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96 Teams is March Madness

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It appears the NCAA intends to expand its annual basketball tournament to a ludicrous 96 teams.

  Nearly 100 teams, competing in a single-elimination tournament to crown a champion.  March Madness, indeed.

Money is obviously the motivating factor here.  The NCAA makes cash hand-over-fist during tournament time, and there's a certain simple-minded economic logic behind expansion.  More teams = more games = more television time = more $$$ to support the NCAA's annual Bob Stoops wrist-slapping endeavors.

Of course, this logic ignores the psychological effects of adding more teams to the tournament. The most obvious effect is that casual fans are less likely to watch the 32 first-round games between seeds 9-24, which, in theory, should not include even a single team from the national Top 25.  What’s more, in the 25-year history of the 64-team field, no team seeded lower than eighth has ever made the finals, much less won the national championship.  32 games, zero big names, zero chance that any team involved in the opening round will be crowned champ.  How’s that for intrigue?

My brain has been trained to think like a lawyer, but in my heart – my ice-cold, calculating, emotionless heart – I remain an engineer.  So I have a deep-seated desire for shit to make sense.  Expansion to 96 teams makes no sense whatsoever, assuming the point of the tournament is to allow teams to determine a champion “on the court.”  The 64-team tournament is already bloated beyond necessity for this task.  Adding another 32 teams only compounds the issue, and will degrade the prestige that, in my opinion, should accompany all post-season playoffs.

The statistics support my view:

  • Since 1985, no 16-seed has ever won a game in the tournament.  They are 0-100 over that time.

  • No 15-seed has ever made the Sweet Sixteen.  15-seeds are 4-100 over the history of the tournament.

  • No team seeded in the lower quartile (seeds 13-16) has ever made the Elite Eight.

  • Seeds 13-16 are, collectively, 46-400 over the history of the tournament, for a whopping 10% winning percentage.

  • No team seeded in the lower half (seeds 9-16) has ever made the Finals.

  • Seeds 9-16 are, collectively, 268-800 over the history of the tournament, for a 25% winning percentage.

  • 88% of Final Four participants, 90% of NCAA finalists and 92% of champions were seeded 1-4.

  • 66% of Final Four participants, 70% of NCAA finalists and 76% of NCAA champions were seeded 1 or 2.

  • Only 2% of Final Four participants and 0% of NCAA finalists or champions were seeded lower than eight.

The graph below shows the participation at each round of the 64-team tournament, broken down by seed group:

ncaa tourney

Basically, the tournament is dominated by the top 16 teams, and the championship is dominated by the top eight.  The occasional 5-8 seed slips into the last couple of rounds.  In my opinion, this occurs often enough – on average, a 5-8 seed will participate in a Final Four once every 2-3 years, make the Finals every 5 years and win the whole enchilada once every 12 years or so – to add interest to the tournament and justify a 32-team field.  But the inclusion of a sub-8 seed team in the Final Four is so rare (it’s only happened TWICE in 25 years) that these teams are rationally viewed as nothing more than cannon fodder for the big boys and, of more concern, potential sources of error in crowning the best team as “champion.”

No college team is perfect, and the potential for the rare, but statistically inevitable, upset is always present.  In a single-elimination tournament, statistical anomalies lead to error.  The regular season does a good job of sorting out the wheat from the chaff – the best teams are those that played quality schedules and emerged with the best records.  They aren’t invincible, and might occasionally lose to a lesser team due to circumstances.  But, over the long term, they can be expected to win a lot more than they lose. 

A single-elimination format denies us the opportunity to see the long-term outcome by establishing the rule that “early loss = not best team.”  To some degree, this is a necessary evil (sorry Kansas).  It’s impossible for all college teams to play each other college team a statistically-significant number of times.  So, the end of year tournament is a decent way to compare the teams who had the most regular season success.  But a tournament should not simply ignore the regular season results; it ought to use them wisely, to identify the true contenders for the title of “best team in the nation.”

The 64-team field already includes at least 32 (and perhaps more) pretenders every year.  These unworthy teams are mere sources of error and confusion, with no real chance to win the tournament.  Does anyone believe that a post-season championship playoff should be so large that half (or 67%) of the participants have no real hope to win?