Saturday, March 20, 2010

There's only one Perfect Playoff System, and the NCAA Ain't It. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

I love the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament as much as the next guy... well, that's not exactly true. I love it more than I probably should, given that I don't care for basketball, and I don't care for college sports, so a college basketball tournament shouldn't get me excited at all, but it still does. I do love March Madness (that's right: Screw you, NCAA and IHSA. I'm going to say it) to the point where yesterday I even enjoyed listening to the Villanova/St. Mary's game on the radio, thrilling to the part where the one guy from St. Mary's fell down but kept dribbling and then made a 3-pointer, a shot I only saw on the radio but then saw here:

And I watched a bit of the end of the Wake Forest game last night (remarking to Sweetie as she came into the room "Wake Forest won't be rolling the quad tonight," and causing her to not want to talk to me even more.)(You know what rolling the quad is if you read this, which you did read, right?)

Maybe because I'm no starry-eyed basketball/college sports fan, though, I can look at the NCAA Tournament realistically and tell people -- you -- that it's not the perfect playoff system, not ideal, not what Mike Golick of ESPN briefly espoused this past Monday before I got even more tired of listening to Mike & Mike In The Morning than I usually do and turned off their show in favor of Bob & Tom saying "monkey pockets."

The NCAA Mens' Tournament has a lot going for it, true -- in its sheer spectacle and size and with the way, for about three weeks, it dominates the media via that size and spectacle, it drums up interest in people who couldn't otherwise care less about the sport; everywhere, people are filling out brackets and discussing how a 12-seed always wins a first-round game, and whether this number one will do such-and-such.

An NCAA pool in our office lured in almost everyone (except me) -- getting even the elderly secretaries to fill out brackets. To get an idea how successful that was, I had trouble getting 10 people to join a fantasy football league last fall; most people said they were "not interested in sports" and didn't want to sign up. Those same not interested people now filled out brackets to win the NCAA pool.

On a side note generated by that: Every year a figure or two are bandied about in which some news outlet or other claims that someone somewhere said that the NCAA Tournament will cost employers some amount of money. This year the figure is $1.8 billion. The source for that figure says they estimate people spend twenty minutes per day during the tournament talking about the pool or the tournament; that's 100 minutes a week in a work-week, which is apparently the base figure they use to calculate the $1.8 billion we've lost.

But consider this: That survey did not ask "Would you spend that 20 minutes, ordinarily, working?" Because if you look around at any office, at any time on any day, you'll find a certain number of people not working -- they're watching Youtube or playing Farmville or going to get a cup of coffee or something, and many of them are just talking. If today those people talk for 20 minutes about the NCAA Tournament, whereas on February 21, they spent twenty minutes talking about, say, Modern Family, then the NCAA Tournament hasn't cost employers anything it's just changed the way those workers waste 20 minutes, 20 minutes that was previously being wasted on something else.

So that survey -- done by "Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc." appears to be more junk thinking of the kind I rail against so frequently, and I suggest you ignore it, and ignore their company, too.

The NCAA Tournament, for all its glory, as I started out saying, isn't perfect, even though it's frequently heralded as the perfect playoff system and held up, all the time, as a counterpoint to the much-maligned BCS. People like Mike Golick (flagbearer for junk thinking) complain about the BCS and proclaim that the NCAA Tournament is the greatest way to have a playoff, and suggest shoving that down the throats of all the college football fans (just me) who like the BCS.

But is it? Is it really such a great playoff system? Or are there still flaws in that system, too. Is there, in the end, a perfect playoff system? One that will unfailingly pick the objectively-the-best team?

In a word, yes, but there's only one way. There's only one way to ever pick the objectively-the-best team in a sport, and that way involves a complicated system I once worked out while on a five-hour drive in the snow on the way home from a deposition way up north, a system that involves doing away with divisions and conferences and having two rotating wheels of teams, ranked 1 to 32... and it'd take a lot more time to tell you about than I have right now, because later today I have to take Mr F and Mr Bunches grocery shopping and still have enough time to watch Zombieland with Sweetie and see the Wisconsin game this afternoon.

So the Perfect Playoff System will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, here's some flaws with the NCAA Tournament that'll help you objectively ignore Mike Golick and see that it's (a) not so different than the BCS, and (b) in some ways inferior to the BCS.

1. The NCAA Tournament Is Still Largely Based On Voting... But the Voting Is Secret. Unlike Republicans, I'm a fan of democracy, and that love of democracy extends to sports. So I don't mind that the BCS, and the NCAA Tournament, are vote-based; I don't mind that teams make it in based not solely on performance but on how others subjectively view that performance.

But critics of the BCS, and fans of the Tournament ignore that both the BCS and the Tournament are vote-based -- but that the BCS does it better because it shows you the votes. In the BCS, coaches and writers vote and rank teams, and those rankings are taken into account by the computers, and are published weekly for public consumption.

The NCAA Tournament doesn't bother with openness and the public. It has a Tournament Selection Committee that meets behind closed doors to determine who's in and who's out and where they'll play and who they'll play. And the number of people on the committee is significantly less than the number of coaches voting in the polls, so each person's opinion carries much more weight.

Don't like that your team didn't make it? Don't like your seeding? Tough. You can't even find out who voted which way to see if there was a conflict of interest -- something that's possible since the committee includes officials from Division I schools.

2. The Tournament Ignores Home Field Advantage and Punishes Loyal Fans. That's right: The Tournament hates you, the loyal fan, and despises your home field that gave your team such an edge in the regular season. Games are played all over the U.S., in a rotation that's known before the Tournament. The rules say that no team can be placed in its region for the first round, so Marquette couldn't go into the bracket that played in Milwaukee this year in the first round.

Only one other sport makes teams play a neutral field for the first round of the playoffs. In most pro sports, a team with a good record gets to play at home in the first round, and maybe thereafter.

What's the one sport that sends teams to a neutral field for their first game in the playoffs? The BCS, which has a Bowl pre-selected before the season begins and then sends the championship teams there to play. But that at least gives fans a pretty good length of time to plan to travel there -- fans of teams that expect to contend for the national championship can make tentative plans to go see the game in January, and since the college season ends about a month before the BCS Title game, there's plenty of time to book travel plans.

Not so for the NCAA Tournament, which tells you fans on late Sunday night where your team will be playing on Thursday. Do you like paying that extra surcharge on a last-minute ticket to Milwaukee? Send a thank-you note to the selection committee. The last minute arrangemetns are so hard to make that some small schools have been known to bus in students to root for their teams.

Even after the first round, teams get yanked around the country, playing in different venues each time they play, making it even harder for their fans to follow them, and turning the Tournament into one massive road trip for the winning team. While that makes winning the Tournament even more of a feat, it strips the ability of a team's fans to enjoy seeing their team win the game in person -- to get tickets for a Final Four game or the Championship, you'll have to buy them in advance and hope your team gets there.

3. The Tournament Leaves Out Good Teams And Lets Losers In. A frequent complaint about the BCS is that it makes good teams sit on the sidelines, with no chance to compete for the title, simply because of their strength-of-schedule or because they came from a lesser-known conference, or because of the rule of two (only two teams from a given conference can be in a BCS Bowl.)

That's a ridiculous argument, every bit as stupid, in its own way, as the sports "analysts" argument against sudden death overtime in the NFL, because those teams like Boise State can compete for the title: All they have to do is play quality opponents and beat them. Teams like Texas and Alabama play quality opponents almost every week by virtue of being in a good conference. Boise State is in a bad conference, but it could schedule high-caliber nonconference opponents, or join a better conference (the Big 10 was open to expansion this year.)

Ignored in that argument, too, is the fact that the NCAA's "automatic bid" system has the potential to let a loser team in and thereby keep a better team out. 31 teams get in automatically by winning their conference tournament -- making it into March Madness even if their conference was terrible and even if they themselves had a losing record. Five teams in recent years have made the Tournament with a losing record.

To account for all the automatic bids that get slots now, the NCAA expanded to the 64-team size, and then, to make up for not giving an automatic bid to the Mountain West conference, the NCAA created the "Play-In" game, that game between two teams on the Tuesday before the Tournament, which determines the 64th team. So as more and more teams make it into the Tournament automatically, the NCAA just keeps expanding -- but does that increase the caliber of play? I doubt it, considering that in the history of the 64-team Tournament, no 16-seed has ever won so much as one game.

The NCAA is mostly handing a first-round bye to the 1 and 2 seeds, and claiming to be expansive by letting in the losers-- and those losers who got in via automatic bids (the Ivy League bid doesn't even have to win a tournament; that slot goes to the Ivy League team with the best in-conference record) kept a better team from being in the Tournament.

The BCS does the exact opposite: it weeds out the losers, early on. In the BCS, you have to win, period, to have a chance. Teams with 2 losses rarely factor into the BCS, and teams with 1 loss generally are on the outside looking in. Which means that not only does every regular-season game count (unlike the NCAA Tournament, where none of them count -- a team could go 0-22 and still get into the playoffs by winning a conference championship), but the championship is almost always the first time one team will lose a game that season.

As I said: I like the NCAA Tournament. I like it a lot. But it shouldn't be put up on a pedestal as the be-all, end-all of playoffs. (That position belongs to my Perfect Playoff System.)

No comments: