March Sanity

What happened to the madness in the men’s NCAA tournament?


After four days of close, intense games and some memorable last-second shots, the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship Tournament, aka March Madness, has narrowed the field from 64 to 16 teams, and the results are surprisingly predictable. In each of the four regions, the top-three seeds are still playing; two fourth seeds, Xavier University and Gonzaga University, are still in the mix, and one fifth seed, Purdue University, is still in action.

The only team that qualifies as a Cinderella is the University of Arizona, a 12th seed whose route includes an upset win over the University of Utah in the first round. To reach the Sweet 16, ‘Zona beat a lower seeded Cleveland State University. But the glass slipper is an especially poor fit for Arizona as the school has been in the tournament every year for decades; their sudden rise is more like an experienced organization using its veteran moxie rather than a small school coming out of nowhere to establish itself in the national sports consciousness.

This run of games where the favorites win is a far cry from three years ago when the tournament featured one shocking upset after another, and the Final Four ultimately consisted of a second seed, a third seed, a fourth seed and an 11th seed (George Mason University, one of the least likely candidates to reach the top tier of the tournament). Instead, this year’s tournament seems like a broad continuation of trends from last year where each of the four No. 1 seeds in the regionals made it to the Final Four.

Play resumes on Thursday evening, and until then conspiracy theorists should have a field day. How did the NCAA, a tournament known for its unpredictability, become as easy to forecast as the NBA playoffs, where lower seeds win a playoff series only once every two or three years?

There are two good reasons for the current trend. The first answer lies in the depth of the leading teams. There are more than 340 Division 1 teams that comprise the field in the NCAA tournament, and the talent distribution is uneven, with the big, best-known schools getting more than their share of the top recruits. This isn’t new, but the coaches at the top schools now know that their best players are likely to be in the program for only a year before heading to the NBA, so they recruit accordingly and build deep benches to aggressively restock their talent pool.

In the past, big-name schools seemed vulnerable in the tournament as their teams were often little more than showcases for the stars. Typically, some smaller school, a Cleveland State or Western Kentucky University, with players who were in their third or even fourth year, could execute complex offenses and stingy defenses and upset the bigger name teams.

If anything, the last two tournaments indicate that coaches have learned the lessons of 2006 and are constructing teams that are less likely to falter due to their inexperience. The University of Memphis, the No. 2 seed in the Western regional, faced a stern challenge from the little-known California State University at Northridge, but survived by going deep into their bench to send waves and waves of fresh defenders in a pressure defense that unraveled Cal State’s valiant upset attempt. The University of Louisville used a similar tactic to fend off Morehead State in the first round.

The heightened level of predictability has worked well for the hoops fan in chief. President Obama’s bracket, which was one of the more conservative sets of predictions, is looking good right now. The president correctly chose 14 of the 16 remaining teams; he went eight for eight in forecasting Saturday’s games.

The question that emerges from this weekend is not whether this tendency toward the top seeds advancing is a trend. (It is.) The real question is whether or not the trend is inexorable? Chances are, the pendulum will swing back.  As John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus illustrates, we’ve been down this road before. In the mid ‘90s, the tournament’s top seeds held sway with an iron fist over the lower-seeded competition, but by the end of the decade, chaos reigned among the brackets again. He noted in a blog post, “in 1999, there were more double digit seeds in the Sweet 16 (four) than twos, threes and fours combined (three).”