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.