Hot Reads: Do We Want a Tournament Selection that Makes Sense?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Do We Want a Tournament Selection that Makes Sense?

February 27, 2018

I’m afraid of what happens locally if Nebraska basketball doesn’t make the tournament. Maybe afraid isn’t the right word. I was terrified of what would happen if the Huskers didn’t land Scott Frost. In comparison, I’m merely concerned if Nebraska’s bubble bursts because people seem to really like this team and it’s done the most it could with what it had over the last month. It’s going to hurt if a team like that comes up just short.

But the discussion around that very topic has left me wondering recently: Is the non-stop debate about the bubble actually what people want or is a totally defined qualification process better? The latter would be easy enough to do.

I think you do it with some sort of win-share formula. To use the most cited example in Lincoln of late, when Kansas beats Nebraska in Lincoln by one that doesn’t count as a full win or loss. That game could’ve gone either way, and if we’re only concerned about how good those teams were at that moment a 1-0 score in terms of wins doesn’t accurately portray what happened. So you factor in team strength, location and everything else, and maybe Kansas comes out of that game with 0.55 wins and Nebraska gets 0.45 wins, a more fair representation of what happened when they played.

The goal is to value how a team actually played, and thus it is only results-based. If Purdue stomps Illinois in West Lafayette, it probably played up to its ability and it gets, say, 0.99 wins. If Purdue needs a buzzer-beater to do the same, Illinois probably played better considering team strength and location. Or Purdue played poorly. Either way, the Boilermakers should get dinged for that game so maybe they get 0.49 wins.

Filling out the tournament bracket then would simply be a matter of adding these shares of wins. You take the automatic qualifiers from the conference tournaments, same as always, and then the remaining at-large bids are just a matter of tallying up the highest win-share scores. Every fan would know exactly where any team stood in the rankings going into any game. There would be no “eye test.” Bracketologists are extinct. We’ve removed the human element (minus its presence in the creation of some sort of win-share formula). There is only the agreed-upon scoring method and the leaderboard. All of the discussion around the résumé of a team like Nebraska is gone because at this moment we’d know if Nebraska’s win-share total ranked among top 38 teams not projected to be an automatic qualifier (which is what a team would need to be in the field).

We would also know what Nebraska needed to do on Friday, if it had to beat, say, Michigan handily or if it could even afford a close loss. If you’ve ever watched the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, which are home-and-home affairs score on aggregate, you know the drama this can create. A team coming home knowing it needs to win 3-0 is a ton of fun.

I suspect one major qualm would be the reservation people always have any time someone makes the case that binary wins and losses aren’t perfectly accurate measures: Well, why even play the games then? You’d play the games because actual wins and losses are still determining every championship a team plays for, regular-season conference title, conference-tournament title, NCAA-Tournament title. The formula simply provides the scoring method for tournament qualification. So when a 16-seed puts a scare in a 1-seed and we know that the Cinderella would’ve been awarded a 0.51 win share, that Cinderella is still going home.

My question: Is this better or worse than the current secret-sauce-stats-plus-the-human-hammer method to fill out the tournament field?

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