Tonight: The NCAA's Other National Champion Problem

Tonight: The NCAA's Other National Champion Problem
April 5, 2011, 4:16 pm
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The NCAA Tournament is the most overrated post-season in sports because
it fails at the most basic level, which is to crown a true national
champion.

26 years ago, the
Villanova Wildcats men's basketball team pulled off what is considered
one of the biggest upsets in sports history, defeating top ranked
Georgetown to win the National Championship. It was the first year the
NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and the No. 8 seed Cats navigated
the field to go from almost certain also-rans to being named the best
team in the land in a matter of weeks.

At the risk of alienating a generation of Nova fans, and as
incredible as that feat was, winning six games in a row at the end of
the season should not suddenly earn a team the title. With a 19-10
record entering the Tournament, Villanova wasn't in the top 20, wasn't
even one of the top teams in their conference, and actually lost to the
Hoyas in two previous meetings. If there was any justice, the Wildcats
would have been forced to beat them again, maybe even twice, before they
could finally claim they won it all.

On its face, the now-68 team tournament is one of the most democratic
ways to determine a champion. No team sport has a more inclusive
playoff, with automatic berths going to all 33 conference winners, and
35 at-large bids awarded to the best of the rest. The tournament itself
is designed to give the highest seeds the theoretical easiest path to
the final without reslotting the entire field after every round.

That's all fine and good, but then how do we wind up with Virginia
Commonwealth in the final four, or Butler in back-to-back finals? You
can simply make the case they won their games, therefore they deserve to
be there. The Bulldogs especially look like less of a fluke on the
strength of consecutive championship game appearances.

Maybe, maybe not. The truth is, there really is no way to tell for
sure. Coming into the tournament, No. 8 seed Butler played just one
ranked opponent this season, a 12- point home loss to Duke. They lost
five games in the Horizon League, a conference that sent no other teams
to the dance. Their 23-9 record wasn't strong enough to earn them a spot
on the final AP Top 25, yet suddenly we are to believe they currently
have one of the top two programs in the nation.

They've vindicated themselves to a degree with tournament wins over
Pitt, Wisconsin, and Florida. Still, only one of those finishes was even
remotely convincing. They needed help from the Panthers, and overtime
to squeak by the Gators. Then they drew one of the most ridiculous
match-ups ever in the Final Four with No. 11 VCU. Yeah, that's legit.

What it boils down to is an issue with the single-elimination aspect
to the tournament. Does one basketball game produce the best team?
Sometimes it does, but often enough it does not. If No. 1 Kansas said,
"Let's run that one back," would VCU beat them again? Could they beat
them in a best-of-three series, even if the Jayhawks spotted them the
first game?

Who knows, but that's the point. The NBA doesn't leave things up to
chance. Eventually, somebody came along and realized a three-game series
wasn't enough, and again, as recently as 2006 somebody decided even a
five-game series didn't quite do the trick either. That's an extreme
example, but at no stage in the history of the NBA playoffs did anybody
think it was wise for a club to advance after one victory.

Of course, the NCAA will never change the current format, except to
expand and further dilute it. In fact, I'm not even advocating a new
system. This thing is wildly popular, and I must concede it's at least
fair (other than the new, randomly placed play-in games), even if
imperfect. Plus, without denying entry to an overwhelming number of
schools, some maybe even deserving of an opportunity to compete for
their sport's ultimate prize, it isn't logistically possible to play a
round-robin or best-of series. It would simply take too much time.

So, what then?

Well, if you enjoy March Madness, who am I to argue? Even I get a
kick out of the first weekend, watching schools I've never heard of
crush the dreams of schools I don't care about. Maybe those upsets are
meant to serve as a reminder that this is all in good fun, because as
the tournament drags on, and you realize the chances that the actual two
best teams will meet in the final round are miniscule, it all seems
relatively meaningless.

Which is ironic, because while the flawed BCS is crucified every
December as it attempts to pair the best two teams in college football
to play for the National Championship, the NCAA Tournament gets a pass
because it's exciting, and perhaps more importantly, people like filling
out brackets. At the end of the day though, their champion deserves the
same scrutiny, if not more.

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