Wasted Optimism

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An Argument to Change the NCAA Tournament

Northern Iowa. Great story... bad for fans.

I get it.  The NCAA Tournament is great.  Even if I didn’t think it was great I would know it is great because everything I read/hear/watch concerning the tournament drills its greatness into my frenulum1. Constant usage of phrases like “most exciting sporting event of the year”, and “can’t miss television” (also the suffix “-ology” gets used a lot) have put the exclamation point on it better than I can in this one writeup.  It is uber-exciting.  I am not here (yes ‘here’.. in person) to argue that March Mayhem isn’t exciting (it is), but I think I can argue that the excitement of the tournament exists at the expense of its fairness. And one thing I have proven time and again, is that I am an advocate for fairness. Fairness and lowering the age of consent.

1I hope I am using the right word here.  The frenulum is a part of the brain right?  The part that attaches the foreskin?

The ultimate goal of a sport is to provide excitement to its fans through a season spent determining its best team. It is this balance of excitement and competitiveness that makes a sport entertaining. When a sport leans too far one way or the other, it loses its appeal.
Check out this quadrant2 graph.  The goal is obviously to be as close to the top left corner as possible.  To make the sport fun and exciting while still keeping a level playing field to determine the best team. When a sport strays to either the bottom or right of the chart, it will lose either credibility or appeal.

2A giant middle finger to everyone that said majoring in graphs wouldn’t get me anywhere.

For example: It would be super-exciting to, at the end of the conference tournaments, take every college basketball team and put them in a cage full of lions.  Then whichever team is the last standing is your national champion.  But how fair is this?  Quidditch seems like the most extreme example of exciting without fairness to me.  Am I right muggles? (sorry) All these dudes compete like hell for a long time… then the game is abruptly ended because some other dude a mile away caught a bug.  Sure it’s exciting, but is that really a fair way to decide who is better at this game? (Sorry for the Harry Potter reference.  I am looking to snare that elusive 10-14 year-old  that time traveled from 2003 demographic.)

On the other side of the spectrum, EPL has a very competitive 38 game season where every team plays every other team and most points wins the league.  This would be the most fair scenario but removes the excitement of a playoff.  Also it’s soccer and thus super un-American.  Like healthcare reform.

Am I saying all playoffs are unfair?  Sorta.  They are less fair than having everyone play each other a few times and then crowning the team with the best record as the champion.  But I wouldn’t say playoffs always fall into the “unfair” category.  The proof of this would be if someone was to ask you “Who won the Big 12?”.  You would answer with the team that finished first in the standings, not the winner of the Big 12 tournament. (assuming these are 2 different teams)

The issue with the NCAA Tournament is that game to game, basketball is not a stable enough sport to have a single game decide so much. While the better team wins a majority of the time, a hot shooter, a cold shooter, one poorly timed bad call, one lucky shot, and a variety of other small factors can easily determine the outcome of a single game.  So why is a single elimination tournament the determination of the champion of such a sport?

I think we all know the answer to that question.  Your entire office/class/family/orgy-group has given you the answer to that question.  Every time they tell you about their bracket or express excitement over an upset, they are letting you know why it is a single elimination tournament.  And that answer is:

Because the NCAA Tournament is not meant to entertain NCAA basketball fans.

It is the ultimate representation of an ADD fueled entertainment industry. Someone that did not invest a minute of their time throughout a 4 month season can fill out a bracket, sit and root for upsets, and have a better experience with the tournament than I ever will.   While they are rejoicing in the 2 minute connection they feel to those scrappy kids from Northern Iowa, I am upset that teams and players I have grown attached to over the course of a season are no longer going to be playing, often because of a few fluke circumstances.

To this day, long after the buzz my Mom felt for Northern Iowa and Cornell has faded, I am still unbelievably pissed off that the last I will see Obi and James in a Cowboy uniform was in a mess of a game that involved 2 underrated bad calls at the end.

The Gulley foul and the subsequent no-call on James’ drive at the end of the GT game decided the outcome.

No Call????

This can happen in basketball and we accept it as part of the game but, if the tournament were a double elimination bracket or some sort of “best of 3” for each round these fluke events wouldn’t determine everything. The excitement would still be there, the tournament would last a week or 2 longer, and the outcome should be a little closer to fair.  Since I know all my readers can make this decision let’s go ahead and get this done.  (btw… we get 3 hits a day: Mom, Dad, and NCAA Commissioner.)


note: I thought I published this a month ago… apparently I didn’t and now I have also revealed how often I visit my own site.

3 comments on “An Argument to Change the NCAA Tournament

  1. Robert Ternes
    April 8, 2011



    College Football is anything but “boring”. It wasn’t “unfair” until the Bowl Alliance (BA) and later, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), came along and starting messing with it. Pre-BA/BCS College Football, while far from perfect, was the most exciting and fair sport; especially since its National Champion was (usually) determined by their record during the entire season.

    Here are some notable exceptions: Florida State being named champions in 1993, Penn State being named champions in 1984, Colorado being named co-champions in 1984, Alabama being named co-champions in 1978, Miami being named co-champions in 1991, et al.. All of these exceptions could have been eliminated by using 2 objective statistics: wins-to-losses-to-ties (currently, wins-to-losses) record and/or head-to-head competition.

    Contrast this with the mess that is known as the BCS. The BCS uses: 1. a hodge-podge of polls (Harris (previously AP) and Coaches) and 2. several computer programs, all of which are deeply flawed. The BCS (and its predecessor) installed a quasi-playoff system with these flawed parameters: 1. using polls, 2. using computer programs, 3. not using the wins-to-losses record explicitly, and 4. not using head-to-head competition explicitly. The responsibility for the flaws of the current system lays directly on the shoulders of those fans, sports writers, et cetera who kept demanding a play-off: first, there was a demand for #1 playing #2 and second, there was a demand for the top teams to play the top teams.

    Play-offs reward those teams whose play during the season was a mediocre. A play-off system would be doomed to failure. If 8 teams are chosen, then the final 2 teams play 3 (1/6th for a 12-game season) more games than those who didn’t make it. The fans whose teams were #9, #10, et cetera would scream that their teams deserved to be in the play-off. If 16 teams are chosen, then the final 2 teams play 4 (1/3rd for a 12-game season) more games than those who didn’t make it. The fans whose teams were #17, #18, et cetera would scream that their teams deserved to be in the play-off. Any team that plays additional games is going to show a large increase in number of injuries incurred during the season.

    By utilizing the objective parameters of: 1. counting all games played during an entire season, 2. wins-to-losses record, and 3. head-to-head competition, a true Football National Champion is crowned. If 2 or more teams are undefeated at the end of the season, they would share the Football National Championship. If no teams were undefeated at the end of the season, 2 or more teams had the same number of losses, and they didn’t play head-to-head, then another objective parameter is used to break the tie: their competitions’s wins-to-losses record against other teams. There would be little room for fans to complain.

    The system that I have just outlined, while not perfect, is considerably better than what we have had in the past, what we have now, and what we would have if a true play-off system was implemented. Thank you.

    All The Best,
    Robert Ternes

  2. Robert Ternes
    April 8, 2011


    Greetings, Again:

    I forgot to write that EPL (or any other soccer leagues) is the very definition of “boring”! Thank you.

    All The Best,
    Robert Ternes

  3. Robert Ternes
    April 8, 2011


    Greetings, Yet Again:

    I’m having difficulty finishing what my detractors would call my “rambling post”. (Obviously, my detractors are incorrect.) My original post concerns college football play-offs; while your article concerns college basketball play-offs.

    My original post was prompted by your punnett square, which defines various sports by a ratio of “Exciting” or “Boring” in relation to “Fair” or “Unfair”. College football was rated as “Boring” & “Unfair”, while most pro sports were rated as “Exciting” and “Fair”.

    I am sure that your punnett square was done during an episode of temporary insanity and/or extreme drunkenness. I am bringing this to your attention so that you can recant the ratings and correct the punnett square. Thank you.

    All The Best,
    Robert Ternes

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2010 by in Basketball.
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