Fortune Telling and Fortunes Worth Telling

Predicting the future has always been the holy grail for those seeking authority, respect, and recognition. Those who can predict the future have some gift the rest of us don’t have, and if they can show the predicted some things that came to pass, surely we should value their current predictions about things we can’t know, right?

This is even more of a problem than it was thirty or forty years ago. There have always been people who have tried to predict stock market movements, either on a macro level or on a micro level. Sports teams have always had scouts who have tried to assess prospects and predict who would be the best player to draft or recruit. However, the advent of around-the-clock news platforms devoted to so many diverse subjects has led to a proliferation of would-be experts.

  • Who will win the games tonight or this weekend?
  • Who might win the Heisman Trophy nine months from now?
  • Who might be voted the #1 team in college football in six months? (And, as soon as the 2014-2015 basketball season is over, who will be voted #1 in college basketball in eight months?) (Those are both before the respective season; those aren’t about final results!)
  • Who will be drafted first in the NFL draft in April? Who will be drafted first in the NBA draft in June? Who will enter the NBA draft and give up NCAA eligibility to do so?
  • Who will be the best college football players three and a half years from now?
  • Who will be running for President ten months from now?
  • Who will be favored to win the nominations fifteen months from now?
  • Who might be elected President on the first Tuesday of November, 2016?
  • Who might run for the Senate in 2016?
  • Can the Democrats retake the Senate in 2016?
  • Who will be invited to the NCAA Division 1 Basketball tournaments tomorrow?

The five questions about American politics are distinctly different from all of the sports ones: speculation will shape the outcome, much like physicists tells us that observing a phenomenon may change it. Possible donors will listen to the pundits and withhold or extend funding based on this speculation. Possible candidates will stay out of races that pundits say they have no chance of winning, or they’ll campaign to advance an issue instead of to win the election, perhaps forfeiting a chance the pundits didn’t think they had.

The sports pundits are just silly. “Watch me make a prediction. Come to my web site or my cable TV show and generate revenue for me.” Some reporters who normally focus on game results will make predictions only grudgingly, perhaps emphasizing how poor their track records are. Others make their whole careers on being experts on predicting actions not in actual games, such as recruiting and drafting. Mel Kiper Jr. has never reported on the final score of a team sport. If he talks about a game, he’s talking about possible draft picks and how a game changed their prospects. When we can’t get worked up over a game being played that day or that week, we entertain ourselves in the off seasons by obsessing over how choices made in the off season might influence future games. “If I pay attention to Mel Kiper, I’ll know whether to be excited or disappointed when my team picks a player in the draft, on the grounds of how someone is likely to work out over two or five or ten years.”

These are team sports. Play the games, and savor the results. Football championships are won in the fall, not the spring, and basketball championships are won on the hardwood, not the press office.

That brings us to this month’s lunacy, and December’s new counterpart: the committees that select teams to fill out post-season championship tournaments and then seed those tournaments. I’ll focus on basketball, but football with their selection committee will see this as well as the years continue.

In the old days, only conference champions got to play in the basketball tournaments. The NCAA left it to each conference to determine how they picked their representative, but there was only one. Most conferences had tournaments to pick their champions; the regular seasons effectively became just a long seeding process. After a few too many cases of a team everyone wanted to see in the tournament getting upset in their conference tournament, the NCAA expanded the tournament to thirty-two teams, letting seven teams enter as wildcards.

As the tournament got more popular, there became financial incentives to expand the tournament: TV would pay more sponsorship money for a larger tournament. Coaches and athletic directors wanted to be able to tell recruits and alumni that the team had been to the tournament. Thirty-two became forty-eight. Forty-eight became fifty-two and then fifty-three. Sixty-four became the next standard, and finally sixty-eight. Well, sixty-eight for now. They’ve resisted 128 or 96, but those numbers have been thrown around.

This has led to a new parlor game, one that starts about two months before Selection Sunday: who’s in the tournament, and who might be in or probably isn’t? The last two categories are the “bubble teams.” We’re not talking about which conference is strong enough to merit an at-large bid besides their conference champion; we’re talking about whether the fifth- or sixth-place team in a “major” conference is more worthy than a second or third team from a “mid-major” conference. This has nothing to do with who might win the national championship, although there are parallel conversations about who will be the top four or eight seeds in the tournament.

Teams like the 1978-79 Indiana State Sycamores are why every Division 1 conference should have a chance to send their best team to the tournament. Folks knew Larry Bird was good.They knew Indiana State was good. No one knew, though, how good they were; they hadn’t played many “major” opponents. Those Sycamores, or the occasional Ivy League surprise, or even Florida International a couple of years ago remind us that an ascending coach or an ascending player can carry a team deep in the tournament. That the Sycamores didn’t prevail in the 1979 tournament championship isn’t a huge problem; they clearly belonged in the final game, even if they didn’t win, and even if no one had foreseen that six months earlier.

Tournaments like 1985 show the flukey nature of the tournament. St. John’s won the Big East regular season; Georgetown had more losses in conference play but was higher in the polls and won the conference tournament. Villanova was only the fourth-place finisher in the league and lost in the conference semi-finals, but they still went to the now-64-team NCAA tournament. All three of those teams made it to the Final Four, Villanova doing so as a #8 seed, clearly peaking at the right time.  Villanova beat Georgetown for the title.

Villanova couldn’t get to the Big East finals and, as an eventual #8 seed, clearly weren’t a lock for the tournament. Is that a sure sign that if they played Georgetown repeatedly, they’d consistently beat Georgetown? Is that what being national champions means? Were they just March’s Champions? And not all of March; just the Last Fortnight of March Champions, starting after their loss in the Big East tournament.

There’s been some chatter on Twitter this week that none of the bubble teams seized their opportunities to earn a tournament bid. So many teams “on the bubble,” couldn’t muster a mild upset in their own conference championship to demonstrate that they were better than their regular season record indicated. Some of them will back into the tournament; someone has to fill those last four spots. Someone has to fill those last twenty spots. Someone has to fill those last thirty-six spots.

Why?

Suppose the ACC knew they could only send at most two teams and quite possibly only one.

Virginia and Duke have been Top Five teams in the polls during the second half of the season. Virginia climbed into that spot; Duke merely lived up to expectations. Louisville flirted with the Top Five before a late-season slump. Notre Dame hovered around the cusp of the Top Ten, beating Duke midway through the season at home and they being upset by Pitt in their very next game. UVa finished with the best record in conference play and the best record including non-conference play, but Duke was close on their heels.

What happened in the ACC tournament? Duke and UVa both lost in the semi-finals. (Notre Dame beat UNC for the conference crown and automatic NCAA bid.)

Was this catastrophic for Duke or UVa? No. It might mean that UVa will be a #2 seed instead of a #1. But Duke and UVa will still be highly seeded, likely more highly seeded than Notre Dame based on their overall records, strength of schedule, records against “RPI Top 50” teams, and other measures. This is what happens when you expand the tournament so much; you have to use various arcane formulas to justify intuition, why some team with eight losses is actually a good team that would beat most other teams contending for the same spot in the tournament, or why an upset victim in a conference tournament is still the better team. It’d be a lot simpler if only seven teams were given at-large bids: take the seven most shocking upset victims from their conference tournaments, if if there aren’t that many upsets, take a couple of honorable mentions. Sure, many of the Top 20 in some poll wouldn’t get in; those pesky Indiana State-wannabes from some “minor” conference would nose their way in just by winning their conference championship. But this would make the conference championships mean something. Either Duke or UVa would be out if Notre Dame had played its way in and only one other ACC team could get a bid.

What about the regular season? Is that just a seeding exercise? It doesn’t have to be; the ACC and all the others could do what my county parochial basketball league did years ago: the regular season champion gets a single-game playoff with the tournament winner if they aren’t the tournament winners themselves. OK, if UVa had won the ACC tournament, ESPN wouldn’t have a UVa vs. someone game to broadcast. But this would reward UVa for winning the regular season.

Finally, there’s a way to let TV broadcast sixty-two or sixty-three games in a tournament with 32 teams: make the tournament double-elimination. The NCAA baseball tournament has double-elimination although it has four tiers of double-elimination, not just one or two. This favors the steady team and gives them a chance to recover from a loss against in inferior-in-general team that played their best once. There’s some uncertainty about whether a sixty-third game will be needed or not, but the NFL, NBA, and NHL all have variable-length playoffs, and their TV packages still sell.

You may have read similar rants in the past in which I’ve advocated 32 teams in a double-elimination format, and Villanova ’85 or LSU ’86, another Final Four team with a poor conference record.

I realize this might have hurt Notre Dame in women’s basketball some years, when both they and UConn were in the top four teams in the country. Them’s the breaks. I’d still rather bias the tournament so conference championships mean something. If you have a  one win, two loss record against a team after your conference championship, can you really say you’re better than them, unless injuries have caused wild fluctuations in a team’s performance? Sorry, late season surges and Cinderella stories aren’t my style.

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