March Madness vs. the BCS: neither is perfect, but all controversies are not created equal

Well, the 68 participants in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament have been announced, and boy are people pissed. The selection committee is defending its choices, the most controversial of which seem to be the inclusion of Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia Commonwealth at the expense of teams like Colorado, Alabama, Virginia Tech. Given the way the Hokies lollygagged down the stretch I’m not sure I have much sympathy for their plight, but Buff and Tide fans can certainly make a case that they’ve been hosed.

One friend, a Bama fan, was especially annoyed this evening, going so far as to suggest that perhaps the March Madness process isn’t any better than the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series is for football. Now, this is a sharp guy we’re talking about (and if he’s reading, I hope he’ll offer his thoughts in the comment thread), but I think his BCS/March Madness argument is flawed on two important points.

First, there is a difference between a bad system and a poor execution of a good system. The Bungling, Corrupt and Stupid Series is a joke. There are lots and lots of specific problems with it, but let’s focus on the one that matters the most: it is the only high-level athletic system in the world where you can go undefeated and still be denied any opportunity to compete for the championship. (At least, it’s the only one I know of – there’s no telling what kind of rules they use in the Azerbaijani Goat-Dressing Premiership, but you get my point.) And we’ll have no dodges about the BCS only excluding teams from one-horse hillbilly conferences, either. In 2004-5 Auburn went undefeated in the freaking SEC, the best football conference in the nation every damned year, and were left on the outside looking in. Not only can it happen, not only did it happen, but there is absolutely no theoretical reason why it can’t happen every single year.

The NCAA hoops tourney, on the other hand, gives everybody a shot. At the beginning of the season, literally no team in Division I is denied a chance to win it all. And since most teams play conferences with tournaments where the winner gets an automatic bid, a vast majority of these teams are still technically alive – even if they’re 0-30 in the weakest league in the country.

In basketball, if you win every game, you are the champion. Period. No exceptions. No arguments. No controversies.

If you want to argue that the system is bad because it leaves the door open for the dregs, fine. Go ahead and make that argument. And to be fair, a number of credible commentators have criticized the NCAA for the composition of the committee, arguing that it should be represented by more “basketball people.” Perhaps there is some merit to this suggestion. But even if both points are completely true, let’s be clear about something: the process we have assures that when you’re eliminated, you’re eliminated on the floor instead of on paper. This is not insignificant.

If my friend (and thousands of others from schools that got left out this year) have an argument, it isn’t with the system, per se. It’s with the specific decisions of the committee populating the brackets. I might be sympathetic with those appeals, too, since I hold a degree from the University of Colorado (a team that I and a lot of other people, including most of the professional analysts I’ve seen this evening, think belongs in the Dance). But these issues are not systematic – there is nothing inherent in the system that guarantees corrupt and unfair outcomes on a routine basis.

The second problem with my friend’s argument is that, frankly, March Madness controversies don’t revolve around legitimate contenders. The aggrieved in this year’s process are teams that were vying for #12 seeds – that is, the #48 slot. The lowest seed to ever win the tournament was Villanova in 1985 at eight (NC State in 1983 was seeded sixth). So while it may seem unfair that a particular team gets shipped to the NIT instead of taking their rightful place way the hell down in the bracket, we are assuredly not talking about teams that represent any plausible threat to go all the way. Alabama lost 11 games this year and Colorado dropped 13. That’s a far cry from undefeated. Get back to me when a #12 wins the tournament.

With the BCS, of course, the arguments aren’t taking place at #48, they’re taking place at #1 and #2. They’re revolving around teams that might stand a very good chance of winning the title.

So in the end, I’m extremely sympathetic to people whose teams may have gotten screwed by the selection committee. Especially since I’m one of them. But let’s not clutter up the argument by comparing it to the BCS. Both may be flawed animals, in their own way, but they have about as much in common as buffaloes and banana slugs…

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    I agree. Regardless of the controversies every year, nobody can argue that a team that had a legit shot at the national championship was left out.

    Also:

    And we’ll have no dodges about the BCS only excluding teams from one-horse hillbilly conferences, either.

    Frankly, I still think the systematic discrimination against small conferences is a blight on the BCS and college football. College football can’t have the equivalent of a Butler coming within two points of beating a powerhouse like Duke. That’s why college basketball will always be the better of the two major college sports until the BCS is abolished.

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