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USC’s Tourney Snub Is Worth Investigating

By some metrics, the Trojans are the best power-conference team to miss the field in years. Did the cloud hanging over the program play a role in the team’s exclusion?

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Two hundred and eighty-three men’s Division I basketball teams didn’t make the NCAA tournament, and about 282 of those exclusions were at least somewhat reasonable. The 283rd is USC, one of the more improbable exclusions in recent NCAA tournament history.

The Trojans had an RPI of 34. Since the field was expanded to 68 teams in 2011, no power-conference team with an RPI higher than 49 had been excluded. They had a higher KenPom rating than 10 of the 36 teams selected with at-large bids. The Trojans finished second in the Pac-12, which had put at least four teams in the field every year since 2013. (Meanwhile, Arizona State, which finished tied for eighth, made the tournament.) Of the 100 bracketologists included in the Bracket Matrix—most of which are assembled by experts that pay close attention to the criteria the NCAA supposedly uses to pick the field—95 included USC. Only 15 included Syracuse, which made the field. After USC lost in the Pac-12 tournament final Saturday night, journalists asked coach Andy Enfield and his players questions about “the NCAA Tournament coming up.” So USC thought it was safe to schedule a post-selection show press conference. It … was not.

But according to Bruce Rasmussen, the Creighton athletic director serving as selection committee chair, the Trojans weren’t even the first team out—supposedly, the committee was deciding whether to put Notre Dame into the field over Syracuse.

So how did the Trojans, widely considered by virtually all analysts to be a tournament team, end up on the outside of the tournament field? LET’S HYPOTHESIZE.

USC is one of the schools whose name repeatedly comes up when additional reports about the FBI’s probe into college basketball are released. USC assistant coach Tony Bland was arrested in September on bribery charges and fired in January; the school declared sophomore De’Anthony Melton ineligible due to apparent NCAA violations, and players Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu were named in a Yahoo report as players who may have received loans.

The same holds true for a few other schools left out of the tournament: Louisville, included on 34 Bracket Matrix brackets, fired Rick Pitino in the fall due to the bribery probe, and Oklahoma State, included in nine Bracket Matrix brackets, fired assistant coach Lamont Evans after he was arrested in connection to the probe. Notre Dame, included on seven Bracket Matrix brackets, was also named in the probe.

The consensus is that the probe is a problem for these schools, who have lost players, seen their coaches charged, and face potential NCAA punishments. But I see it as a bigger problem for the NCAA. The association has long argued that college athletes don’t deserve to be paid, and that furthermore, there wouldn’t be much of a market for paying college athletes if they were allowed to be paid. Of course, most of us assume that the market does exist, and some of us don’t particularly care. (I have long hoped that the players I enjoy watching play basketball are getting paid as much money as possible, publicly or privately.) But to the NCAA, it’s a potentially huge deal: Every highlight in the NCAA tournament by a team coached by someone later proved to have paid players is further evidence that the market they claim doesn’t exist actually fuels their premier event.

It’s obvious that the NCAA’s selection committee was not watching college basketball in February, when Syracuse and Arizona State each posted losing records. Maybe committee members were watching the Olympics and saw how Russia got banned for doping, forcing its athletes to compete as “Olympic Athletes From Russia.” They knew they had to do something to prevent the awkwardness of a national champion under FBI investigation and immediately began mocking up “NCAA Athletes From USC” jerseys.

But then they realized they had an out that the Olympics didn’t. While the Olympics has to include whichever people hit certain times in the biathlon, the NCAA’s selection process is a bunch of people sitting in a room and deciding which 20-13 teams belong in the NCAA tournament and which don’t. We know the criteria they look at—RPI, Quadrant 1 wins, etc.—and the NCAA hosts mock selection events for media so they can see the process the actual committee goes through. But pretty consistently, the committee manages to befuddle everybody. Two years ago, it included a team in the field that literally nobody projected to make the tournament. The year before, just 14 of 136 Bracket Matrix brackets had UCLA making the field. The Bruins not only made the field, they also didn’t even get placed in a play-in game; the year before that, it was NC State, included on just three of 121 Bracket Matrix brackets.

Why would the NCAA’s selectors let everybody see how their process works then routinely apply that process in a way that confuses even the people who attempt to study it? Why not choose criteria that better fit the profiles they’re actually looking for? Are they just bumbling idiots?

Clearly, the NCAA has been playing the long game. By routinely misapplying its own chosen standards for choosing teams, the committee gives itself cover to act as a renegade justice unit, axing out teams it feels have gone astray. The committee is publicly saying that the probe had nothing to do with its decision-making, and we can’t prove that it did. Its track record is spotty enough a secret scheme to combat perceived evil-doers would look exactly like the bad decision-making we’re used to.

Or maybe USC didn’t make the tournament because it went 0-7 against NCAA tournament teams from power conferences. Either that or the conspiracy thing.