Friday, March 21, 2008
This entry has nothing to do with .NET, OOP or anything related to software. It does mention the number 64, which is a very common thing in programming, but that is coincidental.  If development goodies are what you are looking for, you'll have to wait for the next entry when we will resume our irregularly scheduled programming.

No, this is a grumpy old man column.  As I do every year in March, I am half watching the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, which amongst the commercials offers some good games and occasional high drama. The tournament starts with 65 teams and after three weekends of single-elimination contests crowns a single champion. 

Now, 65 is a strange number for a single-elimination tournament, which cries out to start with a number that is a power of 2, like 64 perhaps, that will fold evenly down to one.  And, in fact, the NCAA, lops off the 65th team in a single game, which is either known as the Play In or Opening Round game depending on how much NCAA kool-aid you've consumed. The reason behind the 65 team start can be found here.

I've made my peace with the 65 team format, since the extra team is so easily lopped off and is pretty much forgotten by the time the real tournament starts.  Heck, every tournament pool ignores it; entries don't have to be submitted until just before the first real game starts two days later.  It really is only of concern to the two teams forced to play (in Dayton!) for the final spot in the real tournament.

No, what I am trying to forestall is expanding the tournament beyond its current size.  This issue arises every year because selecting the teams for the tournament is a partially subjective process. Only the 31 teams that win their conferences are guaranteed a slot, the other 34 at-large bids are chosen by the committee out of the 300+ teams that play Men's Division I basketball.  There are no hard and fast rules, and while the committee's decisions are not usually as nutty as the BCS, every year there are a handful of teams who feel slighted by the process. An indignant coach will have a press conference and complain because his team wasn't chosen while Team A was, and everyone "knows" that his team was better than Team A.

A number of these coaches whose teams have been relegated to the NIT (National Invitational Tournament or Not Invited-to-the-real Tournament) argue that since there are so many "good" teams, that the NCAA tournament should be expanded to 96 or even 128 teams, so all the "deserving" teams get a chance to play for the championship.

This is a load of hooey.  None of the 32 or 64 teams added to an expanded tournament has a cookie's chance at fat farm of winning the tournament.  Heck, 32 to 48 of the teams in the current format don't have a chance.  The lowest seed to win the tournament since it expanded to 64 teams was a #8 seed. Given there are 4 #8 seeds (one per region) that's anywhere between the 29th-32nd best team in the tournament. Even given the vagaries of the selection and seeding process and the chance involved in a single-elimination tournament, the best team is going to be found in the top 32 teams, or more likely the top 16.  Everyone else is there to enjoy the experience, get on TV, and give the rest of us something to bet on for three weekends.

Expanding the tournament will not end the "we got screwed by the committee" press conference, it will just create an even more mediocre and possibly larger bunch of "slighted" teams. But let's pretend that the NCAA listened to one of these whiners last year and expanded the field to 96.  What would the tournament look like?

First off, 96 is not a power of 2, we need to get back to 64.  We'll do this by expanding the Play In Round to 32 games.  The lowest seeded 64 teams in the tournament will have to play an extra game. The winner of each Play In game will move on to the Round of 64 to play one of the highest 32 seeds. 

Where do we get the extra teams?  We'll steal them from the NIT, which has the next best 32 teams.  They are seeded in 4 symmetrically arranged regions of 8 teams each, which is perfect. We'll simply append an NIT region onto the corresponding NCAA region, add 16 to each team's NIT seed to get its expanded NCAA seed.  The lowest seed in the expanded NCAA will be a 24 seed.  For example here's what the expanded NCAA East region would look like this year....


Is this ugly or what?  And it is only one region.  The Play In round adds 32 games, but none of them is even mildly compelling. Looking forward to that #14 Boise State vs #19 Dayton match up? Sure there are 32 more games, but due to the tournament format, not one of them features a top 32 team.  All the games feature teams that run from the gamut from eh to decent.  Cal finished 9th in the Pac 10 for goodness sake! The current 64 team format at least shows the best teams in the first round, and offers the possibility (if seldom realized) of huge upsets.  in our hypothetical Play In round the biggest upset would be #24 UNC Asheville knocking off #9 Arkansas.  And who cares, really?

Life gets extremely ugly for the #9 seeds.  Congratulations, your team gets to play another game, while the team that may be slightly better than yours gets a bye. The #8 #9 seeds are virtually interchangeable -- historically the #9 seeds have actually beaten the #8 seed 54% of the time -- yet #9 has to Play In while #8 enjoys a day off.  That's four "the committee screwed up our seed" press conferences a year guaranteed.

Think any of the extra 32 teams can win 7 games to take the championship?  Think again.  No #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed since the arrival of the 64-team format.  Adding the Play In Round does give the #16 a chance to win a game against #17. Of course, the winner of the that game is just playing for the right to lose to #1 in the next round.  Only four #15 seeds have ever beaten #2 in 88 opportunities, and all four lost in the next round.  The lowest seed to reach the Sweet 16 (win 2 games in the current format) is #14, and that has only happened twice. In a 96-team format the extra teams will have to beat one decent team and two good-to-excellent teams just to make it that far.

Yes, it's great to "make" the tournament, but being a #24 seed or even a #17 seed is the equivalent of an honorable mention -- and will result in a quick trip home.  Expanding the tournament just dilutes it, renders actually making the tournament less meaningful. The grossly inflated tournament may paradoxically may make it harder on a coach to justify his team's performance every year.  Boosters and potential recruits will start asking not only if the team made the tournament, but if it received a bye or made the Sweet 16. Instead of simply having to have one of the top 64 teams, a coach will have to start providing a top 32 or 16 team every year.

So to all the coaches and other supporters of "deserving" teams that missed the cut, if you want your team in the tournament next year -- win more games or make sure and win your conference. For this year, enjoy the NIT, it's a championship your team has a chance of winning.

Leave the tournament as it is.  It already contains the teams that have a possibility to win it all and offers compelling games and good teams from the first round on. Best of all, in the current format, the bracket fits on to a single sheet with a type face people over 30 can still read.

The current format is good fun. Expanding to 96 teams or beyond offers a clear example of "more is less".

Friday, March 21, 2008 9:06:20 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)   #     Comments [0]  | 

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