As a fan fills the tournament bracket, the temptation to favor teams with better won/lost records, better head-to-head results, more good wins, or fewer bad losses, is irresistible. In the public perception, winning is good, losing is bad, and there isn’t anything very complicated about the matter. As unassailable as this statement seems to be, it is, nonetheless, the logic that sparks the controversy surrounding the tournament selection committee and fuels debate over the polls.
“Win” and “lose” are like pass or fail grades on a test in school; they are binary summaries of complex events, and much information is lost in the summation. Take, for example, a situation in which four students score ninety-nine, seventy-one, sixty-nine, and twenty-nine on the same math test. If the test is graded on a pass/fail basis with a score of seventy being the minimum requirement to pass, two students fail the test and two students pass. As a result, the passing scores of ninety-nine and seventy-one become equivalent and the failing scores of sixty-nine and twenty-nine become equivalent, but the gulf between the seventy-one and the sixty-nine is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Clearly these four students exhibit widely divergent degrees of mathematical competence (a quantitative measure), but that is not apparent if all that is visible are two “passes” and two “fails” (binary measures). “W” and “L” are also binary summaries that turn diverse playing performances into equivalences. If we want to know how well these four students know math, we wouldn’t limit our investigation to whether they passed or failed the test. We would examine the actual test scores to obtain an accurate assessment. The same is true when comparing wins and losses for college football and basketball teams.
The undisputable fact is that a team can play poorly and still win a football or basketball game (pass a test) if its opponent plays worse. As binary statistics, won/lost records treat all wins equally, thus the team that wins “ugly” receives no less credit than the team that dazzles us with its scintillating performance. Conversely, a team can play well and yet lose if its opponent plays marginally better.
Winning doesn’t automatically mean that a team is “good”; it simply means that the winning team played relatively better than the losing team, on game day, under a certain set of circumstances.
Won/lost records are merely the sum of pass/fail results for some number of tests without any qualifying information about the difficulty of the tests or the grades achieved on the tests. A student isn’t well-educated simply because she passes tests; a student passes the tests because she is well-educated. The same can be said of college football and basketball teams: A team isn’t good because it wins. A team wins because it is good.