College baseball does nearly everything right and could easily become the model for college basketball. Major League Baseball coordinates with NCAA Baseball in a way that could become the model for the NBA relationship with NCAA Basketball. We’ve already discussed the superior recruiting/drafting rules that the NCAA has arranged with Major League Baseball, so I won’t belabor the point.
As we approach March Madness, the College Baseball World Series is also worth a look as a possible model for the NCAA basketball tournament. College baseball conducts localized regional and super regional playoffs that produce eight geographically diverse winners. The eight winners then gather at a truly neutral site—Omaha, Nebraska—to play a reseeded, double elimination World Series. This is the surest way to produce a worthy, not just lucky, National Champion.
Although most AAU tournaments are double elimination, it is unlikely that the NCAA would adopt the format for its National Championship tournament. However, the basketball tournament already has eight geographically dispersed “pods” at which eight teams play rounds one and two. The Final Four is then played at a supposedly neutral site, so the infrastructure is in place to produce a worthy champion.
If basketball were to follow the baseball model, all teams in each pod would be relatively “local” and all would play virtual home games. Presumably, this approach would improve local attendance by team fans, and therefore, gate receipts. If basketball wanted to produce the best possible champion, no team in a pod would be “local” so that the site would be neutral for all teams in the pod. Unfortunately, the basketball tournament neither localizes play at the pods, nor does it neutralize play at the pods. Instead it favors some teams with virtual home games while it punishes other teams with away games. The favoritism is typically extended as a courtesy to highly seeded teams which further bolsters the argument that high seeds are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The basketball tournament further confuses fans by mixing regional brackets at pod locations. Last year, seven of the eight pods hosted teams from two regional brackets.
In 2017, Florida, Florida State, and Florida Gulf Coast played first round home games in Orlando despite being in two different regional brackets. USC played in Tulsa against “home” teams SMU, Baylor, and New Mexico State. Kansas also got to play home games in Tulsa. Duke and North Carolina were privileged to play home games in Greenville, South Carolina although they were in different regional brackets. Vanderbilt and VCU traveled to Salt Lake City where they were besieged by teams from the Northwest. Creighton, Rhode Island and Iona took the long flight to Sacramento, California to face Oregon. Cincinnati flew to Sacramento as well, to get beaten by home town favorite UCLA (in a different bracket).
This is called Location Bias and it is NCAA Tournament Flaw #5. The RPG system has determined that a team’s playing performance is precisely 7.5% better at home than on the road. That’s good for a six-point lead at tipoff in an average game.
My advice is: Do not use the downloadable, printable brackets to make your picks because those brackets represent regions, but not pods. Sometimes the locations of the games are not printed on the brackets. Instead, create a pod-oriented selection sheet to make picks so that you can see which teams are playing at home and which are on the road. Give the home team a six-point lead at tipoff. Then transfer your picks to the standard bracket sheets.
We’ll continue to make blog posts as we approach Selection Sunday, but the tournament format flaws to keep in mind have now been exposed. A quick recap:
- Flaw #1 – conference tournaments water down the field. Already five conference tournament winners have replaced regular season champions who will not get a bid.
- Flaw #2 – the tournament is too large at least by half. Only a dozen teams have a reasonable chance at a title (seeds 1 -3). Although the topic of the day is bubble teams, the last 16 – 20 at large bids are meaningless.
- Flaw #3 – best-to-worst seeding creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for the highest seeds, further strengthening the argument that only a dozen teams have a shot at the title.
- Flaw #4 – mistakes in seeding teams leads to flawed results. Nothing is more predictive of tournament success than a team’s seed, so when the seed is wrong, it has a direct impact on results.
- Flaw #5 – A truly location-neutral tournament would produce the most deserving champion, but the location bias built into the pod system will skew tournament results.
Good luck to your favorite teams as conference tournaments play out over the weekend.