NCAA Tournament: Play-Ins, Ratings, and Majors

The 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship officially started Tuesday, with the first of the "First Four" games, formerly known as the "play-in" game. It gets going in earnest today, though, which means that once this posts, I'll be shutting the Internet down and working like crazy for a few hours, so I can justify moving everything into the living room and working at a slower pace through a long, glorious afternoon of hoops overload. I may or may not post periodic updates on Twitter (mirrored to Facebook), so if you want live-ish sort-of-blogging follow me there.

As always, the run-up to the tournament itself generates a lot of copy, so here are a few thoughts and comments on that:

-- The play-in round, expanded from one game to four, is an ungodly kludge brought to you by the finite number of monkeys who designed the BCS "championship" system. In response to the justified complaint that the previous one-game play-in was punishing one of the last two schools to win automatic bids, by having their sole NCAA tournament experience be a loss to another small-time school at a poorly-attended play-in game two days before the rest of the games started, the NCAA has... expanded the pain to punish two of the last automatic qualifiers, plus two at-large teams.

What they've done is to expand the play-in round to four games, allowing them to add three more teams to the field (meaning more cash for everyone). They also decided to take the suggestion made by numerous commentators that the play-in should affect the last at-large teams, but only adopt it halfway. Two of the four play-in games feature at-large teams-- mediocre teams from big conferences-- while the other two are the last four automatic qualifiers.

Astoundingly, they have thus managed to make things worse all the way around. Now the brackets are unbalanced (two of the regions have the play-in game feed into the #16 slot, while two of them feed into the #11 or #12 slot), and they've doubled the number of small-conference schools punished by the play-in format. This is the stupidest tournament format since the ACC's one-year experiment with having the #1 seed play the #9 seed, with the winner getting a bye into the semifinals.

the right way to do this is to make all four of the play-in games feature at-large teams. I'd go so far as to use an anti-BCS formula, myself: you need eight teams, so take the lowest-seeded team from each of the six "power conferences" (basically the BCS leagues), plus two more low at-large teams (preferably power-conference teams, but they could be the second team in from some weaker leagues), and have those eight play for the right to be #12 seeds in the main bracket. All the teams with automatic bids should start play in the round of 64.

Yeah, the weak teams who won their conference tournaments stand basically no chance of beating a #1. But you know what? By winning their tournament, they've won the right to lose on the big stage, not in a half-empty arena in Dayton. Give them the chance to play one of the storied programs with a #1 seed-- Duke, Kansas, whoever-- and have their shot at hoops immortality. Because while they're not likely to win, there's always a chance that they might, and if they ever do, they'll be telling their kids and grandkids about it for decades to come.

-- Regarding the actual construction of the brackets, there's a good article by Ken Pomeroy at Slate about the foolishness of the RPI ranking, which the selection committee relies heavily on when picking teams, probably too heavily. Pomeroy is one of the kings of stats-based (over)analysis of basketball, but while I don't agree with everything he says-- I'm not a big fan of margin-of-victory, because I think it encourages the systematic dickishness that plagues college football-- he's right about the RPI. There are ways to game the system, and coaches have begun to figure those out, leading to distortions of the selection system.

I suspect the RPI is also just subject enough to chance to lead to some spectacular failed attempts to game the system, as well. That is, I suspect that some of the "bubble" teams who got left out on the basis of their poor out-of-conference schedule thought they were cleverly picking opponents who would get them a good rating without having to play hard games, but got torpedoed when some of those teams turned out worse than expected. I'd try to poke at the numbers to see if they back this up, but I've got this book to finish first.

-- One of the little joys of watching big-time college sports is watching for some of the silly majors that pop up when they do little player profiles. Not only do big-time athletes tend to be steered to "easy-A" classes, but they tend to major in things that, from the outside at least, don't look like the most rigorous of academic majors.

If you enjoy soft-major-spotting, Slate's got you covered, with a systematic look at the majors of players in this year's tournament. Some of these, silly as they may sound, actually do make sense-- a player who intends to be a professional athlete of some sort could do a lot worse than majoring in something business-related (to help them manage their money) or communications-related (which will give them some useful tips should they become color commentators down the line). These are also highly variable from school to school-- I suspect that majoring in one of the humanities categories at Princeton (where it's "popular" according to Slate's analysis) is considerably more work than the same thing at Directional State. It's still interesting to see, in the way that systematic studies of almost anything are interesting to see.

I did like this tidbit from the end of the article, though:

Cheer for the [Long Island University] Blackbirds this year, or for No. 2 San Diego State, which has players majoring in history, biology, psychology, and television/film/new media, and whose senior point guard, D.J. Gay, is one of two men at the school who majors in women's studies. "I think I hesitated for about a day and then I was like, 'Screw it,' " Gay said recently. "In all the other classes, you learn numbers and [facts] and stuff like that. I felt women's studies was a class where I learned morals and life lessons."

It's hard to decide where to go with that, so I'll just throw it out there.

The talk of basketball player majors did get me to google the one basketball player I ever saw in an academic building during my time at Maryland, Obinna Ekezie. I'm not 100% certain it was him, but he did double-major in engineering as well as business, and we didn't see a lot of other 6'10" black men in team-issued tracksuits in the Physics building. His senior season was cut short by a knee injury, but he did manage to play in the NBA for a while, and now runs an online travel business based in his home country of Nigeria, so good for him.

(He always did have a good perspective on the whole thing-- I remember a profile article in the Washington Post where they remarked on his unusually difficult major, and quoted him saying "Look, if I get to play in the NBA, that's great. If I don't, I'll have gotten an education for free. Either way, it's a great opportunity.")

And that's what I've got as a Big Dance lead-in. Time to unplug the network cable, and get some writing done so I can watch games with a clear conscience later on.


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That quote from Obinna Ekezie in the Washington post reminded me of an episode of the Fresh Prince of Belair, where Will Smith's basketball nemesis wanted to use basketball as a way to get an education. Very random, but nice to be reminded that sometimes tv shows put things in perspective and give nice lessons.

I like your idea. We need more games like VCU-SoCal, where you could see that the players know they got pwned, in that opening round.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink