By James Kwak
I have a lot to catch up on from this past week, like the Lehman report, but first I have more important business to attend to: the NCAA Division I men’s college basketball tournament. Tomorrow is Selection Sunday, the day when sixty-five teams are selected for the tournament. Thirty-one conference champions automatically make the tournament, leaving thirty-four at-large spots handed out by a committee.
Today, the general approach, uncontested by virtually everyone, is that the committee selects what it thinks are the best teams, based on things like record, strength of schedule, and Ratings Percentage Index. Invariably it leads to controversy at the margin. There are also many people who think the system is biased in favor of mediocre teams from major conferences and against good (though not champion) teams from “mid-major” conferences.
I think there are two things wrong with this system. The first is that decisions are arbitrary at the margin, since they are made subjectively by comparing teams that cannot be directly compared. The second is that the process selects for the wrong thing: it selects teams that a committee thinks are good teams, rather than teams that deserve to be there because they win games that matter. To make an analogy, it’s as if at the end of the baseball regular season a committee subjectively decided which were the best teams and let them into the playoffs, rather than taking the three division winners and the wild card team from each league. Yes, sometimes a team misses out on the playoffs despite having a better record than a team in the playoffs. But everyone knows what the rules are at the beginning of the year, and the point is to win your division (or the wild card), not simply to be a good team.
Instead, I think we should have the following system. The sixty-five slots should be distributed among the thirty-one conferences at the beginning of the season. Each conference has to state how it will allot its slots, also at the beginning of the season. (For example, a conference with three slots might give one to its tournament winner and two to the top two conference regular season teams, not counting the tournament winner.) The benefits are that every team would know exactly what it needs to do to get into the tournament, and there would be none of this annual controversy about who gets in and who doesn’t. Regular season games would be more meaningful, because everyone would know exactly what is at stake. Most importantly, tournament slots would go to teams that deserved them based on predefined, objective criteria, rather than teams that some coaches or a formula think are good.
How would you allot slots among conferences (currently the most controversial part of the whole system)? Each conference’s allocation would be based on that conference’s teams’ performance in the tournament over the past several years, with recent performances weighted more highly. That is, if a conference typically gets three teams in but they do not do well in the tournament, it would risk losing one of its slots; if a conference typically gets three teams in but they do well, it could gain a slot. Over time, this would provide an objective way of determining how many slots each conference deserves, rather than the current arguments.
European soccer fans will realize that this is very similar to how slots in European club tournaments are allotted. Each country’s number of slots in the Champions League in year x+1 is determined before the beginning of year x, based on its teams’ performances in European tournaments in prior years (x-1, x-2, …). Each country then decides how it wants to allocate those slots to its teams (based on performance in the regular season or in the domestic club tournament). So results in year x determine who plays in the Champions League in year x+1.
I guess some people might say this is unfair to, say, a great team in a one-slot conference that loses its conference tournament and won’t be able to get an at-large bid. But I think my system is more fair, in a different sense — the sense that the requirements are set and known in advance, and not set subjectively after the fact by a committee.
Of course, I realize this has no chance of actually happening. I also think we should get rid of the BCS and simply not have a national football champion (this would restore the importance of conference championships, and leave us with more teams that feel like winners at the end of the season).