Thursday, March 27, 2014

215. Bracketology hurts NCAA

The NCAA Basketball Tournament, also known as “March Madness,” is a favorite among sports fans. With its “one and done” format, upsets, office pools and last second shots, the tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. It starts on the cusp of spring and takes sports fan to Opening Day in baseball.

As a sports fan, it has provided some special moments over the years. As both a Duke and Ohio State fan, I can easily recall many magical moments—from Duke’s upset of UNLV in 1991 and Christian  Laettner famous last second shot to Ohio State’s disappointing loss to Michigan’s Fab Five in 1992.

The purpose of the tournament, of course, serves to crown a national champion. The tournament invites 68 teams to participate and the winner usually must win at least six games in a row. And as exciting as it is, one question to be asked is whether this is the fairest way to determine the national champion.

Sports differ in the way they determine a national champion. Of major contention is the NCAA football championship, which was determined by the controversial and unpopular BCS system. Other leagues, like professional hockey, permit many teams into the playoffs—meanwhile professional baseball only recently added wild card teams.

The NFL, due to the physical demands of the sport, plays one game in which the winner advances toward the Super Bowl. The NBA and MLB often play best of seven series to determine the better team.

In determining a champion, regardless of the sport, there are two issues to be considered: which teams are permitted into the playoffs and how do those teams advance within the playoffs.

The general perception is that teams need to earn their way into the playoffs. The majority of games are played in the regular season and the teams that perform the best are selected for the playoffs. The regular season provides the largest sample of a team’s performance. Over the course of the season, in which everybody often plays everybody, in at least in their own division or conference, the aim is to determine who deserves to have the opportunity to play for a championship.

The playoffs are often regarded as being more intense, with the best against the best—conference/division champions facing off against one another.

March Madness fails on both fronts. First, it permits way too many teams into the tournament and secondly, the win or go home format, increases the odds that more deserving teams, based on regular season play, may stumble.

If you replayed the regular season, it stands to reason that the same team would win the regular season championship a majority of the time. But most conferences have a postseason tournament which permits all of the teams to play for a conference championship—and gain a berth in March Madness. The regular season, it turns out, only determines the seeding. On many occasions, the regular season champion does not win the conference tournament (and for some conferences, prohibits them from playing in March Madness).

Consider last year, Liberty University finished the regular season with a conference record of 6-10, tied for ninth place in a twelve team league. They won their conference tournament and were declared conference champion. For the others in their conference, the regular season meant nothing.

If March Madness was replayed 100 times, each time with slightly different seeding, you might get dozens of different outcomes. Consider if Michigan, who lost in the championship game last year, had been the number four seed in Louisville’s regional (which is somewhat arbitrary)—they would have met in the round of 16 and not the national championship game. How differently their season would have been judged.

A superior team always wants a larger sample size, and that is why the regular season should determine the conference champion.  And only those conference champions should be invited to the “Big Dance.” It is ridiculous that a team which finishes ninth in their conference is rewarded, based on one hot streak, with the chance to win a national championship.

The conference tournaments, and the NCAA Championship, are not optimally designed to determine a deserving champion. They are designed around money and excitement. Their popularity is based on the love the underdogs and sudden death tournament play.

But championships should not be arranged for the amusement of the fans, or the chance to win a billion dollars. “Bracketology” is sports talk out of control. And while the champion is usually a pretty good team, and likely deserving on its own merits—six wins in a row usually sorts out the fortunate—letting undeserving teams in the tournament distorts the intent of it all.

March Madness is such a fun and popular event that its shortcomings are often overlooked. With the best players leaving after a year and the decreased disparity between the best and worst teams—the games are closer than ever. It is a fun event; it is just not the fairest to determine a champion.