The NCAA tournament is shockingly close to perfect because fairness is sacrificed so ruthlessly and deliberately at the altar of drama. Every March without fail we learn again that literally any team can lose in a single-elimination bracket that requires six or seven wins for a championship. Possibly this isn’t the fairest method for determining a national title. Well, sports aren’t fair. The tournament’s a national treasure.
Incrementally and miraculously, the NCAA tournament evolved over the years into an iconic event worthy of Naismith’s game. The defining features of the tournament are access and single elimination. Limiting access to the top 68 teams in any given rating system would effectively kill the magic. You would still have a compelling win-or-go-home bracket populated by the top teams, it just wouldn’t be March Madness.
If hoops had been around in Talleyrand’s day he would have said smoothing out the randomness by eliminating single elimination would be worse than a crime, it would be a mistake. The randomness that governs which teams lose one time is the point. Then, in the compensatory fashion of any trustworthy dialectic, the teams that emerge without losing even once turn out to be not quite so random after all.
Access and single elimination are the unchanging sinews of a championship event for a changing game. This tournament is irreplaceable, no less so because the evolution of the sport itself has completely changed the content of its championship event.
Tonight the 2023 NCAA tournament will open with a matchup ranked No. 10 for KenPom Thrill Score on an evening when there are just 10 Division I men’s basketball games being played nationally. March Madness is tipping off with what projects to be the worst game in the country.
Partly this is what transpires (or at least what we expect to transpire) whenever a No. 16 seed’s in action. Actually, the Thrill Scores for Thursday’s 16-vs-1 games are even lower than what we have on tap tonight. But we’re happy to tolerate 16-vs-1 matchups when we have three other simultaneous games from which to choose. Conversely tonight’s opener has the Madness floor to itself.
The number 68 is to blame for this. The number is not especially compatible with a single-elimination format. We can and likely should advance automatic qualifiers straight past Dayton to the round of 64, as is often proposed. Then again the AQ leagues currently recording what are strictly speaking NCAA tournament wins in Dayton aren’t necessarily enamored of that proposal.
Nevertheless, assume for the sake of discussion that Dayton is retrofitted to host nothing but at-larges. Then we would be opening the 2023 NCAA tournament with Mississippi State vs. Pitt, tonight’s No. 1 game in the nation for Thrill Score. This nominal “best” game, however, has earned that distinction by a numerical hair over a virtually identical score posted by Yale vs. Vanderbilt in the NIT.
We can do better. The start of the NCAA tournament can be just as good as Thursday has always been. All we need is a better number than 68. Happily, most even numbers are better than 68.
Finally, discussing the shape of the tournament field has brought to the surface foundational assumptions on how we should go about doing men’s Division I college basketball as a whole. Not merely the postseason, mind you, but the whole ball of wax, from November through the first Monday in April.
In particular, the belief that putting more teams into the bracket would by definition cheapen the regular season appears to have attained the status of conventional wisdom. In this line of thinking “there are real concerns about devaluing the regular season, and frankly, there aren’t many more deserving teams.”
Whenever the powers that be talk gravely about devaluing the regular season, that sound you hear is 78 percent of D-I bursting into laughter. For teams in 26 of our 32 leagues, the regular season tends to be an afterthought while the conference tournament is most often everything. Ask last year’s outright champions of Conference USA and the Missouri Valley about “devaluing the regular season.”
[NOTE: This was posted three hours before the NCAA Division I transformation committee published its recommendation to create larger championship fields.]
When expanding the NCAA tournament to 64 teams was first discussed seriously in 1981, NCAA men’s basketball committee chair Dave Gavitt made plain that he was opposed to the proposal. “I am personally very much against expansion,” he said that year. “I’m prepared to speak against it. I’m prepared to vote against it. Whether I have the prevailing opinion, I don’t know.”
Gavitt did not have the prevailing opinion. Two years later when it appeared increasingly likely that expansion would be approved, he sought to make the best of the situation. “I’m not anti-64,” Gavitt said. “But I am greatly concerned about what it will do to the quality of in-season play. It scares the hell out of me.” Nevertheless, the NCAA men’s basketball committee approved the 64-team field by an 8-to-1 vote on December 3, 1983. Gavitt’s was the lone vote in opposition.
The field expanded to 65 in 2001, but basically the tournament retained its essential structure for a quiet quarter of a century. Then expansion reared its head once again in the 2009-10 season, at least topically. Retired head coach Bob Knight made headlines that December not only by questioning the “integrity” of a certain unnamed head coach recently hired at Kentucky but also by coming out against all this talk he and everyone else was suddenly hearing about a 96-team bracket.
Until last night, you could subscribe to a Whig history of NCAA tournament selection and seeding even if you doubted the wisdom of using a committee for that process. Yes, the history ran, there was a bad three-letter sorting metric in the old days, but now there’s a sound three-letter sorting metric.
The committee appeared to be growing more savvy. See? the committee would say. You don’t need to replace us with the wealth of insightful metrics of the 2020s. We love them! We use them and we know how to step in when one metric disagrees with another. You need us.
Then last night happened. The trend up until this year had been to put together the top of the bracket in a manner that year by year was becoming progressively more aware of measures of team strength. Then, down at the cut line, measures of win value would make the tough decisions.
It didn’t work out that way in 2022. A stronger team was given a No. 3 seed at the expense of a weaker team’s spot on the No. 2 line. At the at-large cutoff, bids and one near-invite (that would have been actual had there not been a bid thief in the Atlantic 10) were awarded like golden tickets at the Wonka factory. The reason cited was good wins.
The selection process for the NCAA tournament predates the shot clock and the three-point line. While the members of the NCAA men’s basketball committee are conscientious and, happily, they now have a wealth of insightful data at their fingertips, selection still comes down to 12 people going into a room and making a bracket.
It’s remarkable that we still do it this way. Someday we’ll look back on the committee era and marvel that a 1960s-vintage process survived as long as it did.
Instead of creating a bracket in March, the men’s basketball committee should convene in May or June or July and make a completely team-blind determination of how the tournament field will be selected and seeded. The committee will then sit back and let the season select its own postseason field.
Whether the committee chooses to select and seed the field according to this set of metrics or that one will be a weighty matter for the men and women charged with making the decision. That importance, however, is likely to be overstated and ultimately misconstrued by two otherwise dissimilar populations of onlookers.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and the Badgers are currently being projected as an NCAA tournament No. 3 seed by the bracket hive mind. Greg Gard’s team has achieved this lofty status in spite of the fact that this very same group barely cracks the top 30 at KenPom and, indeed, has outscored its Big Ten opponents by an average of just 0.6 points per game over the course of 11 outings.
What can account for this disparity? Start with the usual February suspects, such as Wisconsin’s almost Providence-like wizardry in close games. The Badgers are 12-1 in contests decided by single digits, with the only close loss coming at the hands of the aforementioned clutch Friars.
It is also the case, however, that Johnny Davis and his mates are actively and wantonly deceiving our eyes. When you watch a Wisconsin game or when a studio analyst breaks down some UW half-court sequences at the intermission, it’s possible that neither of you will remark upon the fact that Gard’s charges recorded hardly any turnovers. Yet that very fact is a significant ingredient in how the sausage gets made in Madison. The Badgers own the lowest turnover rate of any major-conference team in league play, and that allows them to attempt an exceptionally high number of shots.
On this day 25 years ago, the word “bracketologist” was used in print for quite possibly the first time. Mike Jensen dropped the neologism into a Philadelphia Inquirer article that ran on February 25, 1996.
The NCAA had just suspended Villanova star Kerry Kittles for three games for unauthorized use of a university credit card number. “You wouldn’t know anything is different if you came to watch practice for the first time,” Wildcats coach Steve Lappas was quoted as saying in that day’s Inquirer. The only difference, the coach said, was that now Kittles was “wearing a white shirt instead of a blue.”
Lappas was striking a nonchalant note, but the concern around the program was that, without Kittles on the floor, Villanova could lose what had been shaping up to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jensen speculated that the spot on the top line might now be given to Connecticut instead.
But how could anyone in 1996 game out what losing Kittles for three games might do to the Wildcats’ seeding? And what did the tournament chances look like for Philadelphia’s other programs in late February?
Everyone says ritually that “Chris Beard’s doing a heck of a job,” and that he’s in line, should he wish, for a gig with any of the bluest of the blue-chips when those opportunities avail themselves. Everyone’s exactly right, just not necessarily, in 2021, for the reasons everyone’s saying.
A traditional video search of half-court sets for the heck of a job that Beard’s doing, for example, will by itself prove insufficient. This particular Texas Tech team can’t throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat and in fact can be found down in the 200s nationally for effective field goal percentage.
Likewise, the vaunted no-middle defense in Lubbock has this season become the no-misses D. The Big 12’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc against these guys. Yes, that’s mostly outside of the Red Raiders’ control, and, no, that level of accuracy’s not likely to continue. It’s just tough to name streets after a defense that’s clocking in right at its league’s average in conference play while down the road in Waco another D entirely is, when it gets to play, appointment viewing for the hoops gods.
Writing about basketball feels frivolous at the moment. Writing about basketball has always felt a bit frivolous upon reflection. It is frivolous.
The far more typical case has always been that people have to do true, exhausting, unceasing, and often hazardous work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Certainly my ancestors did. If I didn’t know that before, I understand it much better now.
With the fortuitous alignment of my dad’s retirement years, advancing technology, and my mother-in-law’s mastery of ancestry.com, there’s been an explosion in the field of Gasaway genealogy of late. I’ve learned enough as a student there to know that my tough and persistent yet sporadically educated forebears are looking down on me right now and saying, “He seems nice, but what is it he does again?” I know, ancestors, I know.
In the past, I’ve wondered aloud if we in this profession, perhaps unconsciously, finesse this sea change by seizing a vocabulary of terms from things that do matter — “existential crisis,” for example, is a hardy sports perennial — and smuggling those signifiers into our particular toy department. Maybe we do this because we do, in fact, recognize the frivolity. Continue reading →