Thursday, March 31, 2011

BDT -- NCAA Tournament Since 2000: Does the Best Man Win? (Mar 31)

You have no idea how many times I've read this stupid book...
Sometimes when I'm at home trying to watch television, my daughter will decide she needs to tell me something. Last night, she wanted me to read her a book. I was, of course, more than happy to read for her. We finished her Thomas the Tank Engine book and I figured I would go back to watching television. My daughter, on the other hand, had other ideas. Looking me square in the eyes and bending me to her will, she excitedly said, "another book!" Mind you, I really, really wanted to chill out and watch TV. Nevertheless, I gave in and happily read her yet another Thomas book.....followed by, "another book!" Soon, her entire book collection had been brought over to me in hopes I would read until my brain literally melted.

 I've already written one post about my feelings on the NCAA tournament and whether it still works. I've also spent time talking about it on a recent podcast. You're all probably tired of hearing about it and you definitely don't want to read an unnecessarily long post about it. Yet, here I am. I've got tons of information to dump at your feet!

At this point, I have to start wondering why I can't let this topic go. Everyone knows my opinion already! Why keep going? I guess I just feel very strongly about this tournament. College basketball, after all, is my sport! I'd rather lose all other sports than lose a single second of my college basketball season. No joke! I keep hearing this tournament bashing on the radio and it's really wearing thin. The fact is, as I've done more research on historical tournament results, it's clear to me the NCAA tournament has consistently produced the right champion year in and year out.

First of all, it's important to understand the distinction between 'best' and 'champion.' For that, I suggest you follow this link. You'll probably recognize Nate from the podcast. He's an incredibly intelligent guy and I would strongly suggest you bookmark his site because he ALWAYS has great things to say. On this particular matter, he's spot on in his 'best' and 'champion' distinction. The best team does not always win championships. This is true in every sport! The Florida Marlins beat the Yankees in a World Series once...not the best team. Heck, the Packers were the lowest seeded team in the NFC last year!

My main problem is the notion that the best teams USUALLY don't win. This couldn't be farther from the truth. For one, it's literally impossible to determine, given the current system, which team is the best team. How do you really know whether a top ranked team from the ACC is actually better than the top ranked team in the SEC? You can point at record, stats, players, coaches, and anything else you think will dinstinguish, but those are only small pieces of the puzzle. There are several factors that prevent us from knowing who the true best teams are.

For one, conference play and overall scheduling. There are very few head to head matchups between top 10 teams and it's difficult to determine anything when one team is playing a PAC-10 schedule and the other team is playing a Big East schedule. The unevenness between the conferences doesn't really give us a complete picture of how teams stack up against each other.

Another factor is team composition. Remember, we're talking about 18 and 19 year old college kids here. Most of the top teams/programs are relying heavily on freshman and sophomores for their success. Given the early entry trends in today's game, it's very difficult to field a team of veteran upper classmen. Therefore, the early returns on a young team may mar the overall resume. This years Kentucky team is an excellent example of this. I'm not arguing they're the best team this year (they're not), but their development is undeniable. In order to overcome these two issues, you would have to expand the season to hundreds of games. Each team would need to face each other in home and away situations and time would have to be given for teams to fully develop. Basically, it's impossible to make an exact determination of 'best.' Which also makes it impossible to determine whether the champion was or was not the best.

That having been said, none of the teams left in this years tournament can make a quality case as being the best team this year. In most years, you could point at six to ten teams and make a legitimite case they were the best team. This year was weird because the upper class was very small (four teams) and the middle class was huge. As you'll see, this is an anomaly of a year. It isn't normal. Unfortunately, the media (specifally several ESPN personalities) hasn't quite caught on to this. If you spend as much time with ESPN as I do, you've probably heard the outcry against the tournament. For whatever reason, they've taken to attacking the tournament, going so far as to say it's a dumb and inefficient way to determine a champion. Again, I might just be too emotional and attached to this topic, but I feel very strongly that the tournament is the best thing in sports and it consistently produces the right champions. We rarely get VCU's in the Final Four and the champions are almost entirely comprised of top 3 seeds. Let's look at each year individually since 2000 and you'll see just how effective the tournament is.


Final Four: 5 Florida vs. 8 North Carolina; 1 Michigan State vs. 8 Wisconsin
Final: 5 Florida vs. 1 Michigan State
Champion: 1 Michigan State 32-7 (13-3; 1st)
Verdict: Definitely the best team. This was somewhat of a down year for college basketball as the other top seeds were a REALLY young Duke team, a REALLY young Arizona team, and an overrated Stanford team (Collins twins...bad). The Spartans were the favorite going into the year and they got the job done. If I remember correctly, Mateen Cleaves was hurt earlier in the year or else their record would have looked even better. Regardless, despite an awful Final Four, the best team definitely came out on top.


Final Four: 1 Duke vs. 3 Maryland; 1 Michigan State vs. 2 Arizona
Final: 1 Duke vs. 2 Arizona
Champion: 1 Duke 35-4 (13-3; 1st)
Verdict: Without a doubt, the best team won. This Duke team featured 5 future NBA players; including Jason Williams (one of the best college players of the past several decades), Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon, and Shane Battier. Beyond that, the Final Four was amazing. Arizona had several future NBA players themselves, including Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson.


Final Four: 1 Maryland vs. 1 Kansas; 5 Indiana vs. 2 Oklahoma
Final: 1 Maryland vs. 5 Indiana
Champion: 1 Maryland 32-4 (15-1; 1st)
Verdict: You could make a good case for Duke being the best team, but it wouldn't be a strong case. Maryland split the season series with Duke, but bested them by two full games in the ACC. While Jared Jeffries' Hoosiers won't go down as one of the best Finalists, the Juan Dixon led Maryland Terrapins were the best team.


Final Four: 3 Syracuse vs. 1 Texas; 3 Marquette vs. 2 Kansas
Final: 3 Syracuse vs. 2 Kansas
Champion: 3 Syracuse 30-5 (13-3; 1st)
Verdict: Don't you dare let the seeding fool you here. The best team definitely won. This was a nice year for college hoops and there are a lot of teams you could say were among the best. For one, the top overall seed was my Kentucky Wildcats. I never really thought that team was a championship team however and we proved it by getting blown out by Dwayne Wade's Marquette team. Also, I didn't really think much of Texas despite the #1 seed. Look, I watched a ton of Syracuse that year and Carmelo Anthony was head and shoulders better than everyone else. This team WAS the best team in college basketball.


Final Four: 2 Oklahoma State vs. 3 Georgia Tech; 1 Duke vs. 2 Connecticut
Final: 3 Georgia Tech vs. 2 Connecticut
Champion: 2 Connecticut 33-6 (12-4; 1st)
Verdict: Another year where the seeding is deceptive. UConn was #1 for most of the year and had some midseason troubles related to an Emeka Okafor injury. This team featured six NBA players, three of which would be lottery picks (Okafor, Ben Goron, Charlie Villanueva) and it's no doubt they were the best team.


Final Four: 1 Illinois vs. 4 Louisville; 1 North Carolina vs. 5 Michigan State
Final: 1 Illinois vs. 1 North Carolina
Champion: 1 North Carolina 33-4 (14-2; 1st)
Verdict: The title game pitted the de facto two best teams in the country. You could argue for both teams, but either way, the tournament did a good job. I think North Carolina was a better team this year due to their interior depth. Sean May, Rashad McCants, Ray Felton, Jawad Williams, Marvin Williams, and David Noel would all go on to play in the NBA. Not bad. Good job tournament!


Final Four: 4 LSU vs. 2 UCLA; 3 Florida vs. 11 George Mason
Final: 2 UCLA vs. 3 Florida
Champion: 3 Florida 33-6 (10-6; 3rd)
Verdict: Here's the stupid George Mason year. I hate them so much. This is where people really start getting the idea the tournament is broke. Between VCU and George Mason, it seems like there's a lot of party crashers lately. I'll hit this later. Either way, the title game produced a UCLA team that would make three straight Final Fours and a Florida team that would win two straight championships. Hard to argue this one despite a Gators midseason swoon. UConn was the top team through most of the year, but there were issues with that team. Hindsight tells us Florida was legit.


Final Four: 1 Florida vs. 2 UCLA; 1 Ohio State vs. 2 Georgetown
Final: 1 Florida vs. 1 Ohio State
Champion: 1 Florida 35-5 (13-3; 1st)
Verdict: Another banner year for the tournament. All four Final Four teams were great teams. As much as I'd love to say Roy Hibbert and Georgetown was the best, I have to be honest and say the right team won. Florida was incredible and they were definitely better than Ohio State; despite Greg Oden and his.....


Final Four: 1 North Carolina vs. 1 Kansas; 1 Memphis vs. 1 UCLA
Final: 1 Kansas vs. 1 Memphis
Champion: 1 Kansas 37-3 (13-3; 1st)
Verdict: No doubt the two best teams made it to the Final. Kansas blew away North Carolina and Memphis did the same to UCLA. There is, however, some question as to whether the best team won the championship game. I picked Kansas at the start of the thing so it didn't surprise me to see them win. In fact, I'm surprised it took overtime. I'd say the best team won but you can't really complain about a chalk tournament like this.


Final Four: 2 Michigan State vs. 1 Connecticut; 1 North Carolina vs. 3 Villanova
Final: 2 Michigan State vs. 1 North Carolina
Champion: 1 North Carolina (34-4; 13-3 1st)
Verdict: Nothing to talk about here. North Carolina spent the entire season blowing people away and they followed that up by winning all six tournament games by double digits. Easily the best team.


Final Four: 5 Michigan State vs. 5 Butler; 1 Duke vs. 2 West Virginia
Final: 5 Butler vs. 1 Duke
Champion: 1 Duke 35-3 (13-3; 1st)
Verdict: There is definitely some debate on this one. Kentucky was definitely the most talented team considering they featured five first round picks. Of course, they were also the youngest and most inexperienced team. Kansas lays a legitimite claim as the best team as well but they were upset by Northern Iowa in the 2nd round. I can't reasonably say Duke was as good as either of those teams, but it's kinda hard to find fault in a 35-3 ACC team! Regardless, I'll say they weren't the best. The tournament failed this year by producing a #1 seed winner...

While you can debate some of the winners being the best, you can't say the tournament is producing 'random' winners all the time. There's nothing random about the history of the tournament. Good teams win games. Period. By my count, ten of the past eleven winners were the best team. Again, we can argue some of those, but it's not like George Mason or VCU is winning every third year.

Don't let ESPN fool you, the NCAA tournament is a great way to determine a champion. Whether it's the 'best team' 100% of the time or just 80% of the time, it's doing a pretty good job. Don't let this one odd year make you think the BCS is better. As I've said before, at the end of the day, each and every one of the teams in this tournament has their destiny in their hands. They all have the opportunity to prove themselves and become champion. Maybe it's just the perspective I have as an athlete, but I refuse to look at this thing solely through the lense of analytics. Yes, there is luck and randomness involved, but there's also a lot of skill involved in buckling down and winning big games. I don't know what the numbers say about that and I don't really care. I've done it, I've felt it. Not to this level, but it felt like the highest level at the time. Any of you who've played high level sports know exactly what I'm talking about. It takes something to win this tournament and the history of it clearly shows that the cream of the crop typically rises to the surface each and every year.

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