How the NCAA Tournament is Seeded
Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton breaks things down.
by Kyle Stack
Doug Fullerton’s 15-year reign as commissioner of the Big Sky Conference has been dotted with a number of firsts.
He was the first Football Championship Subdivision commissioner to serve as President of the Collegiate Commissioners Association (CCA), a responsibility awarded to him by his fellow commissioners from 2003-04.
Fullerton was the driving force behind Big Sky TV, which opened in 2006 as one of the first dedicated video streaming Web sites to collegiate athletics.
He also was the first FCS commissioner to serve on the executive board of NCAA football, which he earned in 2007. In the spring of 2009, he became the first Big Sky Conference commissioner or athletics director to be appointed to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee, which is a ten-member committee responsible for selecting and seeding the NCAA Tournament field every year.
That selection process hasn’t been without its critics. Fullerton spoke with SLAMonline from his Salt Lake City, Utah office to discuss his role on the committee since his arrival became official in the fall of 2009.
SLAM: What have you been doing since you officially joined the committee last fall?
Doug Fullerton: People think it’s a selection committee but it’s actually the basketball committee. You’re working on everything from site selection to officiating to the team selection process. There are long-range strategic plans for Division I basketball, so it’s a far-ranging task to be on that committee.
SLAM: How did you become involved with joining the basketball committee?
DF: Basketball has been part of what I’ve done for nearly 35 years, so there was a time when I thought that would be something I would be very interested and something that would be fun to do. I’m finding out that it’s an awful lot of work but it’s extremely rewarding.
SLAM: Did you ever have any frustrations or disagreements with how the committee operated prior to your membership?
DF: Not really. We all have our favorite teams that either do or don’t get in over the years but this process is so transparent because of the interest in the process. The press is constantly watching this. You can make a case for No. 66 didn’t get in but No. 65 did, so there’s always a case to be made [in favor of one team or the other] depending on what your perception is. But I’ve always admired the work that they’ve done and the work that’s gone into it.
SLAM: So no misconceptions about the committee prior to joining it?
DF: I work as a commissioner and I work on an awful lot of committees nationally. When you have a bunch of commissioners in a room, there may be agendas that are playing out. People try to position their particular conferences better than others. On the basketball committee, it is just not true. Those people are trying to do the right thing. You hear it over and over when they discuss the teams. It’s ten people leaving their agendas at the door and that’s been exciting to me.
SLAM: What did you look to bring to the committee?
DF: Well I’m a mathematics guy, that was my major [at California Western University, now U.S. International]. I am very interested into looking back over the years to make sure the process has stayed true to what the committee has wanted it to stay true to. I owe it to the committee and to the committee members to come in and leave your perceptions at the door. It’s spread all over my desk as we speak. I watch five or six games per night that we TiVo on two or three televisions. I watch almost every game that plays that involves teams under consideration for the tournament.
SLAM: You mentioned watching five or six games per day. Are you focusing on certain conferences? Have you been watching games at that pace for the entire season?
DF: Everybody is assigned a couple conferences. My primary conferences that I’m not necessarily an advocate for but am a resource for are the Pac-10, the Big West and the Independents, then I’m a secondary reference on other conferences throughout the country. That is my responsibility and every committee member has that kind of responsibility. When we get into a room and we just want to talk about conference reports, then we can give our report on our conference. You are tasked to understand your primary conference deeper than the other committee members.
You watch what’s happening in that preseason and pre-conference phase of the season but maybe you’re not focusing on 100 teams. But by January 1 our conference reports come in and now you begin to be able to focus a little bit on 100 or so teams. By January 1, you have to start to pare down the teams and by this time of the year, I’m really focusing on those teams I would consider somewhere between 40 and 80. That’s where the hard decisions are going to be made.
SLAM: Any committee members you communicate with more than others right now?
DF: I have a secondary committee member for every conference I’m a primary on, and I’m a secondary on three or four other conferences. If I’m looking down and I need to get a better feel for the Atlantic 10 or where the third, fourth and fifth teams in the ACC are, I’m going to call that primary committee member and ask them what they think of those teams.
SLAM: Have you made it a priority to see any teams in your primary conferences in person?
DF: I’ve traveled and seen the teams that I need to see. You get a better sense when you sit close to the court and how long and big some teams are. As an old coach, I’m not necessarily writing down how many points per game they’re scoring. Hopefully I can take a look at a team and say, “That’s a really dangerous team” or “That team just isn’t playing well together.” It helps me to see them in-person from time to time.
SLAM: So you want to get a sense of the team’s effort level and other intangibles that you might not pick up on TV?
DF: It’s really hard to get a sense for size on TV. It’s like watching any sporting event on TV. Many of us see a play and think, “Well, I can do that” but you see a team in person and understand [how much better they look in-person than on TV].
SLAM: Are early-season non-conference games not valued enough or are they properly valued?
DF: Quite frankly, it just depends on the individual team. I am acutely aware of the problems, particularly concerning mid-major teams, of being able to pick up games and then try to see them on a neutral court, such as in the preseason tournaments.
I’m also acutely aware of what happens when the conference season starts and many schools, if they’re playing in a conference that has had the opportunity to schedule a home game in the preseason, their RPI will go up. Whereas someone could be very good but they’re playing in a conference that hasn’t had a lot of preseason wins around them. Their RPI could go down through no fault of their own.
It just depends on what team you’re talking about and what conference they’re from. Statistically, I’m very aware of how that RPI can hurt you through no fault of your own and help you through no fault of your own. There are only specific issues when we start talking about individual teams. That’s what happens in the committee room; we get into those types of discussions already, as far as which pre-seasons matter more to certain teams.
SLAM: How do you value a team’s win earlier in the season if it was against a team which was much better at the time than it is heading into tournament play?
DF: That’s at the heart of a lot of discussions. It’s unfair to those teams who’ve gone out in the preseason and have done what we would want them to do: played a good schedule, got a good record and to discount that come spring time is unfortunate.
I referenced that point as a rookie of the committee: are we putting in the teams that have the best resumes from the entire year or are we putting in the teams that are playing the best right now? And the answer to my question was that you’re doing both. We have to fight through those issues.
SLAM: Can a team have a good loss, such as a double-OT loss to a respected team, so that it doesn’t hinder their selection process?
DF: Absolutely. In my mind, the score at the end is important because the record stays with you but as I watch games, I’m much more interested in how people match up. If they accumulate too many losses, they’ll be eliminated. However, it’s really important to see how they compete. There are probably some teams out there who can beat anybody and can get beat by anybody. Those are the difficult teams to evaluate. There are some teams who are very talented but just not very consistent.
SLAM: Is RPI a proper go-to measurement of a team’s strength when you’re left with a final decision for a team?
DF: I’m not of that persuasion, no. RPI helps me generally place teams. If you look back at RPI over the years, a rating of 40 seems to be a seminal point [of worthiness for tournament inclusion]. Not very many teams with an RPI of over 40 have gotten in and not very many teams with an RPI under 40 have not gotten in. RPI is a measure but there are some idiosyncrasies about it that I struggle with. But it is better than nothing because since we’ve been able to put more weight on road wins to try to get teams off their home court, I think it’s a better device than it used to be. It’s still not my final source for judging a team.
SLAM: What “idiosyncrasies” of RPI do you not favor?
DF: There are specific teams that played very, very well and had a high RPI during the preseason. While they have done nothing to tarnish their record since then, because of the conference they play in, and those teams not bringing a lot of wins back into their conference as opponents, their RPI has gotten worse. So all of a sudden a team that was highly ranked in December is not highly ranked now and they’ve done nothing wrong. That’s where you have to be careful with using RPI.
SLAM: Should the major conferences have a cap to the number of teams permitted to play in the NCAA Tournament?
DF: No, I don’t. It’s only fair to put the teams in there that are worthy. That’s the hardest part [of the selection process]. I could rank the teams in almost any conference as far as who’s the best, who’s second best and so on. Sometimes it’s not always the way they finish, either. Sometimes that second-ranked team is a little better than the first-ranked team whether it’s through a player injury or a strange game. That’s not difficult.
What is difficult is to weigh the fourth-best team from one conference against the second-best team from another conference. Who’s better? And they never play each other and they’re on opposite ends of the country and you’re saying, “Okay, I have to figure this out some way.” That’s the hard part.
SLAM: Is it more important to ensure balanced competition in each region during the first couple rounds or to set them up for potentially balanced competition toward the final rounds of each region?
DF: I don’t think it’s the competitive final rounds so much as the entire region’s strength. I’ve never been through that process but I’ve been through a mock selection a couple of times. The one thing that you’ll notice is that once the committee gets the teams ranked, 1-65, it becomes a very mechanical process.
In other words, we’re going to take the No. 1 ranked team and we’re going to say, “How many miles to each regional site is that team located?” Then we’re going to say, “They’ve earned the right to play closest to home.” Then we go with the second-ranked team, then the third-ranked team and so on. That process is fairly mechanical. As far as strength of regions, you’re never going to be 100 percent. That’s a subjective call. It’s not something that really drives us as far as putting teams in regions but once in awhile it makes us adjust something. That’s my take on it but I have not been through the official process yet.
SLAM: So your stance is that it is OK for higher-ranked teams to play closer to home during the Tournament.
DF: If you’re a No. 4 seed, then you get last pick of your region of the four highest ranked teams in the tournament. You can figure out the teams where there’s a first-round site or a regional final site really close. If that happens to be out West and people don’t understand it and assign all these conspiracy theories to it…it’s just not like that. It’s a mechanical process and the top three-ranked teams earned their pick first.
SLAM: There’s been a lot of recent talk about the tournament expanding from 65 to 96 teams. How do you feel about that?
DF: I like to look at the idea that it’s not really an expansion. We already have 97 if you consider the 65 in the NCAA Tournament plus the 32 in the NIT. The NCAA is already selecting 97 teams for the postseason. Now, would we re-assign all those teams into one tournament? I don’t know. I think there are very legitimate reasons to look at this now. That’s not necessarily an expansion but a re-assignment of the postseason we’re already selecting.
We are working very hard as commissioners, both inside and outside the committee, to standardize the officiating across the country for the first time. For years, there have been 31 conferences with 31 conference coordinators. I think there’s always been this feeling that if you get into the NCAA Tournament, you see officiating that is different from what you saw all year. Or you’re getting officials from another part of the country with a different officiating style. There has been frustration with that for years and I think it’s been legitimate. I would say that the committee members are working on that and I happen to belong on that sub-committee.
There is also a group from the Commissioner’s Group, that I am also on, that are beginning to standardize the training and the evaluation system for that, to get rules in places that are consistent. It’s a group that will probably morph into a committee or an LLC to standardize officiating. We did this in football; I’m also on the Board of Directors of the College Football Officiating LLC. There are all the conference commissioners from the FBS schools and there are two from FCS schools — Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager and myself. When you see the rules that were changed the last couple years about head-hunting in the secondary and that kind of thing, that all is a direct output of the CFO LLC becoming very involved in the safety issues for our young people playing the game. And I have great faith that this basketball committee is going to be extremely important over the next ten years in finally standardizing how the game of basketball is officiated.
SLAM: Managing that issue has to be so much tougher given the sheer number of schools and conferences under the NCAA umbrella.
DF: We have people who sell insurance or who are bank vice presidents during the week and officiate our games on the weekend. If you were setting up an organization to run college basketball officiating, you would have never set it up with 31 different bosses. You just see the inherent problem from the start, particularly when you have basketball officials who work more than one conference — and they all do. So they have five bosses and you think that’s not a good way to run this. But that’s what we’ve got and now we’re trying to get it reigned in a little bit.