Yes, Wisconsin should have been seeded higher

This year I have fielded a lot of questions about Wisconsin’s seed. As the second place finisher in the B1G and runner up in the B1G conference championship, it’s hard to accept an 8 seed. It’s even harder given that lower ranked teams are seeded higher. Maryland finished 3rd in the B1G and received a 6 seed, Minnesota was 4th in the B1G and received a 5 seed, Northwestern finished 6th in the B1G and received an 8 seed, and Michigan received a 7 seed after winning the conference tournament. Wisconsin and Northwestern really don’t deserve the same seeds.

I can’t mathematically prove that Wisconsin was robbed, but I’ll try to step through the process to shed light on what happened.

First, I’ll say a few things about how seeding works.

The first step is selecting the field, and this is started well in advance of Selection Sunday. There are a number of teams who automatically make the tournament, and the committee first chooses who received at large bids. It’s safe to assume that Wisconsin was a lock to make the tournament all along.

The selection committee looks at several ratings/rankings including LRMC (Wisconsin is 22), the Pomeroy ratings (Wisconsin is 23), the Sagarin ratings (Wisconsin is 17), ESPN’s BPI (Wisconsin is 21). Wisconsin is in the top 23 in all of these aside from RPI (where Wisconsin is 36), but RPI isn’t a very good tool and is not used to seed the teams. The committee then ranks the teams 1st to 68th (the “S curve”) to get a larger sense of what the seeds should be and to identify if the seeds in each region are balanced when the seeding is done.

Teams that are consistently ranked in the top 25 are often seeded 6th or so, which is significantly higher than the 8 seed Wisconsin was assigned.

There is not a lot of competition for the 1 seeds because so few teams can make a claim for the one seed. The ends of the distribution are easy but the middle is tougher because there is less difference between the 20th ranked team and the 40th ranked team than between the top ranked team and the 10th ranked team. Therefore, a team in the middle could reasonably be assigned to either a 5 seed or an 8 seed or anywhere in between.

Assigning seeds is not as simple as knowing that there are four of each seed and picking one for each team. There is a lot more to it than that. Scheduling the tournament is hard because there are a lot of constraints. Teams from the same conference cannot meet in the round of 64 or 32. Therefore, a team’s seed might need to be slightly malleable to make it all work while obeying these constraints. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the seeds need to be assigned so that the strength of each of the regions is roughly balanced. For example, the same region should not contain the best best 1 seed, the best 2 seed, and the best 3 seed.

There is more. Distance is taken into account when assigning the seeds. The committee assigns game locations at the same time it assigns seeds. That makes for a lot of interconnected decisions. All seeds are assigned to one of 8 locations called “pods” where the tournament games are played. For example, the 1, 8, 9, and 16 seeds must play in the same location. The goal is to minimize travel for most of the teams, especially the highest seeded teams who often basically get “home” games where their fans do not have long to travel. There are eight pods, and two of the 4-team groupings are assigned to each pod.

It’s possible to assign a team a lower seed so that they would have substantially less travel. That was not the case for Wisconsin, who was assigned an 8 seed in Buffalo.Initially, I suspected that Wisconsin was assigned an 8 seed in the Milwaukee pod, which would have been essentially a home game. That was not the case. Instead, the Badgers are getting the worst of both worlds: a bad seed and a long distance to travel. I’m puzzled by this.

You cannot change one team’s seed or a pod location without creating ripple effects that affect many other teams so these decisions are not easy to make. You can see the bracket with pod locations here. I’m sure that every year a team or two gets under/over-seeded because of these constraints. It’s easy to point out teams that are badly seeded but it’s much harder to know how to fix the problems. The tournament scheduling part is so difficult that some (like Cole Smith, Barbara Fraticelli and Chase Rainwater!) have published research papers on optimization models to design good tournaments that balances these constraints while getting the seeds right. Despite this challenge, it seems that swapping Wisconsin with another B1G team such as Minnesota would be feasible, not cause other ripple effects, and would better reflect the teams’ rankings. Scheduling might be hard, but a lot is on the line so the committee should get it right most of the time.

I also may be biased, but in sum, I cannot find a part of the seeding process where Wisconsin being assigned an 8 seed makes sense. I’m disappointed. Getting the seeds right matters because, in this case, an 8 seed for Wisconsin means playing overall top seeded Villanova in the round of 32, assuming that Villanova is not the first 1 seed to be upset in the round of 64. That makes for a rough path to the Final Four. In any case, this is all part of the game. I’m looking forward to the tournament and rooting for the Badgers.

I talked to WKOW in Madison about the seed. You can read about it and watch the video here.

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