Shortly after the unveiling of the 2004 NCAA tournament bracket, selection committee chair Bob Bowlsby candidly explained why Oklahoma State had to settle for a No. 2 seed.
Bowlsby admitted that the committee didn’t factor in the Cowboys’ Big 12 title game victory over Texas because it ended only minutes before the airing of the Selection Show.
“We have to make a move at some point in the afternoon,” Bowlsby said at the time. “While we were in the seeding process, we made the considered decision that we were no longer going to be able to consider Oklahoma State to move up onto the top line because they hadn’t completed their game yet.”
While the Big 12 now concludes its tournament a day earlier to avoid a repeat of the Oklahoma State scenario, the Big Ten, SEC and several other leagues still hold their title games on Selection Sunday. Those leagues are willing to risk undermining their champion’s seeding because Sunday title games generate additional money and exposure from TV networks eager for college basketball inventory leading into the Selection Show.
Although the committee often conditionally selects and seeds the field by the time it adjourns on Saturday night, it takes great pains to ensure those Sunday title games maintain significance. The committee creates as many contingency brackets as necessary to account for different potential title-game outcomes.
A contingency bracket might be needed in case a bid thief wins its way into the field of 68 and shrinks the NCAA tournament bubble by one. Or if winning or losing the title game is deemed to be enough to upgrade or downgrade a team’s seeding. Occasionally, a team not even playing on that Sunday can be affected.
“We’ll have Sundays where we have as many as 16 to 18 contingencies ready,” Tom Burnett, former Southland Conference commissioner and chair of the 2022 selection committee, told Yahoo Sports. “What happens if team A wins versus team B? And is there a team C who is impacted based on that result? You want to have it all mapped out the night before. It can’t be a snap decision based on a buzzer beater on Sunday afternoon.”
And yet while Burnett insists that “Sunday matters” and that “no one is ignoring anything that happens that day,” he also acknowledges that the committee has a hard deadline. By midday on Sunday, committee members have to begin bracketing so they can finish in advance of the Selection Show.
“There are years when you’re crunched for time and you’ve got to move,” Burnett said. “You can’t have a few more hours of discussion on a single conference tournament title game. You’ve got to get the bracket ready by the broadcast deadline.
“So I think if anyone has an absolute thought that Sunday’s games do or don’t matter one way or the other, I would tell you it’s somewhere in between.”
No matter how many contingency brackets the committee prepares, some Big Ten and SEC coaches will still complain that their conference tournament results aren’t being considered.
In 2016, the selection committee awarded Kentucky a lesser seed and tougher draw than Texas A&M even though the Wildcats edged the Aggies in the SEC tournament title game. That prompted John Calipari to complain to ESPN’s Rece Davis, “Did we not play a basketball game today?”
The complaints grew louder last March when conference tournament results seemed to be less significant than usual. Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Iowa all received lower-than-expected seeds despite winning their respective conference tournaments.
The day after the unveiling of last year’s NCAA tournament bracket, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes confessed he was perplexed. The SEC tournament champion Vols received only a No. 3 seed despite taking down Kentucky the afternoon before Selection Sunday and Texas A&M just a couple hours before the Selection Show came on the air.
“Everyone said we were a 3 seed going into the SEC tournament,” Barnes told reporters. “It doesn’t look like the tournament helped us.
“If that’s the way it’s going to be, if the conference tournament doesn’t mean anything and if the teams that are already slotted to be in the tournament can’t improve their seeding, we should stay at home and let the teams that are trying to get in the tournament fight for that one bid.”
Ultimately, if coaches think that Sunday conference tournament title games don’t matter, they should take it up with their conference commissioners. It’s the commissioners who have the power to decide that exposure and TV revenue aren’t everything and move their conference tournaments up a day.
“The reality is that it would help the committee if every tournament was done early and you could have a complete discussion of each team’s full body of work,” Burnett said. “But obviously, television wants programming on that Sunday, so the committee does the best job it can.”