Madness: The NCAA Tournament’s structural flaw

The organizing principle of a competition arranged in the fashion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is that better teams should have easier paths for advancement, the goal being for the best teams to meet as late as possible. Tournament organizers therefore employ a seeding system that awards teams believed to be the strongest with the best seeds (i.e., the lowest numbers) and first pits them against teams believed to be the weakest.This is sensible, logical, and good. Anything can happen once the games begin, of course, but if Michigan State and Kansas, for example, are the best teams in this year’s tournament, the tournament should be designed such that those two teams are most likely to face off in the final, championship round. Generally speaking, this is how the NCAA tournament is organized.

From 1985 until 2000, the tournament’s field held steady at sixty-four total teams. In 2001, it expanded to sixty-five teams, adding a single play-in game to determine which team would be the sixteenth seed to face the number one overall seed. In 2011, the tournament field expanded to sixty-eight teams, its current size, with four play-in games.

Many people dislike the fact that the tournament has expanded beyond a seemingly optimal sixty-four-team field, but all should agree that, however many teams and play-in games are included, the tournament should be organized such that the projected difficulty of each team’s path through the tournament is inversely proportional to its seed position. As currently constructed, however, the tournament deviates from this basic principle.

All play-in games are not created equal. Two of the four fill sixteenth-seeded positions, while the other two fill eleventh-seeded positions, and the latter grouping is the culprit here. The NCAA and its broadcast partners no longer refer to the play-in games as the “first round,” thankfully, but, however labeled, these games constitute a significant structural hurdle for their participants. It’s difficult enough to win five consecutive games against the nation’s top competition; adding a sixth game places the play-in teams at a major disadvantage.

If a tournament organized in this fashion is to proceed with sixty-eight participants, play-in games are a necessity. The heavy burden of participating in an extra round of competition should be apportioned in accordance with the tournament’s organizing principle, however. In this instance, that should mean applying it to the lowest-seeded (i.e., highest number) teams. Using two of the play-in games to determine eleventh-seeded positions inappropriately and adversely distorts the degree of difficulty for those two positions.


This year, the unduly burdened teams are Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Michigan, and Tulsa, which are competing in play-in games for eleventh-seeded spots in the tournament’s first full round. Each of these teams would be better off as a twelfth, thirteenth, or even fourteenth seed (to say nothing of an eleventh seed in the West or Midwest regions, where eleven seeds are not similarly encumbered) than they are as participants in eleventh-seed play-in games.

If the tournament committee really believes each of those four teams belongs in the tournament and is deserving of an eleven seed, or thereabouts, it should pick one from each pairing– Vandy/WSU and Michigan/Tulsa– to be the eleventh seed, make the other the twelfth, bump the remaining lower seeds in the region down by one, and have the existing fifteenth seed play the existing sixteenth seed in a play-in game instead. (This wouldn’t be a clean fix in the East region, which already has a Florida Gulf Coast/Fairleigh Dickinson play-in game for the sixteenth seed, but the Midwest region has no play-in games, so one of Michigan/Tulsa could be moved to the eleventh or twelfth seed there, bumping Hampton and MTSU into a play-in game for the sixteenth-seed position in that region.)

Two of the eleventh-seed play-in participants, Vanderbilt and Michigan, likely were two of the last teams to earn at-large bids to this year’s tournament. Even if that’s true, though, it shouldn’t matter. The in/out decision is binary: a team is either in the tournament or it isn’t. Once the field is determined, the committee then should seed the teams based on their basketball merit. If the committee thinks so little of Vanderbilt, Wichita State, Michigan, and Tulsa that it wants to put them through the paces of a play-in game, it should have seeded them lower than eleventh.

The current arrangement of the NCAA tournament play-in games constitutes a structural flaw not because those preliminary games exist, but because of the seed positions they involve. If the NCAA insists on using the play-in-game arrangement to include sixty-eight teams in the tournament, it should use those play-in games in a manner that aligns with the tournament’s overall organizing principle of strength-based seeding. In practice, no tournament of this sort will be perfectly balanced in its initial arrangement, but the current structure clearly is contrary to that fundamental organizational principle and unnecessarily distorts the balance of the entire tournament.

If he could do it again, Chris Webber would have gone to Michigan State?

The strong implication of Chris Webber’s comments on this morning’s Dan Patrick Show is that, if he could begin his basketball career again, he would have accepted Tom Izzo’s offer to become a Michigan State Spartan:

Continue reading

Football: America’s Sport

Everyone knows that football, even college football, is all about the money. The SEC finally figured it out with their own TV network. Heck, even the Northwestern football players themselves figured it out.

What makes any sport America’s sport? Football often requires the word “American” in front of it to differentiate it from the football that the rest of the world knows. What about an option for enterprise? In major league sports, players, coaches, and the media all make buckets of money, but not the players in college football. Until recently.

Let’s take a step back. Imagine needing a source of cash flow and having some experience with the collegiate football process, but not enough skills (or motivation) to necessarily get hired anywhere as a coach or athletic director. Where is there an open source of money to be made? Well, there are those games where one team plays another of a vastly inferior caliber and division and pays that team for the right to lay the smack down. The lower tier conferences and divisions don’t rake in the cash like the top tier leagues do, so they are happy to take a loss for the money before going back to playing teams their own size (North Dakota State aside). Who is to stop me from making my own football “team” made up of eleven dropouts and getting paid to get smashed to bits every single week? Everyone else is raking in the dough in this industry, why not me?

What sentiment could be more American than that?

Of course, no legitimate team would schedule such a disreputable opponent, and there must be rules against that sort of thing, right?

The frontline journalists at reddit‘s college football discussion group, /r/cfb, uncovered just such an enterprise. User Honestly_ posted his/her findings yesterday. The post and many of the top comments are worth reading, but I will summarize a few of the highlights here.   Continue reading

Why the Michigan Wolverines have been unwatchable since at least 2008

When the University of Michigan’s athletic department swapped out its Nike gear in exchange for a lucrative contract with Adidas, the Maize ‘n’ Blue lost more than a swoosh: they lost their Maize. In fact, they sold it for something far worse:

The shift from Nike to Adidas was also a huge change. For fans, seeing a different symbol on a jersey isn’t anything special, but for athletes it’s a big adjustment. Sizes, fit, comfort, color and durability are all crucial to being able to play your sport well. With Nike, every team had figured out what they liked and disliked, and they could make small adjustments in their gear from year to year. But Adidas specializes in soccer and football gear, so things like volleyball shoes and jerseys presented new challenges.

Nike also copyrighted the color “Maize,” so Adidas actually had to make a new version of our school color, now known as “Sun” (which the volleyball team has affectionately dubbed the “highlighter” jerseys).

Terrible. I don’t love what the Spartans have done aesthetically over the last decade– it’s the overall fluctuations in approach, more than any one decision, that has become somewhat annoying– but Michigan State hasn’t done anything to make my eyeballs burn out of my face, and that recent rosy addition has been downright pleasing.

Old news, but new to me, and now you know it too.

College Football Fan Guide: Championship Week Edition

Last week was one of the best football weeks in recent memory, and although our Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker weekly feature has fallen by the wayside due to worldly obligations, this week and the week ahead deserve note.

The Lions started things off on Thanksgiving with a wonderful win over Green Bay. It was Detroit’s first win on Turkey Day in nine years, and it was the first time Matt Stafford beat the Pack. The Lions also avenged the career game Matt Flynn had the only previous time he quarterbacked Green Bay against Detroit.

Brendan and I were in the Big House for Michigan’s surprise one-point loss to Ohio State, and I made it out of Ann Arbor in time to see Georgia come back to defeat Georgia Tech in overtime, note Vandy’s comeback win over Wake Forest, and watch maybe the greatest one second of college football in Auburn’s regulation toppling of Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Records of note:

  • Auburn: 11-1 (35-21 loss at LSU)
  • Michigan State: 11-1 (17-13 loss at Notre Dame)
  • Ohio State: 12-0
  • Vanderbilt: 8-4 (poised for second consecutive nine-win season)
  • Missouri: 11-1 (27-24 2OT loss against South Carolina)

Bowl outlook:

  • Rose Bowl: Barring a very bad loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night, Michigan State seems set to ring in the new year in Pasadena. Here are the details on that situation.
  • Bowl projections keep waffling Vandy between the Music City and Liberty Bowls. Despite having a national championship in women’s bowling, they can’t seem to roll outside the Volunteer State. The former Independence Bowl in Shreveport might be a good alternative.

The BCS national championship: Right now, Florida State is set to play Ohio State, but that could change after this weekend. Each team needs to beat its conference championship opponent, Duke and Michigan State (more on basketball later!) respectively, of course. Auburn’s also in the mix here. If the Eagles/Tigers/Plainsmen beat Missouri in the SEC championship game, one-loss/SEC champ Auburn could leap an undefeated Ohio State. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask Florida head coach Urban Meyer:

There are a lot of people making a lot of decisions out there, but this is a big one. We’re going to tell a group of young men, who just went 12-1 in a most difficult schedule against six ranked opponents, that they don’t have a chance to play for a national championship? I’m going to need help with that one.

That was back in 2006, though, and in 2013, Meyer finds himself singing a decidedly different tune as the head coach of Ohio State. 2006 Urban Meyer got his way, something 2013 Urban Meyer ought to keep in mind this week.

(HT: @DrunkAubie)

ALDLAND takes you live to Ohio State-Michigan in Ann Arbor

ALDLAND will have a presence on the ground at this weekend’s Ohio State- Michigan game in Ann Arbor. According to widespread commercials promoting this game, the annual meeting between these two rivals is known as “The Game.” I have attended this game many times over the past twenty or so years, and I’ve never heard it called that. Unless Brendan, between gulps of Four Loko, corrects me on Saturday morning, I’m going to chalk this labeling up as a media marketing concoction.

Outside of pride, this game does not have a lot of meaning for either team. Ohio State is undefeated but has only an outside shot at the BCS championship game, and has already secured a spot in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State. Michigan is bowl-eligible at 7-4, but they have a losing conference record and will be home dogs on Saturday.

In year three of the Brady Hoke era at Michigan, things are slipping a bit. His teams have yet to beat Michigan State and Ohio State in the same season, and it looks like the Wolverines could go 0-2 against their conference rivals this year. Michigan was 11-2 with an exciting Sugar Bowl win in Hoke’s maiden maize and blue voyage, but they were 8-5 last year, losing to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. There’s still room– with zero margin for error– to improve on that mark this year, but even if they do, it may not erase the feeling that there’s a noticeable lack of spark with this Michigan team. Negative forty-eight yards of rushing against Michigan State says a lot about the Spartan defense, but it says something about the Michigan offense too, and although at least one critic has pointed a finger of blame at Hoke, most Wolverine fans have been calling for the head of offensive coordinator Al Borges. (Text message from a die-hard Michigan fan after the Nebraska loss: “I can never actually root for Michigan to lose, but I hate the offensive coordinator enough that I think  a few more losses are in Michigan’s best interest if it gets the OC fired.”)

Still, the feel in Ann Arbor under Hoke is decidedly different than it was under the coach Hoke replaced, Rich Rodriguez. Should it be, though? Is there a chance Michigan fans are missing Rich Rod?

Ohio State is about a two-touchdown favorite on the road this weekend, and although that feels about right as I write this on Tuesday morning, my prediction is that they will not cover on Saturday.

Unless Michigan has beefed up their mobile reception capabilities, expect in-game coverage from Brendan and I to be somewhat limited, but you can always track us @ALDLANDia.


After an extended break the ALDLAND podcast is back and better than ever. College basketball is finally on the menu, as is discussion of a big trade in the MLB. And as always, listen for ALDLAND’s college football picks of the week.


Download the ALDLAND podcast at our Podcasts Page or stream it right here:

Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

fairleyALDLAND’s weekly football roundup is back, taking a look at all the highs and lows of the latest round of football action.

College Football


  • In anticipation of the LSU-UGA game, a secret-recipe cheesy bean dip was made. So much was made, in fact, that it lasted much longer than the game, although not quite as long as Georgia coach Mark Richt spent kissing his wife following a win over Kentucky.

The games:

  • LSU-Georgia was a thriller. Georgia continues to lose important players to injury, but it doesn’t seem to slow them down. This week, star running back Todd Gurley sprained his ankle in the second quarter, but backup Keith Marshall filled in and had a career day. In the end, the Dwags outgunned the Tigers 44-41 and are in the driver’s seat on the road to the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
  • I also thought Ole Miss-Alabama would be a good game, but it was not. The Rebels limited Alabama’s scoring early, but they were unable to do any scoring of their own, which is an easy-bake recipe for a loss. Ole Miss 0, Alabama 25.     Continue reading

Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

tail3ALDLAND’s weekly football review returns after an infamous fall wedding weekend. Bear with us as we attempt to piece together the happenings of the last few days.

College Football


  • After the Game of the Century of the Season of the Week last week in College Station, everybody predicted a scheduling letdown this week. Sports predictions have become (always were?) completely useless and devoid of meaning, but once in a while, the wisdom of the crowd gets it right. Throwing out expired food? No, actually. A soft slate of week-four matchups? For the most part, yes.

The games — That 70s Show:

  • Clemson opened the week of play by getting punchy on Thursday night in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over North Carolina State. So far as I can tell, the Tigers have played only fellow Carolinians to this point in the season. A check of their schedule confirms this, and the trend will continue this weekend. (EDIT: Except for that little game against UGA in week one.) Clemson 26, North Carolina State 14.
  • A number of teams posted gaudy scores and spreads. Since they already had their fun, they’re all getting grouped in this one paragraph. Ohio State 76, FAMU 0. Louisville 72, FIU 0. Miami 77, Savannah State 7. Washington 56, Idaho State 0. Baylor 70, Louisiana-Monroe 7 (that one’s actually a little surprising). Florida State 54, Bethune-Cook 6. Wisconsin 41, Purdue 10. UCLA 59, New Mexico State 13. Texas A&M 42, SMU 13. And others.