Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fulminations of the Season

It’s the time of year when, over a three-week period, the sports world concentrates its attention on college basketball. Even the most casual observer enters the office pool, often picking winners based on such thoroughly rational evidence as how cool the star player’s name is, or what the school colors are. We actually filled out a bracket for our cats this year: they picked the Kansas Jayhawks to win (because they know who buys the food and they like to eat), but otherwise picked all schools with cat mascots (Panthers, Tigers, Cougars…) to win, schools with dog mascots (Bulldogs, Lobos…) to lose, and, in the case of both/neither, played the chalk. If, as could happen, the Vermont Catamounts go on a tear, our girls are winning that big-screen TV. They probably stand as good a chance as anyone.

So this isn’t about who’s going to win. It’s a one-and-out tournament, fueled by emotion and momentum that no other tournament can match. Really, who can stay awake through the NBA tournament or the Stanley Cup playoffs, with their multiple levels of best-four-of-seven series? If your team is playing, sure, but it takes a hardier soul than I to sit through game two of a potentially seven-game quarterfinal series between Chicago and Detroit if you’re a New York fan. Wake me up when this game matters. And, at March Madness time, upsets are always the order of the day. The University of Northern South Dakota at Hoople probably knows they’ve got about as much chance of winning the tournament as Sarah Palin does of becoming president of the Sierra Club. But if they play the game of their lives, just once, and beat Perennial Power University, well, that’s a memory that isn’t ever going to fade. Anyone who has paid even passing attention to recent tournaments knows that some shooting guard from Spider Breath State can drain six or seven threes in a row, and all of a sudden that prohibitive favorite team they’re playing had better change their nickname to the Piñatas or be accused of false advertising. So no, I offer no predictions here, beyond the presumably obvious fact that I’m picking my doctoral alma mater to win it all.

No, this is about the selection process, and the manifold problems thereunto appertaining. There’s the silly and insulting play-in game, added because the power conferences couldn’t possibly survive without one more mediocre team in the field. True, no 16-seed has ever won a game in the NCAA tournament, but to win your conference tournament and then not even get to play that #1 seed is really pretty crappy. And now there’s a rumor that the field is going to be expanded to 96 teams … or even to everybody. (Anybody wanna guess why this guy works for NPR instead of The Sporting News?) The NCAA can be counted on for few things, but doing stupid things in the pursuit of fuzzily-defined or utterly venal goals is a real long suit for them. Note to the nanny-staters: if your special little snowflakes want to make the NCAA tournament, have them win their conference tournament. Win and you advance, lose and go home: same as in the tournament itself. As of this writing, an unscientific MSNBC poll is running against expansion by 87-13%. Of course, the NCAA couldn’t care less about the integrity of the tournament, fans’ wishes, or anything that doesn’t get them short-term profits.

There is indeed part of me that just wants the teams that didn’t make the field to try playing better instead of complaining. True, Mississippi State was unlucky to lose the SEC tournament after Kentucky sent the game to overtime with .1 of a second left, then won on an off-balance 3-pointer that was by any reasonable assessment more luck than skill. That said, when you know their guy is going to try to intentionally miss his free throw, how about if you box out… and if not then, then on the ensuing brick of a jump shot? No? OK, enjoy the NIT.

Still, the selection process is at least as much a function of politics as of analysis: there was even a rationalization on national television the other night for Duke's extraordinarily favorable bracket because this is, after all, entertainment, and the NCAA “needs Duke to do well.” Really. He said that. Like the rest of us should shut up about it instead of becoming angrier still because of this. (Sorry, can’t tell you which particular idiot talking head on which network…)

Anyway, I thought I’d try a little experiment. I worked out a formula to include every game played all season long—where and when it was played, who won, and by how much. This generates two numbers: who’s played the best over the course of the season, and who’s playing the best right now. It might not be the most accurate system imaginable, but it has the advantage of objectivity: the closest it comes to being subjective is in judgment calls about, for example, how much of a home-court advantage Kansas has when they play in the Sprint Center in Kansas City. (For the record, I’m calling that a 3-point advantage, vs. 5 for games in Allen Fieldhouse on the KU campus.) Then there are the RPI and Pomeroy ratings, and finally the AP and ESPN polls. (For the polls, all teams who received no votes at all were ranked as 50th.) Take those six numbers, add ‘em up, and see what you’ve got.

My Sweet Sixteen then, in order (their actual seeds are in parentheses): Kansas (1.1), Duke (1.3), Kentucky (1.2), West Virginia (2), Syracuse (1.4), Ohio State (2), Kansas State (2), Georgetown (3), Baylor (3), Brigham Young (7), Purdue (4), Villanova (2), Temple (5), Maryland (4), Butler (5), Wisconsin (4). So, in general terms, we agree. Of my Top 16, the committee put all but one in a 5-seed or better; of their Top 16, I had all but one as a 5-seed or better. At the bottom of the bracket, I’d have included Virginia Tech and Mississippi State instead of Wake Forest and Florida—and, indeed, I had five other schools ranked ahead of the Demon Deacons: Dayton, Seton Hall, Illinois, Memphis, and VCU. (Of course, it’s a complete coincidence that Wake’s Athletic Director is on the selection committee. Yes, it is.) Notably, I don’t think all the whining on Syracuse’s behalf has a lot of legitimacy: I had not only Duke but also West Virginia ahead of them. And the kvetching that they’ll have to play their second-weekend games in Salt Lake City instead of Houston: really? That matters when you’re Utah or the UofH, not when you’re coming from Syracuse or Durham. Also, of course, their first weekend is in Buffalo, which is closer to Syracuse than Oklahoma City is to Lawrence, or New Orleans is to Lexington.

In addition to the two teams I don’t think should have been in the tournament at all (who got 9 and 10 seeds), there were nine teams seeded at least two seeds higher than I think they deserve. In order of their ranking: New Mexico, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, UNLV, Gonzaga, Louisville, Missouri. And there were nine teams seeded at least two seeds lower than they deserve: Brigham Young, California, Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech, Washington, San Diego State, Cornell, UTEP, Utah State. From this list, let’s throw out Louisville, Georgia Tech, and New Mexico, all of whom have had seasons that have been all over the place: impressive wins and incomprehensible losses. Ranking them is tough. Beyond that, it’s pretty predictable.

Look at the teams the committee loved: six teams from the middle of power conferences, three perennial mid-major powers. The most egregious cases are Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. Vandy somehow got a 4-seed despite not being in the top sixteen teams in any of the six different ranking systems: their best performance is in the AP poll, in which they were 21st. That’s a 6-seed. Their RPI gives them a 7-seed, their Pomeroy a 9-seed. And based on who’s hot right now, they’d be out of the tournament altogether. They deserve a 9. But the committee loves the SEC. Oh, yes, they love the SEC.

Then there’s Notre Dame. They are hot right now. But their RPI is 49 and their Pomeroy is 38. What I find interesting is that not a single one of the 31 voters in the ESPN coaches poll (and those are people who know the game pretty well, right?) listed them in their Top 25 (38 teams got at least some mention), but the committee in their wisdom gave the Irish a 6-seed, making them one of the top 24 teams in the country. Someone explain that to me, please, without using the phrase, “well, they’re Notre Dame.”

Of those under-rated by the committee, gee, you notice a trend? Two very good teams who won their under-respected conferences but aren’t traditional powers, and a bevy of teams from the Mountain and Pacific time zones. There are several particularly outrageous rankings here. Let’s start with Brigham Young. Whereas Vanderbilt got a 4-seed without any ranking of 16 or better, BYU was relegated to a 7-seed (making them somewhere between 25th and 28th overall) without any ranking below their RPI of 23. Their Pomeroy is 7 (a 2-seed!), and they’re tied for 16th in one poll and 17th in the other. But they’re not from a power conference, and they’re, you know, Mormon.

California and Washington are particularly interesting cases. Normally, the Pac-10 gets more respect than they deserve. Not so this year. Cal is in the top 20 in both the RPI and the Pomeroy rankings; I had them 19th overall and 13th at the end of the season. Despite the fact that none of the voters in either poll gave them a single vote (the voters probably have to go to bed early, poor babies), Cal still works out to a 6-seed instead of the 8 they got. Yet, the idiots at CBS (apologies for the redundancy) couldn’t figure out how the Bears made the field at all. Similarly, Washington was #9 on my list of hot teams at the end of the year, and #18 for the year as a whole. Their RPI was 41; their Pomeroy 29; they won their conference tournament. I think they deserved a 7 seed; they got an 11.

And then there’s Northern Iowa. They won both the regular season and the conference tournament in the Missouri Valley, which has consistently been the most under-rated conference in the country for years—or has the committee forgotten the recent exploits of Southern Illinois, Bradley, et al.? Their Pomeroy of 32 (an 8-seed) is their worst ranking; their RPI is 17, and I had them at 16. For this they get a 9-seed, and, if they win their first game, they meet Kansas in the second round. They’re a legitimate 5-seed, and they got jobbed. (So, of course, did KU, by potentially having to face a team a whole lot better than a 9-seed in the second round.)

There’s also UTEP, whose worst ranking is an RPI of 37 (9-seed), but they got a 12-seed. They were ranked 25th in one poll, 27th in the other. They earned an 8-seed. So did Utah State, who also got a 12. Their lowest ranking in any of the six systems was also a 37; their Pomeroy and RPI rankings were 20 and 30, respectively. The crimes of these two teams? They’re from mid-major conferences, they aren’t Gonzaga or UNLV, and they don’t even have the decency to be from the Eastern or Central time zones. What do they expect?

All told, the committee’s performance this year was pretty much incompetent and possibly corrupt. In other words, a little above average for them.

1 comment:

manjushri924 said...

A follow-up after the first weekend's action:

Of the 11 teams I identified as over-rated, all are out of the tournament, posting an overall 4-11record, although 7 of their games were against lower seeds.

The 9 teams I listed as under-rated include 3 who are still alive--Northern Iowa, Cornell, and Washington)--each of whom won 2 games against higher seeds. Georgia Tech also won one game against a higher seed. Both teams who played against lower seeds won. For the record, the other low seed still alive, St. Mary's, was also ranked lower than they deserved, just not as egregiously so as some of the others (they earned a 9 and got a 10). All told, the under-rated teams are 9-6, and are assured a .500 record even though they've only played 2 games against lower seeds.

I'd say I did a little better than the selection committee. I'd help 'em out next year, and wouldn't charge much...