Women's Bracketology has been around for nearly a decade. Each Sunday in January, February and March, I take on the role of the NCAA selection committee and put together a prediction of what the bracket would look like each week as the season progresses.
The bracket is different each week, but the process -- and the issues that plague it -- don't really change. Each year, the hardest part is evaluating each and every team and agonizing about which teams should receive the 33 at-large berths. More time is spent on deciding on those final teams than almost anything else in the exercise. That is, until this year.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the most difficult phase hasn't been choosing the last few teams to include in the field of 64; this season, the biggest challenge is actually building the bracket itself. Yes, that has been part of the challenge every week in the past, but this year, it's off-the-charts difficult. But before getting into why, let's back up just a little.
Getting to the final version of the NCAA tournament field is really a three-step process. The group assembled in Indianapolis selects the 33 at-large teams. Then it seeds all 64 teams in the field (essentially, that entails ranking the schools 1-64 in what is often labeled the S-curve). Finally, it places those teams in the bracket. It is a one-step-at-a-time process. Each one must really be completed before the next one can begin. It's that placement part that has transitioned from challenging to maddening in 2012.
Here are some of the reasons:
• There's only one subregional site in the West or Mountain time zones.
• At least 13 of the 16 subregional sites have better-than-average shots at being in the field, but only three host schools have legitimate shots at being top-two seeds.
• Eight of the 16 have a solid possibility of falling into the seed range of a No. 5 to a No. 11 -- all of which could put a higher seed in a "road" game in one of the first two rounds.
• The possibility, as is the case this week, of eight teams from two conferences and seven teams from two more. (Eight is the worst number for this because the principle of conference teams not meeting until the regional final is still in place, but the bracket still has to accommodate all of those teams. Having a ninth team from the same conference actually offers more flexibility because it means that rule is thrown away. For example, with nine teams from the Big East in the men's bracket last year, Syracuse and Marquette were allowed to play in the second round.)
In this week's bracket, problems arose when it was time to put Vanderbilt in the field. Originally, the Commodores were a No. 6 seed. But where would they go? They couldn't be the No. 6 in Fresno because Tennessee is already the No. 2 there. Conference conflict. Texas A&M, as a No. 3, is also a host, so Vanderbilt couldn't be placed in the Aggies' subregional in the Des Moines region. So two of the four spots for Vandy were already eliminated. Since Kentucky is also a No. 3 seed, a conference conflict exists for Vanderbilt as the No. 6 in the Kingston Regional -- so that only leaves Raleigh as a possibility, and that's where the Commodores go.
But I worked a little further and realized something else is wrong. St. John's, as another No. 6 seed, has to go to Raleigh because there are conflicts for the Red Storm all over the board with other Big East schools in the other regions. And this issue doesn't even surface until the No. 7 seeds are being plotted. So Vandy had to be removed from that spot in Raleigh (where it was grouped with Ohio State) to give St. John's that place, because ultimately, it's the only spot the Red Storm could go. That left Vanderbilt, as No. 6, with no place in the bracket because Purdue, also a host, has the other No 6 slot.
Fortunately, the committee allows itself the ability to move a team one seed line to help through these very issues. So that's what happens: Vanderbilt becomes a No. 7 seed and Kansas State bumps up a seed line to No. 6. Time to find Vandy an actual spot in the bracket, right? But there are still problems -- because of those same conference conflicts, the Commodores can't go to Kingston (Kentucky would be in the same half of the bracket). They can't go to Fresno (same problem with Tennessee). Des Moines doesn't work, either, because the No. 2 seed there, Maryland, is also a host school. That leaves Raleigh -- and this time it works, making Vandy the No. 7 seed there with Miami as the No. 2 possibly playing the Commodores on their home court in the second round. But of the eight possible spots tried for Vanderbilt, only one ultimately worked with the way the bracket had already been built -- and that's why I use a pencil putting this together every week.
The Vanderbilt dilemma brought the entire placement process to a screeching halt as I tried to find solutions. Teams were moved out of their original spots and possibly back again all in the hopes of finding the right combination to make the bracket work. At one point, Delaware was shifted to a No. 4 seed even though the Hens were 12th on the overall list. Then, when it became apparent that changing Delaware's seed didn't rectify the original problem, the Blue Hens were moved back to a No. 4 seed.
That's how much one team can affect the entire process. But it happens all over the board with a number of additional teams. Check the number of procedural bumps that have been necessary in the last three weeks of Bracketology. With so many more conflicts to work around, that sometimes is the only way. And that's the best example of how unique the construction of the 2012 bracket is. This ultimately could result in some seeds that don't seem to make sense to a number of people. But remember: There is no agenda against a particular team. It might just be the committee actually getting that square peg into a round hole.
Of course, the committee never reveals what kind of movement it might have utilized to make the bracket fit together properly, just as we never see the committee's entire 1-64 ranking.
Having so many of the host schools in the tournament significantly reduces the flexibility in placing teams as well. That is why you keep seeing so many higher-seeded teams with possible road games in each week's bracket. It has happened every year. In fact, a No. 1 seed has been placed in that position four times in the last six seasons. This year is unique in that eight host schools are currently seeded No. 5 or lower. That high a number has never happened before. For example, last year there were four host schools seeded lower than four. In 2010, the number was two.
This is sure to create matchups and game settings that will make some fans unhappy. But as the Vanderbilt example illustrates, sometimes there just aren't a lot of options.
Constructing a bracket is like a puzzle. The pieces only fit together a certain way, and it's hard to find those pieces that go together.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.