Meta-bracketology: is there method behind March Madness?

Posted on March 11, 2010


There’s a 24-hr sports cycle in America, with several sports networks available on my cable menu any time of the day or night. ESPN alone gives me at least six, not including their virtual on-demand channels on the web. And yet most of the time no sporting matches are being played live. By even the most fanatical standards it would usually be difficult to argue that there is more than one “meaningful” game on any given day, especially in this lull between the Super Bowl and March Madness.

So what the 24-hr sports cycle amounts to, for the most part, is a lot of talk. Without even throwing talk radio into the mix. Now we assume that this talk is actually about sports. After all, most of the “experts” answering the questions, and even quite a few of the people asking the questions, are retired athletes and coaches. But in fact, much of the talk is about something else: the design of sports institutions.

And at this time of year the great perennial design question concerns the selection procedures used by the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee to determine the selection of 65 teams to compete in national championship tournament.

Now it is not clear to me why expertise in basketball — in how to help a team win a basketball game as a coach or player on the court — gives a person any special expertise on this institutional-design question. Of course, you wouldn’t want designs coming out of a process that had no input from players and coaches. And, no doubt, debates among these jock pundits makes for much better television than would disquisitions from NCAA officials, marketing managers, lawyers, and consultants. But we surely can expect more heat than light from these simulated debates.

First, consider the actual procedure (which I couldn’t find easily on an NCAA site, so am relying here on an answer on Here’s how 65 of the 347 D1 schools get their tickets to the dance punched.

1. Automatic entry for the winners of 30 conference tournaments as well as for the winner of the Ivy League regular season.

2. A committee of 10 athletic directors and conference commissioners select the remaining 34 teams “at large” with a formula that “uses statistics for losses and wins, RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), which uses the schedule strength and general performance in recent games.” [Ed: can someone tell me; are non-performance-related criteria used at this stage as well? E.g. to beef up representation from under-represented regions?]

3. They group these into 4 regionally based pools, with roughly equal strength in each pool.

4. The teams play a knockout tournament in their pool until there are four left in each, at which point the “Sweet 16” assemble for a final knockout tournament that crowns a national champion.

So where’s the controversy? Oddly, it seems to have more to do with the automatic bids, than with the closed-door beauty contest. Why? There seem to be three arguments rehearsed by all the critics who think the current system is “ridiculous”:

  • It’s unfair: conference championship winners may be weaker and less deserving than teams in their conference that won the regular season but lost the conference championship. Stronger teams have more of a right to get to the Tournament. They deserve it.
  • It’s unfair: even the best teams from many of these conferences are weaker than the weak teams in the major conferences. Again, stronger teams have more of a right to the Tournament than these weak teams.
  • It diminishes the quality of the basketball games in the Tournament: the inclusion of so many inferior teams means that a lot of early round games will be miss-matches (since the highest seeds in each group play the lowest).
  • It diminishes the quality of basketball games in the regular season: it diminishes the importance of the regular season, thus potentially reducing the quality of many regular season games that might not be “meaningful” for one or more of the teams involved.

There are, of course, many supporters of the current system. They retort that:

  • It’s fair: It gives smaller, less well-known schools a leg up. It helps them counter the many unfair advantages enjoyed by the marquee schools.
  • It’s more exciting: the most memorable stories in the history of the Tournament usually involve “Cinderella” teams or (if you prefer) Davids who hang with the Goliaths until the Final Four or beyond.
  • It’s more exciting: it gives people of many regions a chance to cheer for local teams, since the formula assures in various ways that there will be a few schools from most parts of the country.

So we have “fairness” considerations in the arguments for and against. But they are different conceptions of fairness. Those against are using a “conservative” conception of fairness, if you will. One based on desert, and on reaping the benefits of your efforts (and good fortune). The arguments in favor of the current system use a more “liberal” conception of fairness; one that assumes that NCAA basketball in general is unfair to certain teams from the start, and so could use some “affirmative action” tweaking just before the Tournament.

As far as affirmative action goes, the current system is similar to G.W. Bush’s end-around the restrictions on the use of preferential placement and quotas in Texas colleges when he was Governor: he guaranteed admission for the top 10% of graduates from every high school in the state, thus ensuring that the best kids in bad neighborhoods would still have a shot, even if their SAT scores were lower that some others who weren’t admitted. So the current NCAA system has a whiff of the kind of “compassionate conservatism” that was MIA during Bush’s White House years. But I digress.

How does the NCAA itself justify the current system? Perhaps they feel it is an extension of the official mission statement for the D1 Men’s Basketball Committee. In addition to the usual laudations of student-athletes, sportsmanship, and integrity, and so on, we find the following missions:

  • Ensuring that fair and equitable criteria are used to select the most deserving at-large teams. [But not the automatic conference representatives?]
  • Administering a fair and equitable tournament by creating a nationally-balanced bracket comprised of the most deserving at-large teams and automatic-qualifiers chosen by conferences, while assigning institutions to sites as near to their campuses as possible;
  • Broadening the championship’s appeal to a variety of publics by administering an equitable and progressive media-relations program that includes domestic and international coverage of the championship through newspapers, magazines, Internet, radio and television networks;
  • Ensuring that commercial activities enhance the wholesome environment of the championship;
  • Maintaining fiscal responsibility by maximizing revenue sources and controlling expenses in order to realize the greatest possible return to the NCAA membership while not compromising the mission of the committee

So… Does the selection procedure help advance these missions? Are these missions appropriate? Is the selection process fair? Does it have to be?

Let me know if you think I’m getting any of the facts of the situation wrong, or if I’m missing good arguments for or against. I’ll weigh in on the fairness questions tomorrow.