Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Foul Shots: Seeding failures

Earning a top seed in the NCAA Tournament is an honor. It means that a team has played well enough all season, and probably won its conference tournament. It means that your team is thought of to be one of the best four in the country. But the seeding of the NCAA Tournament, much like the Top 25 rankings we see all year, doesn’t mean anything at all. The seeding is largely hypothetical; a selection committee thinks that these teams are the best, and they rank accordingly.

2014 has been a great year for this theory. The top overall seed in the tournament (previously undefeated Wichita State University) was upended in the round of 32 by eighth-seeded University of Kentucky. That’s legitimately the only upset I predicted correctly. That’s how bad my bracket is.

Two second-seeded teams (Villanova University and the University of Kansas) are gone, knocked out in the round of 32 by the University of Connecticut and Stanford University, respectively. Duke University, a longtime college basketball power, fell in the second round to unheard-of Mercer University. Mercer? Are you kidding me? Well, Duke did lose to No. 15 seed Lehigh University a of couple years ago, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised about the Blue Devils choking anymore.

One of the semifinals in the South Region involves two double-digit seeded teams. No. 11 seed University of Dayton has enjoyed an impressive run, defeating Ohio State University in the second round and Syracuse University in the round of 32. Tenth-seeded Stanford topped the University of New Mexico in the second round, and then pulled off a massive upset by beating Kansas in the round of 32. Either way, a double-digit seed will play in the Elite Eight matchup against the winner of the University of Florida-University of California-Los Angeles game.

At least one or two lower-seeded teams seem to make the Elite Eight nearly year. Dayton isn’t even the only No.11 seed left; the University of Tennessee in the Midwest Region beat the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Mercer by an average of 19.5 points per game to set up a Sweet Sixteen showdown with No. 2 seed University of Michigan.

The most incredible thing about the NCAA tournament is the constant existence of a Cinderella team, which captures the nation’s attention and helps put a smaller school on the college basketball map. But the upsets call into question the current seeding system. If a team is truly deserving of a top seed, shouldn’t they be able to handle a much lower seed?

In baseball, a lower team might have the ball bounce its way and the team might have a little more heart and desire than the other team and could end up winning. In football, someone could get hurt or a coach could come up with some harebrained scheme that works to perfection for one wonderful afternoon.

But basketball is a sport where the most talented team wins out more often than not, because of both the physical nature of the game and the skill required to play it well. Now, there are exceptions to this rule. The 2011 Dallas Mavericks were in no way, shape or form more talented than the Miami Heat. But Dirk Nowitzki turned into a human fireball during the NBA Finals and LeBron James’ brain told him to forget everything about basketball for six games, so the Mavericks won. This is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

But lately, it seems as though the seeding in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t matter. In the NBA, playoff seedings definitely matter; teams with the higher seed have home-court advantage. But NCAA Tournament games are played in front of neutral-site crowds.

Even more importantly, teams only play one game. It’s not a series that the more talented team will win 99 times out of 100. It’s a single game. A star player can have a cold shooting night. A reserve can come out of nowhere, score 28 points off the bench, and lead a low seed to victory. Someone could get hurt. The momentum factor also plays a role: crowds love an underdog. Let’s say there’s seven minutes left in a game in which the higher seed leads the lower seed by two points. A statistician would tell you that based on the seeding difference, the top seed has a better chance of winning.

But then something happens to fire up the crowd. Maybe a player on the lower team throws down a dunk on someone’s head. The crowd immediately starts cheering for the underdog, and the lower seed thinks, “Hey, why can’t we win this game? Why not us?” From then on, it’s anyone’s game.

I’m not advocating a total removal of the seeding system from the NCAA Tournament. I don’t have a perfect alternative. But the NCAA powers should look into tweaking it. I’m having a hard time believing that Mercer is a better team than Duke, and I’m having a really hard time believing that Dayton is better than Ohio State, let alone Syracuse. I know everyone loves an upset, but there’s a limit where the amount of upsets gets a little ridiculous.

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