Reminiscent of the old radio program “Leonard’s Losers”, on which weekend college football game losers were predicted rather than winners, John Gasaway, an ESPN Insider, today issued his list of the 343 Division I Men’s teams that will not win the national championship (tournament). He did not list:
- Michigan State
- North Carolina
In other words, John predicted the champion would be one of those eight teams. John has been right two years running. He’s likely to be right again, but not because of superior powers to divine the results of a future event. John is likely to be right because the eight teams he did not list will likely receive top three seeds in the four regions of the committee’s bracket. NCAA Tournament Flaw #3 is that the tournament is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the top three seeds.
In the thirty-three years since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to sixty-four teams, the winner has come from the top three seeds twenty-nine times. In three of the four anomalies, the committee arguably under-seeded the eventual champion which should have been a top three seed. Only Connecticut, a #7 seed in 2014, was a true Cinderella and that team benefitted from a wacky tournament—about as probable as a hundred-year flood—that matched them against a #8 seed in the title game. Since there are no real Cinderella’s, the media anoints lower seeded teams that win twice and reach the Sweet Sixteen, Cinderella’s.
Top three seeds win the tournament because they have the easiest path to the Elite Eight after which anything can happen.
It’s a long-standing tradition in basketball tournaments at every level from grammar school to the NBA to match the top seed against the bottom seed, the second seed against the second-from-the-bottom seed and so on. However, most basketball tournaments consist of small fields. There are eight playoff teams in each conference of the NBA. Although all Power Six conferences consist of more than eight teams, they have attempted to fix the self-fulfilling prophecy by providing two round byes to the top four seeds creating an eventual eight team best-to-worst seeded tournament after the lowest seeds have knocked one another out.
The NCAA could take a similar approach, allowing the bottom 32 seeds to play one another (and win a game) before matching them against seeds 17 – 32. The winners could then play the top sixteen seeds in games that would actually be competitive. The NCAA, however, continues to create sixteen team regions (after play-in games) and match the #1 seed against the #16 seed, the #2 seed against the #15 seed, the #3 seed against the #14 seed, and so on. The record of top three seeds against bottom three seeds is 367 – 29. The disparity between the top three seeds and the bottom three seeds in each region is simply too great, allowing top seeds to coast through the first round.
The ease of coasting through the first round continues through rounds two and three. A #1 seed cannot meet another #1 seed until the Final Four. A #1 seed cannot meet a #2 or #3 seed until the Elite Eight and then only one or the other. At worst, a #1 seed will play a #16, a #8 and a #4 seed on the way to the Elite Eight. All other seeds have progressively harder paths even though they are supposedly weaker teams themselves.
In the thirty-three years since field expansion, top three seeds have filled 99 of the 132 slots in the Elite Eight. Fifty-five of the Elite Eight slots have gone to #1 seeds. Over that same time period, top three seeds have filled 54 of the 66 Final Four slots. Thirty-two of the Final Four slots have gone to #1 seeds. This all due to the best-to-worst matching philosophy of the NCAA Tournament in a field that is too large for best-to-worst matching.
So, as a counterpoint to John Gasaway, we’ll take the top three seeds, no matter whom they turn to be, against the field in this year’s tournament. And, we’ll take the #1 seeds against the #2 and #3 seeds to walk away with the trophy. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If, like Gasaway, we picked only eight teams with a chance to win the title, we’d agree on seven. Seven of Gasaway’s eight teams are in the RPG top nine. Arizona is the exception. RPG has Arizona at #19 in our rankings, a ranking that deserves a #5 seed, a seed from which the odds to win it all are insurmountable. The fact is that Arizona has a roster capable of winning it all but has underperformed the entire season even though it plays in the weakest of the Power Six conferences. In place of Arizona, RPG would pick Cincinnati which currently stands at #3 in the RPG rankings and plays in a conference that is probably stronger than the Pac-12.
RPG does agree with Gasaway that neither Xavier nor Kansas is among the eight most likely teams to win it all. Both are seriously over-rated by the polls. Kansas has benefitted from an over-hyped conference of similarly good-but-not-great teams, and Xavier has scraped by on its way to a deceivingly glossy won/lost record. RPG has Xavier at #11, a #3 seed with an outside chance, and Kansas at #16, the last #4 seed.
Look for NCAA Tournament Flaw #4—inaccurate committee seeding—later this week.