Does the Best Team Win? Do You Care?

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ncaa national championAnyone who has ever taken the bar exam, the CPA exam, or even the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) understands one axiom: Some games are bigger than others.

To attend law school is to know that a semester’s worth of study can unravel in just a day or two – a few hours, really – of unfocused thinking. Or, more likely, of panic.

Then there’s the bar exam, in which three entire years’ worth of study, not to mention having earned a juris doctorate, can be rendered somewhat meaningless if one fails to pass the two-day test that is known as the bar exam.

And you thought shooting free throws in the final seconds of a tie game was pressure.

How you feel about standardized tests as opposed to how you perform each day in class may have a lot to do with whether you prefer March Madness to the BCS’ formula. Oh, who am I kidding? Everyone prefers March Madness to the BCS. As Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated wrote earlier this week, “You have sat through enough lousy Super Bowls and boring World Series games and monotonous NBA Finals to appreciate how reliably awesome the NCAA tournament is.”

He is correct, of course. While the championship game is occasionally forgettable (North Carolina 89, Michigan State 72 in 2009), the tournament as a whole never fails to provide enough thrills to fill a “One Shining Moment” montage. You have 64 teams (68, I know, but I choose to ignore the “First Four”) playing 63 games over 19 days. Greatness is inevitable.

The question is not whether March Madness is more “reliably awesome” than the BCS Championship Game. It is. The question is whether college basketball reliably produces the more valid champion than college football.

If you were to ask me –and by reading this, you have – which sport’s playoff reliably puts the most deserving team upon the champion’s podium, I would answer the NBA (or NHL). Four rounds of best-of-seven series leave little opportunity for a “miracle shot” or a Hail Mary pass. In the NBA, when an 8-seed knocks out a No. 1 seed, that’s cause for delirium. That the 8-seed would ever hope to advance to the NBA Finals, well, such a treat exists in the same realm as unicorns and hassle-free domestic commercial flight.

No, in the NBA, the best team – or at worst, the second- or third-best—always wins. And you know what else? The NBA playoffs are often an exercise in tedium and viewer despair. They last far too long and, in the years since Michael Jordan retired, the number of memorable moments are, well, can you remember any? Any that did not involve your favorite team?

Still, the NBA playoffs are like a science experiment. Keep running the same test over and over. Collect enough data to form a hypothesis. After the same two teams play one another as much as seven consecutive times, it’s fair to say that the better team won.

The NBA playoffs are about going steady. The NCAA tournament is a series of blind dates. Sixty-four (yes, 68) teams are invited but in truth you only have to be better than six of them to win the national championship. And at that, you only need to be better one time in a row.

The most “You may be certifiably insane” stare that was ever directed at me by colleagues (and there have been several) occurred a few years ago when I dared to suggest that, as thrilling as George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006 was, they came no closer to winning the national championship than an FBS team that started out 8-0.

“They went on a four-game win streak,” I said. “In the context of the tournament and the passion for March Madness, we love JMU as a Cinderella story. But they only went two-thirds of the way toward winning the national title.”

And then came the “That’s crazytalk” stare.

But is it? There is so much romance associated with the NCAA tournament, from the vernacular we so lovingly toss around (March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Final Four and, of course, Cinderella) to our unending capacity to be shocked when a lower seed defeats a higher seed (as if the tournament has any bad teams), that rational thought often occupies the 12th seat on the bench.

Listen, I love March Madness. I do. And I fully appreciate that the Patriots defeated a No. 3 seed (North Carolina) and a No. 1 seed (Connecticut) along their trek to the Final Four. They completely overachieved and, because the term “Final Four” has nearly as much cache as “national champion”, the 2006 Patriots will always have a hallowed spot in college hoops.

Having said that, George Mason played 35 games during the 2005-06 season. Only four games –and perhaps a fifth, the Final Four defeat to eventual national champion Florida—seem to matter as far as history is concerned.

Some games are bigger than others. March Madness is akin to the bar exam. Just ask N.C. State and the Houston Cougars, a.k.a. Phi Slamma Jamma.

Which is not to suggest that college football’s method of determining a national champion is any more valid. I have in the past written at length –and ad nauseam – about what college football should have done to correct its flaws before it stepped over the precipice and opted to create a four-team playoff format. To review: 1) Any team that had designs on playing for the national championship must agree to not to schedule FCS opponents 2) No rematches in the NCG 3) If more than two teams are undefeated, in that year there would be a four-team playoff. 4) If a team’s strength of schedule is in the bottom-third of the FBS, it is ineligible.

You may not agree with all of those criteria –and you most likely are an adherent of the adage that “at least in college basketball, they settle it on the field of play.” There is a degree of truth to that, of course.

On the other hand, the team that wins the FBS championship year in and year out never plays a meaningless game. If you think of the entirety of the college football season as a March Madness (Fall Frenzy?) that takes place in a non-linear chronological fashion (just like “Pulp Fiction!” And who didn’t love “Pulp Fiction?”), it’s easier to wrap your mind around the wonder of it all. It’s almost always a single-elimination tournament –unless you’re in the SEC – and the “Survive and Advance” crowd winnows almost each weekend.

The inherent problem, for fans, is that the “bubble” in college football is so much tighter. There’s a lot of difference between being the 69th-best basketball team in the country, as determined by a committee, and the 3rd-best college football team, as determined by a committee as well. The latter team has a much more valid gripe.

In college basketball we keep score and we follow records, but more than 75% of the games really don’t matter. UConn was 21-9 and ranked 21st when the 2011 Big East tournament commenced two years ago. The Huskies then began one of the great finishing kicks of all time, going on an 11-game win streak in the month of March to win both the Big East tournament (a confidence-builder, sure, but in the grand scheme of things, an extraneous endeavor) and the NCAA tournament.

The staunch defenders of all that is March Madness will argue that November through the end of February is important in terms of seeding, of teams developing and, in the case of Kentucky, of learning one another’s names. Well, sure. But as Connecticut proved, it’s not necessary. You can cram for the final after skipping class all semester in college hoops and you still might ace the class. It’s unlikely, but it is possible.

Connecticut played 41 games, lost more than 20% of them (that’s like a 10-3 FBS conference champion playing in the BCS championship game), and will always be remembered as the 2011 national champions.

But were they the best team? Do you even care? The answer to that probably depends on whether you are more infatuated with March Madness or the ideal of the best team, determined over the course of an entire season, being the champion. Would you rather earn your final grade based on a series of daily, or weekly, quizzes, or would you rather be assessed on the basis of one final exam?

Don’t worry. I know the answer that all students and fans agree upon: “I don’t care as long as I get an ‘A’.”)


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