Saturday, March 17, 2007

March Madness: Curmudgeonly "Top Four" Rule Works

A few days ago, before the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament began, we suggested the NCAA selection committee should adopt a guideline--which we called the "Top Four" rule--that would normally prevent a team from competing if it didn't finish in either the top four of it's conference regular season standings or the top four of the conference season-ending championship.

The rationale for the rule is to get in more mid-major teams and less mediocre teams from so-called "power" conferences, while also making the regular season count for something and reducing "bubble" speculation.

Turns out the rule works quite well.

In this year's March Madness field, there were six teams that would have failed the Top Four rule: Duke and Georgia Tech from the ACC; Marquette and Villanova from the Big East; Michigan State from the Big Ten; and Arizona from the Pac-10. Of those, five lost in the first round and the only one to advance--Michigan State--did so by beating Marquette in a match-up that ensured at least one of the Top Four losers would go to the next round. We'll see if Michigan State gets any further today.

(It's particularly egregious that the selection committee would put two middlin' "power" teams like Marquette and Michigan State in a first round match-up. Why not let them go against some good mid-major schools to see if the power conferences really are all that deep.)

Our take: the Top Four rule would effectively bar from the tournament teams that the regular season showed really have no business being there in the first place, while opening up a few at-large slots for deserving mid-major teams that make the tournament more interesting and fun.

UPDATE (Sunday March 18):

Two things to say here, both of which support our guideline (we say guideline because it should be a general rule, subject to exceptional circumstances):

1. The only remaining team that would've flunked our Top Four guideline, Michigan State, handily lost to North Carolina in the second round. Indeed, Michigan State was the only team not to take a game down to the wire in yesterday's (Saturday) second round.

2. One reader raised a good point: how'd the at-large teams from mid-majors fare? After all, if they all lost in the first round, there wouldn't be such a great case for inviting more of them, at the expense of power conferences.

Here's the answer: there were six mid-major at-large berths awarded this year--Butler, Old Dominion, Nevada, Brigham Young, Xavier and Southern Illinois. Four of them advanced to the second round: Butler, Nevada, Xavier and So. Ill. Moreover, the two that didn't advance--ODU and BYU--lost to other mid-major at-large teams.

In the second round, Butler advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating Maryland, and So. Illinois handily beat power conference team Virginia Tech.

Pretty clearly, the mid-majors outplayed the power conference Top Four flunkers, although, unfortunately, we have no head-to-head test.

We ought to also note that none of the Top Four flunkers had to play a particularly tough first round opponent. Georgia Tech played the highest seed, a #7, while the rest played opponents seeded between 8-11. And while Mich. State lost to a #1 seed in the second round, it was nowhere as thrilling as Xavier's loss to #1 seed Ohio State.

Again, the data points in favor of our Top Four guideline.


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The Green Miles said...

This is only half of the story, though. How did the mid-majors who got at-large bids do? I read somewhere that six mid-majors got at-large bids, but can't figure out which are conference champs and which are the at-larges. If the Xaviers did better than the MSUs, then you've got a good case.

X Curmudgeon said...

Well Miles, glad you asked. The six at-large mid-major teams are Butler, Old Dominion, Nevada, Brigham Young, Xavier and So. Illinois. Four of the six (Butler, Nevada, Xavier, So. Ill.) won their first round games. One--Butler--won it's second round game (and So. Ill. is yet to play).

Butler knocked off Old Dominion in the first round in a battle of mid-major at-large teams, but then proceeded to defeat fourth seed Maryland from power conference ACC.
Nevada defeated Creighton, which got an automatic berth from its conference.

Xavier beat BYU in another match-up of at-large mid-majors, then almost pulled an upset of Ohio State in the second round, losing in OT.

So. Ill. defeated Holy Cross, another automatic qualifier, in the first round. Today's match-up between the Salukis and Virginia Tech will be a good test of mid-major versus power conference.

It's too bad the selection committee didn't mix up the at-large mid-majors with the weaker power conference teams to see whether the power conferences are really all that deep.

On balance, we'd say the mid-major at-large teams did quite well (in fact, the only two losses were to other mid-major at-large teams).

The Green Miles said...

Think these stats will convince collgege football to let teams from smaller conferences get a shot at the title? Yeah, me neither. If Butler played college football, they'd be lucky to get the Outback Bowl!

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