The Tournament Still Works

Submitted by Brian on April 5th, 2011 at 1:12 PM

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I'm not even going to check before I make this assertion: Get The Picture* has seized on last night's national championship game-type substance as an opportunity to tweak college football playoff advocates. Come on, baby

How quickly they forget.

Chris Rainey, who’s never lacked for a good quote, has a couple of things to say about the Gators’ new offensive coordinator.

Rainey on Charlie Weis’ excitement working with Florida’s pool of talent: “The first thing he said when he got here was that this is the most athletes he’s ever been around, so we felt good about that.”

Rainey on what to expect from the offense: “Fans are going to be happy again."


Well, if he's not going to do it I will: yeah, last night's game was a fiasco that resulted in a deeply unsatisfying champion. March Madness was too mad this year, leaving us with a 9-9 Big East team and a 13-5 Horizon team playing like DePaul and anyone else in the Horizon not named Cleveland State. I think we can say without qualification that the best team did not win this year. Whoever they were they didn't make the Final Four. At some point haters hating on a college football playoff will bring up whatever that was and say "QED."

That's a cost of a playoff, granted. But the NCAA tournament usually doesn't let it get that far. Over the past decade championship game participants have been almost universally great teams:

  • 2009: Butler versus Duke. Butler was a Cinderella of sorts. They were also undefeated in the Horizon and had wins over Georgetown Xavier and OSU; they were really good. They were 12th on Kenpom; this year's edition finished 41st. If having this year's Butler team make the final is a ding against playoffs, last year's Butler team making it shows a way in which basketball's system is vastly superior.
  • 2008: UNC-Michigan State. UNC was a juggernaut that finished 34-4. Michigan State was 31-7 (with two of those losses to UNC) and won the Big Ten easily.
  • 2007: Kansas-Memphis. Both one seeds from the chalk Final Four.
  • 2006: Florida-OSU. OSU was 35-2 against teams not named Florida (like State they lost in the regular season to the eventual champion). Florida was 35-5. This was a very  Kenpom final, as the teams were 2nd and 4th.
  • 2005: Florida-UCLA. Florida was a three seed but finished the year #1 in Kenpom after their crushing tourney run. They ended up 33-6. UCLA was a two seed; they finished third.
  • 2004: UNC-Illinois. Two dominant outfits, one seeds who finished 1-2 in Kenpom.
  • 2003: Syracuse-Kansas. Kansas was a two seed that finished the year first in Kenpom. Champ Syracuse was a three that finished 7th. Their seeding was a little weird: they only lost five games before the tourney and had a couple of good nonconference wins to go with a very tough Big East schedule. It seems like they got dropped unfairly because they lost in their conference tourney.
  • 2002: Maryland-Indiana. Kenpom ceases. Maryland was 32-4 and 15-1 in the ACC; Indiana was probably the most meh championship game participant in the last decade other than this year's duo, a 25-12 team that played a 12, a 13, Duke, and a 10 to reach the Final Four.
  • 2001: Duke-Arizona. One-seed Duke ended up 35-4; Arizona was a two that beat one seeds consecutively to reach the final.

In the last decade three teams who shouldn't have been there reached the championship game, and one lost by 12 to a very deserving champion. The system has worked—found a more satisfying conclusion to the season than just having a poll—90% of the time over the past ten years. The BCS's strike rate… not so much.

Teams like Butler (last year), 2005 Florida, and 2003 Kansas who finished the year at or near the top of performance-based* computer rankings were given the opportunity to prove they were worthy of a title game appearance and did so; in football they'd have been shuffled off to some dork's personal fiefdom of waste and corruption. Fundamentally, the NCAA tournament works. It's not a system that makes sense for college football but it's the farthest thing from a failed playoff system in American sports.


*[I like Get the Picture a lot, FWIW, I just disagree with him wholly on playoffs. I poke because I respect. Disclaimers uber alles.]

**[As opposed to result-based. Margin of victory-ignorant systems like RPI and the BCS computers only consider results, not scores.]



April 5th, 2011 at 1:24 PM ^

Who is saying the NCAA tournament doesn't work?  I don't think I've ever heard anyone make that claim.  I've heard people say that the NCAA tournament doesn't actually prove who the best team is (which is true), but that's a far different claim from "the NCAA tournament is broken."  


April 5th, 2011 at 1:34 PM ^

But how do you "prove" who the best team is?  This tourney is about as good as it gets.  You could argue a best of five or best of seven like the NBA or MLB would be better.  That may be slightly, but the nubmer 1 seeds don't always win those either, especially in the MLB.  No one complains about the NFL and the Super Bowl.  All tourneys simply crown the team that is playing the best at the time, not necessarily the team that was best throughout the year.


April 5th, 2011 at 1:37 PM ^

by acknowledging that "proving" who the best team is is impossible in college athletics, not caring about it, and favoring the system that I find to be the most entertaining for any given sport.  

For college basketball, I think that's the NCAA tournament.  For college football, I think it's a playoff-like regular season.

I'd also dispute that the tourney crowns the team that was playing best at the time.  Mostly it crowns the team that got the best end of variance.  


April 5th, 2011 at 1:51 PM ^

I think you're making the strawman. Brian isn't arguing against people saying the tournament doesn't work. He's arguing against people using last night's game as evidence that the BCS works better. And if you were on Twitter last night, you would have seen lots of those people:


Admit it: the BCS is better than this debacle.


Note to BCS-Bashers: This is what you get when you have a long post-season to determine a champion. I ain't even whinin'. I'm just tellin' u


Two mediocre regular-season teams show their true colors.... The BCS isn't as terrible as you've been led to believe. #collegefootballisking


RT @bugsypoopypants: @desmond_howard after watching this Championship debacle, I hope the NCAA moves to the Bowl system in college b-ball

This post points out that, while you occassionally get championship game teams with no reasonable claim to being the best team over the whole season, you frequently get teams that *do* have reasonable claims to the best season that would have been completely left out of the BCS championship.


April 5th, 2011 at 1:56 PM ^

but here's the thing: every team that has won the BCS championship has had a very strong claim to being the best team that year.  The complaint is that there are other, deserving teams that didn't have a chance to play for the championship.  But, as this year's tournament shows, a tournament doesn't actually prove who the best team is, and sometimes it can get you a team that clearly isn't the best team.  

That's not saying that the NCAA tournament is a bad idea; it's obviously great and shouldn't be changed in any way.  All it means is that tournaments don't prove who the best team is, and that there's probably not a way to do that, so maybe we shouldn't care about it so much.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:10 PM ^

All it means is that tournaments don't prove who the best team is, and that there's probably not a way to do that, so maybe we shouldn't care about it so much.

While I think systems that prove who the best team is are unfeasible for college basketball and football, I still think it's fair to say that a tournament, while not perfect, is still better than the BCS.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:32 PM ^

that since it's impossible to accurately pick who the best team is, I don't care at all who the best team is, and I don't care if the process determining it is "fair" in the eyes of people, because there isn't actually any practical, fair way to do it. 

Because of that, all I care about is entertainment, and I personally would find a playoff less entertaining in college football.  


April 5th, 2011 at 1:57 PM ^

If you want to spell it out, a successful playoff has a champion that could reasonably be expected to finish first if they played everyone in the tournament round-robin--is "the best team"--and shed considerably more light on who that was than regular season results.

With hugely fragmented schedules that see top teams play rarely, that second bit is a common theme in college sports.


April 5th, 2011 at 1:46 PM ^

"last year's Butler team making it shows a way in which basketball's system is vastly superior"

The 12th ranked team gets to be in the championship and thats supposed to show superiority?

It's better than the 41st ranked team, sure, but it's still far off the ideal of 1 vs 2 true championship.

This argument sounds a lot better when you have four 1-seeds and four 2-seeds and anytime a top 8 or 12 team makes the final you call it success.  If the BCS was granted such meager objectives, it'd be a love fest.

Its not that I'm disagreeing with the conclusion that the tournament works, I'm just disagreeing with the logic -- which is basically just "Usually two good teams play in the final, so it works." - isn't the same true of the BCS?


April 5th, 2011 at 2:22 PM ^

The point is not to have the 12th ranked team win.  The point is that with so many teams with wildly varying schedules Butler deserves the chance to show them they are better.

In the NFL there are only 32 teams and you play similar teams as your division foes and you play them twice. The teams are much closer in competition as well(yes except for the Lions).  In college there are over 300 teams in basketball and 100 footbal.  They don't play each other and the variance in talent between the #1 team and the #100 team is an Oceans difference between the #1 team in the NFL and the #32 team.


April 5th, 2011 at 1:48 PM ^

The NCAA tournament is exciting mostly because everyone gambles on it. If I gambled with all my friends on how big my dog's next poop will be that would become exciting for me.


April 5th, 2011 at 1:56 PM ^

If a list of worthy championship game participants is the criterion to determine whether the tournament is a working system, then the BCS surely passes with flying colors.  If in the last decade the tournament has produced three teams that shouldn't have been there, the BCS has produced zero teams that shouldn't have been there, yes?  I don't think this is the point that should be made about whether the tournament "works."  The tournament works because people dig brackets, not because it does or doesn't deliver a legitimate, believable champion.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:01 PM ^

The BCS would never have permitted 2005 Florida to play for the title, and almost every year it makes an arbitrary decision between teams who are virtually indistinguishable. Basketball probably goes too far the other direction but by the championship game the chaff has been cut 85% of the time. The BCS leaves out wheat 85% of the time.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:12 PM ^

is infinitely more entertaining than college basketball's.  I like each sport about equally, but Duke playing UNC in the regular season isn't really a huge deal to me.  Florida playing LSU is.  On balance, I get more enjoyment out of college football than I would if college football went to a 4 or 8 team playoff and Florida LSU mattered a tiny bit less.  


April 5th, 2011 at 2:17 PM ^

I love the basketball tournament but I don't want one for football.  I know that's inconsistent but I don't care.  The really great thing about college football is that a game in the second week of the year can have do-or-die national championship implications.   I would hate to see that lost.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:46 PM ^

Only if you're preseason ranked highly enough to even make the title game.  There are teams that never have a chance.  If Florida and Kansas (for example) start out 1 and 2, and go undefeated, anyone below them who manages the same feat never has a chance at the title game.  I know, supposedly win quality matters, but if that third team was Boise or Stanford or something, I don't think they'd ever have a shot.  Even if they did flip-flop some teams, it's still an arbitrary decision.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:21 PM ^

A 4 or 8 team playoff, if constructed correctly, will seriously endanger the chances that the loser of Florida-LSU makes the tournament.  The game will still mean just as much to both teams.

And honestly, I watch a ton of college football games every single year that have no affect on national championship selection, and I'm sure you do too.  Upsets will still happen, the rivalries will be just as heated, and the arguments over the bowl/playoff format will probably continue.  The fun part is, you may get games like Michigan-USC at Michigan Stadium in December.  How can that not excite you?


April 5th, 2011 at 2:34 PM ^

Don't fall prey to the assumption that a playoff would stay at a set number of teams, or be constructed correctly at all.  We're talking about the same organization that threatened to destroy the basketball tournament by going to 96 teams, and just added four to what used to be a 16-team I-AA tourney.  I wouldn't hate a "properly constructed" playoff either, but I don't trust them to keep it that way and I can't believe anyone would.


April 5th, 2011 at 3:05 PM ^

So, because they might screw things up, we should assume that they will?  I agree that the NCAA has done some pretty screwy things in the name of money/scholarship/virtue/whatever.  There are a lot of playoff systems that would be utter garbage.  That doesn't mean that a good playoff system doesn't exist.  To me, things that must be emphasized:

  1. Conference Champions - One should have to truly earn their way into the playoff.  Winning a competitive conference seems like a logical way to measure merit.  Conference champs should also be awarded with a home game in the playoffs.
  2. Home fields - This is probably the least likely to happen, but the best teams should be awarded with home fields in the playoff.  Award the team for winning, and award the fans for being passionate.  This is another way to ensure that the early round/s is sold out, since fans will not need to travel great distances.  The championship can be played on a neutral field.
  3. Diversity of the field - There should be teams from a variety of conferences to ensure that teams do not play twice in a season.  Regular season match-ups need to matter a great deal; I understand that people believe the regular season could be marginalized by playoff rematches.
  4. Exclusivity of the field - It should be really difficult to make the playoff.  Ideally, teams with more than 2 losses are banned.  This is unlikely to happen every year, unless a 4-6 team playoff is instituted.  A small field keeps champions of bad conferences (Big East 2010) out of the playoff.

Is all of the above feasible? Maybe not.  But I think most of it can be accomplished on a consistent basis.  If you give teams incentives to be rated #1 and #2 in the final poll, the playoff will not overshadow the regular season.  Dr. Saturday's playoff plan is pretty slick as it accomplishes most of the above criteria.


April 5th, 2011 at 3:34 PM ^

So, because they might screw things up, we should assume that they will?

No. Because they have screwed things up in the past, we should assume that they'll continue to do so.  The likelihood is damn high. I can't see why anyone would have confidence that the NCAA is smart enough to leave well enough alone. The duality of playoff proponents is interesting here: they're simultaneously arguing that the NCAA is full of dum-dum retards that won't consider a playoff despite the shovelfuls of gold to be made, and that the NCAA is also brainy enough to keep a playoff "perfect" in the eyes of the fans and not explode the size of it in a money grab.

By the way, I would argue that home fields are the most, not least, likely aspect of your points to happen.  Exclusivity of the field?  Now there's an unlikely scenario.  Conferences that are "haves" (such as the Big East) will consider any system a no-go that doesn't keep it that way, and conferences that are "have-nots" will try to open up as much of the system as possible.  This will absolutely ensure the least exclusivity possible.  This is why a plus-one is even a plausible scenario: because exclusivity and the self-interests of all the conferences are mutually exclusive ideas.


April 5th, 2011 at 3:46 PM ^

There is a lot of truth in what you say, but it won't stop me from advocating for the system that I like.  I realize that competition usually takes a back seat to politics in major athletics.  I just feel that "they'll screw it up more" is not a philosophy I can get behind.  Maybe I'm being naive.  Either way, I do think a better system exists, and perhaps some day the NCAA will get leadership bold enough to give it a try.  Until then...arguing for everyone! 


April 5th, 2011 at 2:28 PM ^

The BCS would never have permitted 2005 Florida to play for the title

2005-2006, I'm sure you're referring to, and granted that's probably true of quite a few championship participants. But would a UConn-Duke final that year, if determined by a BCS-type system, have drawn many arguments from people? Florida's "crushing tournament run" involved a 14-seed, two 11-seeds, a 7-seed, a 2-seed, and a 1-seed. In other words, the majority of their opponents had upset someone - in some cases multiple someones - to get there. Rarely did Florida have to play the expected seed.

There's a reason more and more conference tournaments are switching to a "bye" format like the Big East and Horizon, and some even re-seed.


April 5th, 2011 at 2:34 PM ^

If you're not the best team in your conference, how can you be playing in the BCS title game?

Nebraska '01:  didn't even win the north division in the Big 12. 

Oklahoma:  forget what year, but they got mauled by KSU in the Big 12 title game and still played in the BCS title game.

st barth

April 5th, 2011 at 1:57 PM ^

In fact, I think college basketball should also adopt a series of bowl games.  Why not have a celebratory day in which a bunch of the best teams (conference champions) are matched against each other just to see what happens?  That sounds awesome.  And more intriguing than any playoff.