big Dance, could the blame really be on Coach Morrill's concern about traveling to schools such as Gonzaga, UCLA and UConn?

MS
MS

Copyright 1997-2009 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-3292
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