March Madness is Just Madness
I’ve become the sports guy here at TAC, so I figured I should say something about the impending college basketball tournament for the national championship, affectionately known as March Madness. While I enjoy the annual ritual of filling out a bracket and watching as my predictive skills are demonstrably obliterated, I’ve never fully bought in to the Madness. To me, March Madness is the dumbest way to determine the national champion in college sports.
And yes, I think it’s dumber than the BCS. By far. Basketball is not a single-elimination sport. If the teams are evenly matched, or even kinda close, the game comes down to the execution of a single minute. While that’s very exciting, it’s not a great indicator of overall strength. It’s like shootouts in hockey or soccer. They’re exciting and fun to watch, but it’s not the sport. You can be good at hockey without being good at shootouts. The skills are different. Similarly, the skills needed to win over season of basketball can’t be summarized in a single elimination tournament.
This is why we see all these upsets and Cinderellas. George Mason was never the 4th best team in the country, but they made it to the Final Four b/c on a neutral court, if you play decently you have a chance to win it at the end. It’s ridiculous for teams in the Big East to slog through a rough conference schedule only to be plopped on neutral court with a team from Colonial conference in a single elimination. You’ll note that the NBA has best out of 7 series for a reason; namely that any team can beat another team on one night, but it’s harder to beat them 4 out of 7 times unless you are the truly superior team. So if we’re looking to discover the best team in college basketball, the Madness is not the way to do it.
What makes this more frustrating is that there is a more sensible way to conduct the tournament. College baseball uses a regional system. All the conference winners still get to go in a 64 team field. However, the 64 teams are divided into 16 regionals, with the #1 seed in each regional hosting their regional. This rewards teams for success in the regular season (unlike the Madness, where Ohio St. has the toughest regional with no reward). In the regional, there are 4 teams each and they play double elimination. The winner of the regional then faces another regional winner (hosted by one of the two) in a separate double elimination (ie. regional winner 1 must beat regional winner 2 twice, even if regional winner 2 lost once in the regional). They then move on to the College World Series in Omaha, where there are two more regional like rounds, and then the final is another double elimination.
Not only does this best represent baseball by forcing teams to have the depth to withstand double elimination tournaments, it rewards good teams. Moreover, it allows smaller teams to have more games (instead of just getting offered up as a sacrifice to Duke). There’s no reason basketball can’t do this; in fact, it would expand the games available to sell to TV networks.
So enjoy the madness, but just remember that the madness isn’t necessary. There’s a way already out there that’s a lot more sensible that crowns the best team in the sport, not just a buzzer beater.