Meta-bracketology, part 2: Madness by design

Posted on March 12, 2010


I am willing to defend the NCAA’s current system for selecting the 65 teams in the national championship Tournament. But first a confession. I am also willing to admit that I know very little about basketball. I guess I know as much as most casual fans: I can follow the ball with the best of them, see when it has gone in the net of the team I’m cheering for or against, feel the thrill of a great game (and the frustration of slow finale), admire the athleticism and posing. But I admit I cannot “see” nearly enough of what is actually going on. Not like I can in, say, football, hockey, baseball, or soccer.

But I don’t think that ignorance of the finer points of the game of basketball hinders one’s ability to justify or critique the design of a system that a league puts in place to crown its champion. Indeed, listening to talking heads on ESPN convinces me that too much knowledge of basketball hampers the ability of former players and coaches to defend their views on the whether the Tournament selection rules are “ridiculous,” “genius,” or somewhere in between.

(Note: my arguments below rely on some facts and claims stated in the previous post on this blog. I will not repeat them all here.)

Disagreements about Tournament selection rules are based on disagreements about: (a) what the objectives are for the NCAA in having a process to select a national champion, and (b) what norms, values, etc., are appropriate for evaluating the rules of that process?

This sounds abstract, but what it means is that you can’t begin and end a debate merely by stating baldly that Team A deserves (that’s one of those “norms”) to be included rather than Team B — unless you are willing to pause briefly to think about why there might be competing goals involved in running the championship, and different ways teams can “deserve” or “earn the right” to play in it.

OK, now for the real debate.

Let’s summarize the general critique of the current system:

Fact everyone agrees on: the automatic-entry rules for 31 of the 65 teams allows some teams (winners of minor-conference championships) to get in that are clearly inferior to some of the teams (e.g. middling teams in major conferences) that don’t make it.

Basic normative assumptions of critics of the current system: (a) The only point of holding a championship is to identify the best team; and (b) the only sensible criterion for qualifying for the “play-offs” is achievement during the season, or merit. The best teams during the regular season deserve to be in the Tournament; they have a right to compete for the championship. We can call this the “conservative” position.

What’s wrong with this rather sensible-looking view? First of all, it ignores the fact that its principles are not respected in any major North American sports league. All leagues award “automatic entry” into the playoffs to teams winning divisions in multi-division leagues, even if they have fewer points than teams that don’t make it. And yet, for the most part, there is little chatter about this. Wild-cards were introduced into the MLB and NFL in part to take some of the sting out of this problem (where qualifiers from a weak division may be much weaker than runners-up in a strong division).

The “conservative” view also ignores the fact that, on anyone’s estimation, the current NCAA system ensures that all of the top 25 will be in the Tournament. It’s not clear why any team outside the top 8 or 16 should even have a shot at a national championship. The only “conservative” rationale for including more than 8 is that it is difficult — given the high number of teams, the small number of regular-season games, and the fact that most teams don’t play each other — to agree on who the best 8 are, or even perhaps who the best 16 are. But by the time you get past the top 25, surely you’re looking at teams that are not as “worthy” as the top 8.

The “conservative” view ignores the way the current NCAA system — including its Tournament-selection rules, but also the power it gives to conferences — shapes the quality of the teams and the way they look on paper. It is not as if all 347 schools draft the incoming high-school players each year on an equal footing. The better players go to the better teams, as determined by the way the current system makes teams better or appear to be better. So any aspect of the system that is slightly unfair to some teams early on will become very unfair after a few years. To mangle an old saw, under the current system a middling team in the ACC is born on third base and thinks it hit a triple. This kind of argument is even more compelling in NCAA football, where great teams outside the major conferences might in fact be as good, but don’t look as good on paper, precisely because the big-conference teams refuse to play them.

And finally, the “conservative” argument simply ignores the fact that the NCAA has multiple objectives for its Tournament. It is not merely to crown a national champion, or even secondarily to make teams recruit well and work hard to try to become national champion (thus upping the quality of regular-season play).

The objective of crowning a worthy national champion is one of the objectives. For the sake of meeting that objective we simply need a system that allows the best 8 to 12 teams into the Tournament. And to make sure you have the best 8-12, you might have to let in 20. Everyone agrees that the best 20 will be there. So shut up. Seriously. There’s no reason for you to be worried about the current system.

In the previous post I reproduced a number of the NCAA’s other explicit objectives for its championship. We can think of these objectives as providing the justification for allowing, say, teams 21 to 65 into the Tournament. The question, then, is whether these other stated objectives are “legitimate.”

Believe it or not, the NCAA still cares about creating positive experiences for its student-athletes, 99+% of whom will never play professional sports. The large tournament with national TV exposure, in which a large number of kids can play, and in which an even larger number can realistically dream of playing, surely serves that purpose.

The NCAA wants a “nationally-balanced bracket” — obviously to guard against the sport becoming “ghettoized” within the major conferences that are regionally concentrated. By letting good athletes think they can go to a decent college close to home, and still have a shot at the national stage, they surely keep the game healthier.

The NCAA wants to broaden “the championship’s appeal to a variety of publics.” Sorry jock-pundits: that means they want people besides you to watch. And can anyone argue with their success? Why do people get caught up with March Madness when they don’t watch a single college basketball game all season? Not simply because they want to see which team is the best. But in part because of the drama derived from cheering for some team because it is one’s own school, or from the minor conference of one’s own school, or from one’s city or state, or because it represents the Great American Story — a bunch of honest, hard-working kids who nobody expected anything from, but who defy the odds and a bad hand they have been dealt, take on the fat cats, and win! (Or at least get to the Sweet 16…)

And finally, the NCAA makes no bones about the fact that it is interesting in “maximizing revenue sources and controlling expenses in order to realize the greatest possible return to the NCAA membership.”

Leagues don’t exist to crown champions. Organizing a satisfying way of crowing a champion is something they do to meet other objectives. In non-spectator sports (e.g. your local adult soccer league) the objectives are largely to benefit the players. When they are professional leagues, the objective mostly involves pleasing fans, especially those who contribute to revenues. The NCAA is still a little of both. Providing a nice experience for the student-athletes, and even an education in fair play, teamwork, and leadership still matters. But so does revenue and facilitating the branding of schools.

It seems to me that all of the NCAA’s stated objectives here are legitimate. And that the Tournament, as designed, does a pretty good job of balancing them. So let the Madness begin. Maybe, after almost three years living on Tobacco Road, I’ll even learn a thing or two about basketball this spring. Go Blue Devils.