Mar 7, 2023 - Sports

The WAC gets wacky

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

College basketball's embrace of analytics has transformed how games are played and how performances are measured. Now, analytics is changing how a conference seeds its tournament.

State of play: The Western Athletic Conference made a groundbreaking decision this offseason, becoming the first league to not use conference records to determine postseason tournament seeding.

  • Instead, the WAC has introduced an analytics-based seeding formula that also accounts for teams' nonconference schedules and results.
  • In short: WAC teams are now rewarded for scheduling better opponents (and winning) and dinged for scheduling worse opponents (and losing).

The intrigue: The formula was concocted by Ken Pomeroy, a former meteorologist who has become college basketball's most respected advanced metrics expert.

  • Pomeroy's ratings have changed how the sport is understood — fans, sportswriters, oddsmakers and even coaches rely on
  • His involvement brings a level of legitimacy to the WAC's new seeding system, which was the brainchild of league commissioner Brian Thornton and associate commissioner Drew Speraw.

What they're saying: The goal, according to Thornton, is to "enhance the résumés of all of our institutions" and "create the best possible résumé going into the NCAA Tournament for our automatic qualifier."

  • "The NCAA doesn't seed strictly based on conference records," says Thornton, a former standout player at Xavier. "The NCAA uses your entire body of work."
  • "So we wanted to ... incentivize [teams] to schedule a little more challenging [opponents] during nonconference play."

The results: Most WAC teams were seeded within 1-2 spots of where they finished in the regular-season standings, but here's the headline: The men's and women's regular-season champions both failed to earn No. 1 seeds.

  • Men: Utah Valley (24-7, 15-3 WAC) finished atop the league standings and Sam Houston (24-6, 14-4) finished second. But for the tournament, which begins today, Sam Houston is the No. 1 seed and Utah Valley is No. 2.
  • Women: Southern Utah (20-9, 16-2 WAC) finished atop the league standings and Stephen F. Austin (25-5, 15-3) finished second. But for the tournament, which began Monday, they flipped spots.

The big picture: Some critics think the WAC is trying too hard. Why mess with something as straightforward as wins and losses? Why devalue something as essential as a regular-season title?

  • But if the goal is to win NCAA Tournament games — which it is — then this approach makes quite a bit of sense, and could spread to other one-bid conferences like the WAC.

In a nutshell: By giving the No. 1 seed to the team it believes has the best NCAA résumé, the WAC increases the chances of that team making the NCAA field, earning a higher seed than any other WAC team, and ultimately winning a game (or games).

Zoom out: The WAC isn't the only conference getting creative with new ways to improve NCAA Tournament résumés.

  • In 2018, Conference USA adopted a new schedule that pits its top teams against each other down the stretch, which strengthens their schedules and gives them more chances at high-quality wins.
  • Thornton and Speraw are also spearheading a proposal that would see mid-majors play nonconference games in February, thereby creating more résumé-boosting opportunities for top teams.

The bottom line: Every conference wants to win as many NCAA Tournament games as possible, and some are willing to go to extreme lengths to set themselves up for success.

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