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.

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