What’s Wrong with the NCAA Tournament
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.