James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, March 23, 2009

In praise of the NCAA

This year I developed a new appreciation for the NCAA Tournament. It came when Doug Gottleib of ESPN Radio broke down the 5th-seed Florida State-12th seed Wisconsin first round matchup last week. He said it was a horrible matchup for Florida State; the hottest team in the ACC travels to Boise where they have to play plodding Wisconsin, with a relentless defense and an offense that you have to guard for at least 25 seconds on every possession.

Wisconsin was only 18-12 in the season. Many big schools of a similar record wound up in the NIT. Many small schools with much better records weren't invited anywhere. So, why Wisconsin? And why Arizona?

It's not that they deserve to play for the national championship. Far from it. But neither did Florida State, and neither did Utah (Arizona's first-round opponent).

My theory is that, deep down, the NCAA believes that only 16 teams are really worthy of a shot at the national championship. They are seeded 1-4 in each region, and are given the easiest first-round matchups. If any of them lose that game, it's a genuine upset.

The middle of the field, the 5-12 seedings, is the NCAA's margin of error. If any of them deserve to play make it to the Sweet 16, they will have to prove it and no one will be rewarded with an easy first-round matchup. None of the outcomes of these games should be considered upsets.

And if they go on to win the second-round game (almost always against a higher-seeded team) and make it to the Sweet 16, that proves that nobody else deserves to be there.

This is why the NCAA prefers schools from major conferences rather than mid-major schools with better records. The question is, who has the better track record of defeating, or being competitive against, the best teams? The purpose is to make it tough to advance in the tournament, not to reward teams with glowing records.

And that's also why it's hard to figure out how to improve the tournament's format.

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