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What’s Wrong with the NCAA Tournament

March 17, 2011

Actually, there are many things wrong with the NCAA basketball tournament(s — everything I say here applies equally to the men’s and women’s tournaments). A year ago I criticized the arbitrariness of having a selection committee, arguing instead for a European soccer-style system where the number of slots for each conference is determined a year in advance based on a quantitative formula and then each conference is free to decide how its slots will be filled.

The problem for today is broader, and applies to the Bowl Championship Series as well. Where I come from, the point of sports contests is to win. If North Carolina State beats Houston in the final game, they are the champions, even if we know that Houston would win nine games out of ten. The same goes for Miami beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or Liverpool beating Milan in the Champions League final. And that’s also true for every other game along the way. The point is to win, not to have the best team.

Nate Silver breaks this down for basketball teams by using different statistical measures for teams’ talent (how good they should be) and merit (how many games they won and against whom). He does this to show how a team’s actual draw compares to the draw it deserved to get based on its performance during the season. The unfairness that results is a combination of a number of factors, such as the fact that some teams get to play close to home.

But the unfairness I want to focus on is that teams tend to get seeded based on talent rather than merit. It’s highly unlikely that the selection committee even tries to select and seed teams based on merit. I did a half-hour of research — Wikipedia, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, a Q&A with the head of the selection committee — and I could not find a simple statement of what the committee’s objective is in selecting and seeding teams. Are they picking the ones that did what sports teams are supposed to do — win games? Or are they picking the ones that they think are most likely to play well in the tournament? No one will come out and say the latter, but it’s pretty clear that they’re not doing the former. The committee considers factors such as how teams have been playing recently, whether key players were injured who are now healthy, margin of victory, even “dealing with adversity” — all factors that imply more that they’re trying to pick the teams that will do best in the tournament.

(This may seem obvious to you, and it doesn’t surprise me either. What surprised me was that I couldn’t find an official statement that this is what they are trying to do — perhaps because giving the committee an actual mandate would only open it up to more pointed criticism.)

This, it seems to me, is just wrong, because it’s not what sports are supposed to be about. It’s like having a committee vote on who should get into the NFL playoffs on Monday night after the regular season ends. It’s like, after each game in the NCAA tournament, having a committee vote on which team should go to the next round; it’ll usually be the team that won, but if they got lucky, or they benefited from some bad calls, or their star was injured in the fourth quarter, or if they don’t match up well with the opponent in the next round, it might be the team that lost. You’re supposed to get into the playoffs by winning, not by having the best team on paper.

The preference for the “best” — rather than the winners — is the product of a culture that values size, speed, and strength over results and that wants to maximize spectacle rather than celebrate achievement. It’s the same culture that insists on trying to pick the two “best” teams to play in an unnecessary and arbitrary football “national championship” game, despite this being a fundamentally impossible problem to solve (except perhaps in the fortunate case where exactly two teams go undefeated). It’s fine for fans to debate which teams are  “better” than other teams, in the probabilistic sense that they would win more often in a series of fair matches. But we shouldn’t organize our championships on that basis.

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10 Comments
  1. The problem I have with your argument is that the more uneven the talent level is among the total pool of teams (by which I mean all NCAA teams that compete during the regular season), the more shaky win-loss record becomes as a reliable indicator of quality and performance. And the spread in talent level in NCAA basketball is about as wide as it gets–at least among the most popular sports leagues. I think as sports fans we buy too easily into that win-is-a-win-and-a-loss-is-a-loss attitude. Losing by 2 on the road to Kansas or Duke–to take an extreme example–is more impressive than almost any other single-game outcome a team can have.

  2. TIM DEAN permalink

    The NCAA is a business, not a government entity. No matter what technique is used someone would claim bias. They definitely give preferential treatment to the big TV markets but as a business that should be expected. I had to laugh out loud listening to the CBS commentators talking about how the East Coast/NY ball players were going to humiliate the Gonzaga guards because they took it personally. The last game of the year Gonzaga and St Marys beat the hell out of each other physically with the blood flying. Now it turns out Jalen Rose says all the black players over the years at Duke were Uncle Toms. Guess the Uncle Toms are better players cause the stats show Duke has far outperformed Michigan on the basketball court over the years.

  3. Obama went on TV and convinced us that he knew more about college basketball than he did about baseball (remember that embarrassing little incident a year or two ago?).

    I don’t have much to say on the subject except: “Peach Baskets,” but it’s always good to reflect on the fact that though John Wooden would have publicly agreed with you, his dirtbag associates would have just laughed and laughed.

  4. skeezics permalink

    NCAA is for me just a reminder of the real value of team sports. Brings to mind the echo in Dillon Gym as Bill Bradley loped and dashed the hoops when he was a student at Princeton.

  5. Bayard permalink

    James, I completely agree with your conclusions, and your sentiments regarding our societal preferences for image over substance. I am a supporter of the underdog, which, in our culture, frequently may be defined as the not-so-pretty but effective anyway. I love competition, and have played many sports at many levels, and enjoy almost all athletic competition. I am sick at heart over what our sports interest has become. Who can love the Yankees, when Steinbrenner will spend vast sums of money to create the illusion of greatness, and my beloved Orioles maintained their strength during the glory years by having a vast and effective farm structure and lots of unity. Indeed they had some great talent, but much of it was born and bred within their system. Nowadays, winning NOW is all that counts. Headlines are all that counts. Perhaps the most shining example of the flashy primadonna sport is pro basketball. I won’t even see one game this year. I am sick to death of what this game has become.

  6. There are a lot of points on this I could almost right a post on it myself. And I might actually know what I am talking about instead of when I rant about credit derivatives (haha)

    First my big problem with the NCAA is what is happening with cheating in different programs and the inequitable (almost arbitrary, but I strongly suspect political) way punishments are doled out. The current coach of the Ohio State football program knew that his players were selling UNiversity apparel and other things for gifts in the thousands of dollars. Tressel knew, before it became public knowledge, around last December and pretended not to know. 9 months he pleaded total innocence and when a journalist (Dan Wetzel) at Yahoo web site forced the issue he confessed he in fact knew what was happening almost from the very time it occurred, and lied about his knowledge for over 9 months. His University’s decision?? To suspend Tressel for 2 games (against “cakewalk” opponents) and then let him coach again, coincidentally when they had their first real contest of the season against Miami. Finally he was suspended 5 games when Ohio UNiversity leaders figured out a two game suspension wasn’t going to fly with NCAA public relations masters. So as a coach who is supposed to “set the example” he was originally only going to be punished for lying and keeping secret NCAA violations for less than HALF the time of his players.

    Now add on to this the fact that a top wide receiver who was playing at Oklahoma State last year, Dez Bryant, was forced to forfeit his entire senior season (obviously his last college playing time). His crime you may ask?? Lying about having dinner with Deion Sanders of the Dallas Cowboys. Was there an agent at the dinner??? No. Was there talk of any money exchanging hands?? No. Did he verbalize any plans to turn Pro or hire an agent?? NO. His crime was “lying to the NCAA”. Lying because he didn’t tell the NCAA he committed the horrid crime of eating dinner with Deion Sanders. His entire Senior Season—-Gone in the wind. It would be interesting to know what would have happened if the same violation would have happened at say, Notre Dame, or Texas what punishment the NCAA would have decided.

    Now look at Bruce Pearl this year. He is the basketball coach at the University of Tennessee—-currently, hands down, the dirtiest athletic program in all the NCAA. Pearl made excessive calls to recruits, inappropriately hosted recruits at his home, was suspended by the SEC (some people think the SEC is the dirtiest conference in the nation on NCAA violations) for 8 games. He then “mislead” investigators about those violations. Now the NCAA is debating whether they will suspend him for an entire season–all the while the Tennessee athletic director staunchly defends Pearl as he waits for the other shoe to drop….

    Now look at the last 2 basketball coaches at the University of Oklahoma (Sooners): Kelvin Sampson and Jeff Capel. First Sampson makes tons of text messages to high school recruits (or his assistants felt “impelled” to I guess) which is a clear NCAA violation. Sampson gets busted. Sampson then does the old stand-by classic con: “It wasn’t me texting the players, it was my assistant coaches”. Sampson was at that time, or near that time head of the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches). They must have been very proud of him. He then got a multi-million dollar contract to coach at Indian University, flying away from the OKlahoma campus like a white dove with no cares. Guess what Sampson does then??? Makes impermissible
    outbound recruiting calls (10 conference calls which were a clear violations of the sanctions imposed on him for nearly the same rule violations he committed at Oklahoma). No need to worry though. Sampson has gone on the lucrative assistants jobs in the NBA. No need to worry about inappropriate phone calls in the NBA I guess………

    Now, let’s move on to Jeff Capel. His Oklahoma program (which he was just fired from the last week) is currently under investigation. For what?? One of Capel’s ASSISTANTS (See any pattern here??) was busted for making many phone calls and texts to a financial adviser (some guy named Hausinger). Hausinger reportedly made payments of $3,000 dollars to an All-American recruit of Okahoma’s, named Tiny Gallon, who has since left the program. What happens to Capel??? He gets $2 million to leave the program with a public statement telling people how much he loves OU. Yeah, I would love a place pays me $2million after I broke the rules and ran a program down into the gutter. And of course any future coaches at OU must be really cared of the consequences they could face after those two examples.

    Hey NCAA!!! Let’s make the punishments equitable for all participants and all UNiversities, regardless of politics or whether they are your “cash cow”!!!! Or do you not even want to bother “keeping up appearances” of any level of integrity anymore???

    Now as for the selection committee choosing UAB for the NCAA tournament, and sending a superior Colorado team to the NIT???? Don’t even get me started on that one…………….

  7. Craig permalink

    So , is this like the banks and other industry leaders who are “too big to fail.” Is the Bigness factor at play in play , in play in sports as well as business?

  8. What’s wrong with the NCAA tournament is the constant commercial time outs to the extent that neither team can build momentum before they are slowed down by a commercial break. The last two minutes ( I actually timed it ) takes well over 25 minutes with commercial breaks along with regular time outs.It’s unfair to the partcipants as well as spectators !

  9. You’re not wrong James, but you’re not entirely correct either. The NCAA is not only trying to pick teams that will do well in the tournament, but it is also running a business so it thrives on close games and a good regional distribution of teams for TV ratings reasons. They also benefit from having teams from large geographic areas represented, that’s why so many Big East Teams (NYC, Washington DC, Philly, etc.) got in.

    However, what’s great about the NCAA tournament is that it’s 64 (well now 72) teams in size. So while the selection process isn’t perfect and arguments can always be made for teams that didn’t get in, we can assert that a huge percentage of teams with any chance to win the championshop are represented. There are just under 350 NCAA division one teams, of those teams by default half have losing records (some teams play Div. 2 schools on their schedule so this doesn’t hold universally true, but half certainly have losing records against other Divison one schools.) So that means approximately 170 teams have winning records – of that number 42% make it into the NCAA tournament. That’s a pretty fair representation of talent especially since of those “winning record” teams a huge number were only a game or two above 500.

    Now the committee then plays with the seedings, pairings and geographic locations to try and get certain outcomes and prevent others, for example two very well known, highly ranked schools from playing each other too early thus knocking one out before the second weekend. But, records should count for something, and if Ohio State didn’t get a benefit for winning 30 games during the regular season, then the regular season is diminished as well. The results so far this year bear out how the flaws are in some respects overcome by the games themselves. The Big East had too many teams – well that’s been taken care of. Certain big teams were too highly seeded because of reputation or whatever, well Pittsburg, and Purdue and Notre Dame couldn’t seed themselves into actually winning the games.

    Yes Duke and Ohio State have easier paths to victory, but Pittsburg should have as well. Typically a one or two seed wins the tournament – but it that because of advantages or because they were the better teams in the first place? No system is perfect, but compared to the BCS and even the playoff systems in some of the pro leagues – half the NHL teams make the playoffs – it is the fairest of them all, and gives the most opportunity to really good teams who otherwise would get no chance due to conference or reputation, like what happens to the Boise States and TCU’s in Football.

  10. frank permalink

    From Robin Hanson’s Blog:

    “My colleague Tyler Cowen had warned me from the start that blogs were best defined not by topic but by lead author personalities, and well, I’d learned he was right.”

    You should post this on Baseline Scenario, it would make the blog more varied and more interesting.

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