Tuesday, April 5, 2011

a random thought: on tournaments and a perfect postseason

I'm not sure if it's something I should confess, but I switched off last night's NCAA Championship Game midway through the first half. It was atrocious, atrocious basketball, and without any kind of hook to keep me interested (Butler's "little guy" persona only goes so far). Anyway, because I skipped the second half and the trophy presentation, it didn't occur to me until this morning: the University of Connecticut is now the "national champion" of the 2010-2011 NCAA basketball season. That would be the same Connecticut team that finished 9-9 in its own league, and lost 7 of its final 11 regular-season games.

As someone who is passionate about college football, I am frequently given to dreaming about what the sport would look like if we could adopt a real-live tournament-style postseason, as witnessed by my own frequent attempts to create one on my own, or Dr. Saturday's revolutionary 10-team playoff from a few weeks ago. We do this, of course, because of the objectivity that comes from having teams decide who wins the championship outside the opinion of pollsters, and on the field where it belongs. And we do this because we have witnessed too often the exclusivity of the Bowl Championship Series force teams like TCU or Boise or Utah (or even a great Auburn team) play for a pile of money and a small amount of pride, because the system is stacked against them before the first practice ever begins.

But there's another side to that coin: When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, the system is almost too inclusive, culminating in what we just witnessed in the Final Four. I'll let Braves & Birds explain:
How exactly does one sell the four-month college basketball regular season when the Final Four is comprised of: (1) the second-place team in the SEC East that went 2-6 on the road in KenPom’s sixth-placed conference; (2) the ninth-place team in the Big East that lost seven of its last 11 games (so much for that theory that you can watch games in February and figure out which teams are peaking); (3) a team that was at one point 6-5 in the Horizon League; and (4) the fourth-place team in the Colonial Athletic Association that finished on a four-game losing streak in that mighty conference?

While the inclusiveness of the system isn't enough to make me wish away a playoff entirely, it is food for thought — for everyone but the most hardcore fan, the basketball postseason is the only thing that matters, as Joe Posnanski points out.
North Carolina’s Dean Smith always wanted to point to his team’s remarkable consistency during the regular season — his Tar Heels won 17 ACC championships, won more than 20 games and reached the tournament every year from 1975 through 1997 — as a TRUE measure of his team’s ability. Coach after coach, after losing in the NCAA tournament with great teams, have talked about March Madness as a crapshoot, have talked about wanting their players and fans to be proud of their great seasons.
But, to be honest, the randomness of the NCAA tournament has blunted much of that. Only North Carolina fans remember the ACC titles. Dean Smith is remembered much more for his two national championships — both with odd finishes — and all the ones that his teams didn’t win.

Ask an Alabama fan, for example, about the Mark Gottfried era, and he'll probably tell you about the Elite 8 trip in 2004. He probably won't mention that Gottfried was on the verge of being fired before that tournament run, or that Gottfried's two best seasons — 2002 and 2005 — have been mostly forgotten. And why? Because the team flopped in the tournament both seasons (2 rounds in '02, 1 in '05).

It's the price you pay for a single-elimination postseason that gives a proliferation of teams a chance. Maybe you wind up with the best teams in the title game, but most of the time you get the teams that were the hottest when it counted the most, and sometimes it results in the kind of agony-inducing basketball we saw Monday night.
For football fans, we should find some kind of happy medium.

We always encourage commentary, either here or on Twitter. Thanks.


Amanda said...

yes this is EXACTLY why I think a big playoff in football would totally suck. and why they won';t ever do it - because making the real season less meaningful means fewer butts in the seats and less money for everyone. Also, the issue of these players being student athletes. Football does a better job of the players not having to miss massive amounts of school for games, especially post-season with so much of that happening during break.
Putting more emphasis on the regular season is why I don't really care that there isn't any sort of playoff or plus-one.

Amanda said...

p.s. can you even imagine the crap final games we would have gotten in football that would be equivalent to this final four? I don't remember who got hot at the end of the year last year, but based on program history it might have been something crazy like La Tech, Rutgers, a terrible Michigan team, and a terrible Tennessee team.