March Madness is Just Madness

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I’ve become the sports guy here at TAC, so I figured I should say something about the impending college basketball tournament for the national championship, affectionately known as March Madness. While I enjoy the annual ritual of filling out a bracket and watching as my predictive skills are demonstrably obliterated, I’ve never fully bought in to the Madness. To me, March Madness is the dumbest way to determine the national champion in college sports.

And yes, I think it’s dumber than the BCS. By far. Basketball is not a single-elimination sport. If the teams are evenly matched, or even kinda close, the game comes down to the execution of a single minute. While that’s very exciting, it’s not a great indicator of overall strength. It’s like shootouts in hockey or soccer. They’re exciting and fun to watch, but it’s not the sport. You can be good at hockey without being good at shootouts. The skills are different. Similarly, the skills needed to win over  season of basketball can’t be summarized in a single elimination tournament.

This is why we see all these upsets and Cinderellas. George Mason was never the 4th best team in the country, but they made it to the Final Four b/c on a neutral court, if you play decently you have a chance to win it at the end. It’s ridiculous for teams in the Big East to slog through a rough conference schedule only to be plopped on neutral court with a team from Colonial conference in a single elimination. You’ll note that the NBA has best out of 7 series for a reason; namely that any team can beat another team on one night, but it’s harder to beat them 4 out of 7 times unless you are the truly superior team. So if we’re looking to discover the best team in college basketball, the Madness is not the way to do it.

What makes this more frustrating is that there is a more sensible way to conduct the tournament. College baseball uses a regional system. All the conference winners still get to go in a 64 team field. However, the 64 teams are divided into 16 regionals, with the #1 seed in each regional hosting their regional. This rewards teams for success in the regular season (unlike the Madness, where Ohio St. has the toughest regional with no reward). In the regional, there are 4 teams each and they play double elimination. The winner of the regional then faces another regional winner (hosted by one of the two) in a separate double elimination (ie. regional winner 1 must beat regional winner 2 twice, even if regional winner 2 lost once in the regional). They then move on to the College World Series in Omaha, where there are two more regional like rounds, and then the final is another double elimination.

Not only does this best represent baseball by forcing teams to have the depth to withstand double elimination tournaments, it rewards good teams. Moreover, it allows smaller teams to have more games (instead of just getting offered up as a sacrifice to Duke). There’s no reason basketball can’t do this; in fact, it would expand the games available to sell to TV networks.

So enjoy the madness, but just remember that the madness isn’t necessary. There’s a way already out there that’s a lot more sensible that crowns the best team in the sport, not just a buzzer beater.

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  1. Michael

    while I know this will never happen and it will probably only get worse when it comes to college basketball like more then 68 like we have now. This idea sounds like an amazing Idea. I think we get a more deserving champion if we have a double elimination tournament, while a team like butler or george mason could make some noise in the tournament it would be becuase they actually had a good team not becuase they just got hot at the right time and things fell their way. Only if you had some say in how they made this tournament. But March Madness is fun but could probably be alot more fun then it is.

  2. I’m not a big fan of “March Madness”, but my biggest beef is the automatic qualifying of the winners of conference tournaments. Talk about making the regular season completely irrelevant. And it totally screws over bubble teams when a barely above (or even below) .500 team gets hot in its conference tournament and then gets an automatic bid.

    And then there’s the prevalence of gambling associated with the NCAA Tournament. Granted, there’s gambling taking place in all sports, but it is particularly accentuated in the NCAA Tournament when even people who don’t usually gamble on sports are filling out brackets to enter in their office pools and the like. And then, when the brackets get blown up by a couple of Cinderella teams, everyone suddenly loses interest. George Mason and Butler were great stories, but the ratings for those Final Fours were among the lowest in history because people stopped watching once their “bracketology” went kaput. In other words, people weren’t interested in the play on the court as much as they were interested in how THEY were doing with their brackets. Casual observers who really don’t care about the sport itself.

    Which brings me back to my only real sporting passion: college football. I oppose a playoff primarily because it detracts from the traditions of the sport and makes the regular season less important. It also seems that the main people pushing for a college football playoff are media types and gamblers – people who have a financial stake in seeing the bowl system go away and a playoff take its place, but who, arguably, don’t really care about the sport itself and its traditions.

  3. my biggest beef is the automatic qualifying of the winners of conference tournaments.

    Yeah, that’s all about money. Conferences could be easily represented by the regular season conference winners; instead, we have these tournaments so that the regular season is only about getting a good seed and watching the Duke/UNC games.

    And it totally screws over bubble teams when a barely above (or even below) .500 team gets hot in its conference tournament and then gets an automatic bid.

    Speaking of screwing over bubble teams, is someone from your alma mater just messing with Virginia Tech? 😉

    And then, when the brackets get blown up by a couple of Cinderella teams, everyone suddenly loses interest. George Mason and Butler were great stories, but the ratings for those Final Fours were among the lowest in history because people stopped watching once their “bracketology” went kaput.

    That’s definitely true. People care so much the first few days b/c you’re still in it. After that, you have to be sold on a connection to the school or a love for the game. That’s really hard to get outside the Duke/UNC, as most of the schools now have these one and done freshmen mercenaries who are on their way to the pros next year. In short, there’s not the built up love for a player or loyalty to the school and its traditions that really form the basis of college football (as well the regional rivalries renewed once a year, making it more potent).

  4. I forgot to note this in the post, but Fresno St.’s title a few years ago shows that this format doesn’t kill Cinderellas either. Fresno St. was a 4 seed in their region, which is about the equivalent of a 13 seed in the bracket or lower. No team seeded 13 or lower has ever made the Elite 8 in basketball, much less winning the title.

  5. I’ve never fully understood all the machinations that make the seeding what it is. Some, I totally understand. Others leave me confused and surprised. For instance a little bit out of the Big XII: Certainly Texas and Kansas were deserving of high seeds. They had good seasons and have very talented teams. TAMU gets the nod at a 7 seed, yet K-State gets a 5? Seriously? The Aggies finished ahead of the Wildcats, and more importantly beat them head-to-head. And what’s this about Colorado not making the tourney? They beat K-State three times. THREE TIMES.

    I’d love to see the tourney change, but I have no clue as to how. Your suggestions, Mike, are worth exploring.

  6. The seeding is truly bizarre. I remember a few years ago when LSU had a pretty good year but got rewarded with an 8 seed, thus getting Butler in Rd. 1 and then UNC in Rd. 2.

  7. I heard on ESPN that they base the seedings on potential tournament matchups more than they do on the quality of the team being seeded. If one seeding is likely to avoid a 1st or 2nd round matchup that the NCAA would like to see happen later, then that is how they will seed the teams, even if it means an inferior team gets a better seeding than a team with a better record or who has beaten that team head-to-head.

    You know, because tournaments avoid all that unfairness that is rampant in how Division 1 college football does its bowl picks.


  8. And then there’s the prevalence of gambling associated with the NCAA Tournament.

    I heard on the radio today that over $1B (that’s ‘B’ as in Billion) will be gambled on the March Madness this year – and that’s not counting the legal gambling. I will try to find the quote later, but right now, I have to fill out my bracket…j/k!!

  9. Are we turning into Puritans? I thought gambling, like alcohol, is a perfectly moral activity if undertaken within appropriate constraints. I enjoy the bracketology and the challenge of besting my colleagues (I often do) and my wife (less luck there — but she cheats by reading the sports section cover to cover every day). We can all agree that participants in the games themeselves should not bet on them, but I seriously doubt that this problem is all that prevalent; and I’m confident that outlawing office bracket pools would not curtail whatever of it does go on. I will fill out my bracket tonight over a bourbon (and cigar, weather permitting), and no amount of fundie-Catholic handwringing is going to stop me or make me feel guilty about any of it.

    And for the record, there are no small teams (well, maybe short teams), just small schools — and Duke is one of them.

  10. I agree with all of the comments above.

    I just wanted to jump *kind of* off topic; but Michael brought up college baseball, so here it is:

    Geaux Tigers! LSU – a dynasty if there ever was one – beat Cal St.-Fullerton over the weekend. Did I say “beat”? I meant SWEPT!! And, they’re 15-1 now.

    Geaux Tigers!

    (Back to the regularly scheduled programming.)

  11. I’m not interested in outlawing gambling. Not sure what about my comment gave that impression.

    The point I was making is that people whose only interest in the sport is how THEY are doing in their brackets aren’t always the best fans or have the best interest of the sport at heart.

  12. I see what you’re saying, Jay. Me, OTH, I could sit and watch each game and thoroughly enjoy it (except if the Aggies lost). I could enjoy a stomping a la UNLV v. Duke from 1990 (I think). I could enjoy seeing one of the “Fab 5” draw a technical foul in a close game for calling a timeout when the Wolverines were out of them. I could watch Christian Laetner hit a buzzer beater from the top of the key. I love the game, and sadly it seems many more folks don’t share that same love.

  13. Fair enough, Jay. I should have read your comment more closely. Sorry. That said, in my experience I do not think the office pools dilute the number of true fans even if they create some fans whose interest is limited to the pool — but I don’t think those fans have a pernicious effect on the game.

  14. The problem with the analogy to college baseball, is that baseball is a much worse sport to decide in single-elimination than basketball. The better team is much more likely to win a single basketball game than a single baseball game. So the double-elimination format of the College World Series only begins to make up the difference.

    Also, all this talk about Cinderellas like George Mason is a little overblown. This does not happen every year. Was it that they were an 11 seed? Well they are only the second 11 seed to make the Final Four; a 10 seed has never made it; and only one 9 seed. Is it that they come from a mid-major conference? What is wrong with that? The Colonial was better than the SEC West this year.

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