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The NCAA Tournament: exciting, but not a good way to crown a national champion

March 25, 2013

bracketEveryone loves the bracket.  It’s good for gambling and gives us crazy & unpredictable matchups that we’d never see in the regular season.  And it makes great TV!

But c’mon.  You & I both know that there are at least 30 teams on that bracket that have no realistic chance to win the whole thing.  They are there purely to play spoiler & create excitement.

In a single-elimination tournament in sport like basketball, weird things can happen.  An elite team can spend 4 months amassing an impressive record, win its conference, and then lose to a far inferior team in the NCAA tournament that just happens to shoot 80% from 3-pt range.  Everyone whoops it up, gets excited by the “Cinderella,” and sure enough, 1 or 2 games later, the double-digit seed loses.

If we really wanted to crown a true “national champion” (rather than have the best “made for TV” event possible), we’d have a double-elimination tournament with, MAX, 32 teams. Remember, in 17 the past 28 tournaments, the winner was a #1 seed, and 9 of the 11 times when a #1 seed did not win, the winner was at least a 4 seed.  The 2 exceptions to that were #8 seed Villanova in 1985 and #6 seed Kansas in 1988.

In fact, say what you will about college football’s system of determining a champion, at least they don’t bother pretending that a team like, say, UNLV, has any business playing for a national championship.  Certainly, the BCS has the exact opposite problem as the NCAA Tournament — too few teams with a shot.  But in a couple years, we’ll have a 4-team playoff in college football which pretty much settles that.   A team that doesn’t finish the year in the top 4, truly, is almost like a college basketball team seeded below 4.  Sure, they could make noise, and yes, there will be rare years when they “belong,” but most of the time, it’s totally fine to send them to the Capital One Bowl.

In sum, enjoy the NCAA Tournament.  It’s a lot of fun & is certainly one of the best events in sports.  But don’t give me your pious bullshit about how it’s some pure method of determining a national champion.  You’ll take your “tournament champion” and like it.

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