Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March Madness

Nate Silver has a nifty bit of math, backed up by data, which shows that the NCAA seeding system is "unfair" - in the sense that teams ranked 8th and 9th are at a significant disadvantage in advancing beyond the second round than teams ranked 10th to 15th. He proposes dropping the ranking and randomly seeding the teams outside the top 24 (who would have a big advantage).

I have a better idea. Seed all the teams - 1 through 64. Gather a representative from each team (coach, captain, math professor, sabermetrics whiz student, quant booster, whatever) in a TV studio on selection day. Extend the seeding show from 1 hour not to 2, as Silver proposes, but to 8 hours, and let the teams pick their own spots on the bracket. In order.

Got that? The lights go up... drumroll... the hosts reveal the entire field, ranked 1 to 64, as a list. Big LCD screens show that list next to the empty brackets, listing only game dates and locations. Team #1 - Ohio State, this year - takes the opening game nearest their home campus (presumably); that one's a layup. Team #2 - Kansas State - doesn't want to see OSU until the final, so they pick a starting game near home on the opposite side of the bracket. Then Team #3, and so on.

The fun begins in the muddled middle - a 4-seed team might make a statement by trying to take down a 2-seed in the opening game. An 8-seed might choose to play a 6-seed rather than take an open spot against (likely) a 9-seed in order to play close to home. Opening-round games would be challenges, not just calendar dates, and a team might choose to play its crosstown rival or the school that dispatched it last year. At the end of the day, the 15- and 16-seeds take what's left over: almost-certain losses to top programs, much as they do now.

There are three reasons to love this idea:
  1. It's fairer than the current system. If you take a crappy position, you have no one but yourself to blame
  2. It's fun. Great TV - coaches sweating, consulting spreadsheets and advance scouts, players issuing guarantees and chest-bumping. The speculation, second-guessing, and recriminations would be a March madness within themselves.
  3. It makes economic sense: let people make their own decisions. Would an 8-seed be better off swapping with a 12-seed, as Silver suggests? Find out what they would do given the choice!

1 comment:

stomv said...

That's a fun idea, but it misses the philosophy that Nate Silver also misses. Seeding is done to most advantage the better seed, chronologically. So, 1 plays 16, 2 plays 15, etc. Then, presume the higher seed wins, repeat.

Your idea is much more fun, but it allows for behavior which can punish the higher seed. After all, if a team earns a 1 seed (of 64) and the 2 seed (of 64) decides to play them in the first round, that might be "fair" to the 2 seed since they freely chose a high profile first game, but it's not very fair to the 1 seed. Why would the 2 choose to play the 1? Their second, third, and likely fourth round games will be much easier, since 3-32 will steer clear of that branch.

Furthermore, the NCAA doesn't want to seed 1-64; the 1-16 seeds allow them to treat similar teams as equals, instead of trying to decide which team is 11 and which is 12, or which is 41 and which is 42. Trying to rank at that fine a granularity is fraught with peril.

Fun idea, but I don't think it's the most fair to the teams which have earned the easiest route through the tourney.