Did an NCAA selection committee mistake set up Illinois for March Madness upset?

Over the last two months of the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season, no team was more impressive than Illinois. Not even No. 1 Gonzaga. Not even Big Ten champ Michigan. The Illini won 14 of their last 15 games in America’s toughest conference, and won its postseason tournament.

Their reward?

A top-10 opponent in the second round of the NCAA tournament – and, as a result, an early exit.

The top-seeded Illini fell to No. 8 seed Loyola on Sunday. They won’t make excuses for themselves, nor should they. First and foremost, they have to look inward. Their offense wasn’t prepared. Their defense was undisciplined. They weren’t at their best.

But they would’ve beaten most No. 8 seeds with the exact same performance. Heck, they might’ve beaten Oklahoma or North Carolina by double-digits.

They didn’t beat Loyola, because Loyola never should have been a No. 8 seed – at least not if the selection committee followed its own stated principles.

Loyola's Cameron Krutwig was the best player on the floor against No. 1 seed Illinois. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Loyola's Cameron Krutwig was the best player on the floor against No. 1 seed Illinois. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Loyola’s tournament résumé

Set aside what you saw on the court Sunday. Set aside Loyola’s history. Forget the Final Four run three years ago. What seed did Loyola deserve?

A generation ago, the answer would’ve been a No. 8 seed, or thereabouts. If you look solely at the Ramblers’ results, factoring in their strength of schedule, their résumé wasn’t all that impressive.

They went 24-4, but played only two at-large NCAA tournament teams all season. They lost to Wisconsin, a No. 9 seed. They went 2-1 against Drake, the very last bubble team to make the cut. They also lost to Richmond and Indiana State, an NIT team and postseason absentee, respectively. Nothing superficial suggested this Loyola team was dangerous.

Once upon a time, the superficial résumé is all that the selection committee considered. And there’s a legitimate argument that that’s all it should consider. The “eye test” shouldn’t matter. Subjective opinions shouldn’t matter. Who’d you play, who’d you beat, where’d you beat ‘em should, you could argue, be the crux of the criteria.

But by the committee’s own admission – at least as far as seeding is concerned – it isn’t.

The committee ignored its own words

The 21st century has brought the rise of predictive metrics, data that assess not what a team has done, but rather how good it is and what we should expect it to do in the future. Ken Pomeroy’s rankings are the most prominent example.

These metrics account for strength of schedule, just like the committee does. But rather than treat each game as a binary – win or loss – they break each game down by possession, into dozens of data points instead of one. The more data points, the more accurate an understanding we have of how good a team actually is.

And these predictive metrics told us that Loyola was, in fact, very good. Even before it knocked off Illinois. The Ramblers entered the NCAA tournament as the nation’s ninth-best team, per KenPom. They owned the top-ranked defense. The NCAA’s NET, which is “both a results-driven and predictive metric,” also had Loyola as a top-10 team.

The question is whether the selection committee should use predictive metrics. In the end, basketball is still about wins and losses. The selection committee exists to reward regular season accomplishments with postseason berths. So it has, for decades, relied primarily on results-based metrics in choosing the NCAA tournament field.

But it has also begun to consider predictive metrics. And just this year, selection committee chair Mitch Barnhart said that, while the committee relies heavily on results in the selection process, it looks more to predictive metrics to determine seeding.

And yet in Loyola’s case, it simply didn’t follow its own words. The predictive metrics suggested Loyola should have been a No. 3 seed, bordering on a No. 2. The committee gave it an 8.

Seeding mistakes have consequences

Most coverage of the underseeding focused on the Ramblers themselves. They drew the ACC tournament champs in Round 1, with the Big Ten tournament champs looming in Round 2. Conventional wisdom suggested the draw was unfair to Loyola – and it was.

But when the selection committee underseeds a team, it doesn’t just mistreat that team; it mistreats all of the team’s potential opponents. The committee was unfair to Loyola … and to Georgia Tech, and to Illinois as well.

The Illini found that out the hard way on Sunday. They're an example of why the selection committee should consider predictive metrics in the seeding process. Perhaps Loyola didn't earn anything better than a No. 8 seed. But Illinois certainly didn't deserve to meet the Ramblers in the second round.

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