In Praise of Mid-Major At-Large Bids

I haven’t been bashful here about my deep and abiding love for NCAA Basketball, nor my bottomless and profound loathing of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and the evil, cheating, major conference greed-heads who concocted and perpetuate it.

While the two involve different sports, obviously, there is a connection between them: because of the dishonorable, monopolistic relationship they maintain with the television networks that underwrite their football programs, the six BCS conferences (plus deplorable Notre Dame) have far greater name recognition, marketing, and recruiting clout in all of their other athletic programs, so that their teams are given name-based benefits of doubt that non-BCS schools never get. Classic case in point this year: North Carolina and Connecticut are both having off-seasons in hoops, but continue to remain in or just under the Top 25 polls just because people seemingly can’t imagine them not being there. They vote for them based on history and reputation, not current performance. That just doesn’t happen for teams from the Horizon, Summit, Colonial or Sun Belt Conferences, who can’t afford all of the press flacks and spin doctors that the BCS conference teams can with cash backing from the their network television partner lackeys.

Another place where this unfair advantage for the BCS conference schools always comes into play is in the selection process for the NCAA Men’s Tournament, when the BCS conferences will typically end up putting five to eight teams each into post-season play, usually including some with 18-12 overall records and 9-7 conference records, which managed to win first round games in their conference tournaments. That’s considered good enough if you play in one of the six BCS conferences. But meanwhile, over in non-BCS-land, teams can go 25-6 overall, 12-2 in conference, but stumble once in their post-season tournaments, and find themselves in the NIT. This is profoundly wrong.

Now, sometimes such non-BCS teams earn enough respect and attention to get bids anyway, knocking out a couple of those 18-12 BCS bubble teams. These have come to be known as “Mid-Major At Large” teams (henceforth MMAL, for purposes of this article). Some schools, like Gonzaga or Memphis, with established high-level programs, balk at the “Mid-Major” label, but the fact of the matter is, they’re playing at an economic, marketing and recruiting disadvantage compared to the BCS schools, so when they get into the NCAA tournament without winning their own conference tournaments, they, too, are MMALs.

The number of MMALs can swing widely from year to year. Since the 1997-1998 season, the largest number of MMALs in a season has been twelve (1998 and 2004), and the lowest number has been four (last year). This year’s season seems to me like it should be at the higher end of the MMAL spectrum, at least in a fair universe, anyway. (Which the BCS is opposed to, as a point of principle).

Among the six BCS conferences, the Pac-10 may be having its worst season ever, and will likely get (at most) only two bids. The hyper-glandular Big East (which normally hopes to pack eight or nine teams into the NCAA tournament just because it’s so damn big) isn’t as deep as usual this year, and I only see six, maybe seven, of those teams making it. Likewise, the Big 10 and SEC aren’t particularly deep, with only the ACC and the Big 12 looking to join the Big East with six or seven teams. So this frees up plentiful space for teams outside of the BCS conferences.

And some of those teams are having fine and deserving seasons themselves. Using the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), one of the key tools deployed by the selection committee when assessing the field, 25 of the top 65 teams, as of today, are from non-BCS conferences. These teams represent eleven conferences, so since each of those conferences is guaranteed at least one team in the NCAA Tournament, this means that there are currently 14 potential MMALs with good cases among the Top 65 teams in the Nation per the RPI. There are a total of 34 at-large bids (65 tournament teams minus 31 automatic bids), so that would leave 20 for the BCS schools.

Are a large number of MMAL’s good or bad for the Tournament? I think they’re great for it, because of the enhanced interest that Cinderella teams garner when they make deep runs. (At least for real basketball fans, anyway. I guess if you are a network advertising executive or BCS corporate shill you might feel differently and pull for a UNC-UConn championship every year, but this is because you are stupid and vile). While a BCS conference team with an 18-12 record and an 11th seed technically counts as a Cinderella if it makes it to the round of 16 or Eight, outside of their alumni and student bases, nobody’s going to get as excited about that as they are when a Davidson or a Valparaiso or a George Mason or an Old Dominion goes that far.

But the deeper question is: when there are more MMAL’s, does that actually result in more Cinderellas? And I’m here today to answer that with a definitive, mathematically-derived “yes.”

At the end of last year’s tournament, when a record-low number of MMAL’s resulted in a fairly dull, high-seeds only Elite Eight and Final Four, I went back and reviewed tournament results since the 1997-1998 season to gauge which years and which rounds experienced the most Cinderellas. I measured this by creating “Cinderalla Points,” which are the sums of the surviving seeds at each round. The higher the Cinderella Points, the more the lower seeded teams are advancing in each round. If the top seeds won out, the minimum Cinderalla Points available at each round would be:

Final Four: 4 (1 seed + 1 seed + 1 seed +1 seed)

Elite Eight: 12 (1 seed + 2 seed) times 4 regions

Sweet Sixteen: 40 (1 seed + 2 seed + 3 seed + 4 seed) times 4 regions

Round of Thirty-Two: 144 (1 seed + 2 seed + 3 seed + 4 seed + 5 seed + 6 seed + 7 seed + 8 seed ) times 4 regions

The “Most Cinderella” Final Fours since 1998 were in 2000 (two 8 seeds + a 5 seed + a 1 seed = 22 Cinderella Points) and 2006 (an 11 seed + a 4 seed +  a 3 seed +  a 2 seed = 20 Cinderella Points). The “Least Cinderella” Final Four was in 2008, when all four top seeds advanced to the Final Four for a lowest possible score of 4 Cinderella Points.

The “Most Cinderella” Elite Eights were in 2000 (40 Cinderella Points) and 2002 (35 Cinderella Points), compared to a lowest possible of 12 Cinderella Points.

The “Most Cinderella” Sweet Sixteens were in 1999 (88 Cinderella Points) and 2000 (85 Cinderella Points), compared to a lowest possible of 40 Cinderella Points.

And the “Most Cinderella” Rounds of Thirty-Two were in 2001 (209 Cinderella Points) and 1998 (201 Cinderella Points), compared to a lowest possible of 144 Cinderella Points.

So how do we link this to the number of MMALs in the Tournament? Simple: we set up a spreadsheet with the number of MMALs in the Tournament, the Cinderella Scores for each round of the Tournament, and then we run a statistical analysis to assess correlation between the figures. The figure at left provides these results (click it for a larger version).

The figures across the bottom are the Coefficients of Correlation between numbers of MMALs and Cinderella Points at each round. Coefficients of Correlation range from 0.0 to 1.0. Negative numbers mean a reversed correlation (if MMALs go up, Cinderella Points go down), positive numbers mean a direct correlation (if MMALs go up, Cinderella Points go up). A Correlation Coefficient of 1.0 means perfect alignment between variables, while 0.0 means no discernible relationship between the two. The higher the coefficient, the stronger the correlation. It’s important to note, though, that correlation is not causation: one factor does not cause the other factor, but in the case of a positive correlation, an increase in one factor can be expected to correspond with an increase to the other factor.

So what do our results tell us? Interestingly, an increase in MMALs has a slightly negative Correlation Coefficient for the Round of Thirty-Two, but then shows a statistically significant positive Correlation Coefficient at the Round of Sixteen that declines (though is still worth noting at the Round of Eight) to a relatively insignificant level by the Final Four. It’s not an overwhelmingly strong relationship, but it’s definitely there.

So, again, while not demonstrating causation, this analysis tells us that if there are more MMALs in the Tournament, then we can, in a typical year, expect to see more Cinderellas playing in the Tournament’s second weekend, especially in the Sweet Sixteen. Since those Cinderellas (especially the ones from outside of the BCS conferences) tend to generate more media interest and fan excitement in the Tournament (again, except for among the trolls in the network advertising sales department or Big 10 Corporate Office), the NCAA would be well-served by skipping a bunch of 18-12 teams from the BCS schools and replacing them with some of the 14 worthy MMALs that appear to be lined up in the wings at this stage of the season.

I’ll update the table once selections are made this year and track progress to see how the analysis plays out. I suspect it will be proven sound, unless the evil BCS-affiliated gnomes manage to carry the day on Selection Sunday and give us a 16-14 North Carolina or a 17-13 UConn in the tourney instead of a 24-7 Oakland or a 23-8 Wichita State.

Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen, though expectations for justice and fairness remain low.

An(other) Open Letter to Our New Friends at the Gym

Dear New Gym Friends,

Hooray for you! You have decided that 2010 will be the year that you will spend getting fabulous and fit by coming to the gym for a spell after the New Year. Nice work! Good on you! Here’s wishing you great health and fitness!

Last year, around this time, I sent an open letter to the folks who had decided that 2009 was going to be their year of great success in the health department as they worked out under their brand spanking new gym memberships. You can read it here. Go ahead! Click through! I’ll wait for you here.

You’re back? Okay. Here’s the deal: the most important part of that letter was where I explained how not to be a gym jerk. Yes, I know those of us who have been there for a long time (even longer than your three month trial membership!) can be kind of stodgy and cranky and set in our ways, but I think that everyone all around will be happier if you avoid the jerk maneuvers cited in the link, and try to fit in with the existing culture of the place. When in Rome and all that.

Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks, I have to say that I’ve seen a lot of the gym jerk behaviors mentioned in last year’s letter resurfacing, along with some new items of annoyance that will get a “jerk” tag stuck on your back in no time flat. Here are a few of the new gym jerk behaviors that the class of 2010 has offered:

1. The treadmill is not a Dance Dance Revolution machine. Yes, I’m sure that what you are listening to on your iPod is mighty infectious, but you absolutely may not bust a move on the treadmill, windmilling your arms and pointing at people in the free weights section while doing a two step. There will be no sassy dance moves at the gym, unless you are in the “Sassy Dance Moves Aerobic Class” on Tuesday nights at 7 PM, when you are contained in a room where none of the rest of us have to watch you. Exhibiting such moves on the treadmill makes you a jerk. And a particularly annoying one at that.

2. Similarly, the elliptical is not a skateboard. You may not lock one leg while “pushing off” with the other, so that your entire body goes UP and DOWN and UP and DOWN and UP and DOWN with the rotation of the elliptical’s pedals. I can’t tell you how insanely distracting and borderline disturbing this is to the people on the ellipticals around you. Such distraction makes you a jerk.

3. If you are not wearing some form of boxing, training or sparring gloves, you may not use the sole heavy bag in the entire gym. Some of us have serious issues that we like to beat out of our systems during a half hour of pummeling the bag. It makes us very irritable when we are unable to do so because you are pitty-patting at the bag with bare hands. That’s a big-time jerky maneuver.

4. There are six hoops on the basketball court. If there’s nothing organized going on, this means that six people can happily shoot layups, three pointers and more, each in their own little sector of the gym. This is not the time for you to see if you can make a three-quarter court shot, accordingly. As you heave your ball toward the hoop at the opposite end of the gym,  you might notice a grouchy old-timer there, working on his underhand scoops. Your shot will invariably fall short, narrowly missing said codger, who will be very, very unhappy, and call you a jerk. Or worse words that are synonymous thereto.

5. Yes, I know your little gremlin has mommy separation issues and doesn’t like going into the babysitting room, but that doesn’t mean that he should spend the evening following you around as you conduct your workout, hanging on the weightlifting machines or trying to make the pedals on the elliptical spin by hitting the machine’s arms, all while staring balefully at any other adults who happen to be working out near you. You need to leave little Damien at home or get him to suck it up and play nicely with the other kids in the babysitting room, please and thanks, lest he use his evil psychic powers to snap bars and cables, causing grievous injury to we innocents, which would make you a jerk for spawning him. With Satan.

I’ll leave it open to readers here to add other observations in the comments section, as they did last year, to help you avoid being a jerk. Please, please, please read them, and last year’s comments as well, and do your darnedest to avoid ending up on the gym jerk list. Everyone will be happier that way! Huttah!

Make it so, resolutionaries. Make it so.

JES

Slugwear

001If you happened to stop by my house unexpectedly, upon ringing the doorbell, you’d very likely be greeted by me, wearing the ensemble pictured at left. (Click the snapshot for a larger copy of the picture).

This is my current Slugwear ensemble, which I define as those special, comfortable, much loved items of apparel that one wears in the privacy of one’s house, long, long after it is advisable to do so. I think my total financial investment in my favorite Slugwear outfit is about twelve dollars. Despite its humble origins, I’ve probably spent thousands of hours in this outfit, eating many wonderful meals, listening to countless delightful albums, and laying on the floor (because I’m not allowed on the couch) watching hundreds of great movies. That’s some fine return on investment, let me tell you.

My current Slugwear ensemble consists of a pair of draw-string waisted, knee length, blue plaid shorts that I bought at the Latham K-Mart on Route 2 about 15 years ago. The hems have been completely torn out of the legs, and the right pocket is ripped across the top, so that it hangs down uselessly to my side. At some point, I splashed bleach on the shorts, so they’ve got sickly white spots all over them, most prominently on the lower left side, as you can see in the photo.

My favorite Slugwear shirt came from Target. It’s probably about eight years old. The cuffs on the sleeves frayed at some point, so I tore them off. They collar is torn down the right side, so it may have to go the way of the cuffs at some point soon. A couple of days ago, I barked my shin while walking around during the night on a storage bin that was left in our front hallway (insert Helen Keller joke here), and it bled pretty extravagantly, but fortuntely, Slugwear is also handy for minor household medical emergencies, so the stains you see all over the shirt can be explained by me mopping up my wounds with my sleeves. How handy! Thank you, Slugwear!

I am operating on the assumption that I am not alone in having a much loved, overworn household ensemble for evenings when company is not expected. What are your favorite Slugwear items? And do your family members live in fear that you might actually go out in public in them?

Report from Key West

buoyIt’s been almost 23 years since the last time I was in Key West, but I remembered it being (a) warm, (b) fun, and (c) affordable, so when we were planning a family holiday trip this year, that combination struck us as a winning one, and we decided to head way South for a week. We flew into Fort Lauderdale nonstop on Southwest, then rented a car for the drive out to Key West. While it’s only about 190 miles, it’s usually a four- to five-hour trip, since much of it is on two-lane roads with speed limits in the 35 to 45 range. But it’s a pretty drive, and warm, and fun, and affordable, so I wasn’t about to complain.

Katelin, Marcia and I rented a spectacular little cottage right downtown on Olivia Street, with a heated dipping pool, a deck for suntanning with views of the neighboring tin roofs (one of which, as you can see, is rusted), ample opportunities for planespotting, a great gourmet kitchen (complete with counter model), and a spectacularly mature bacon fat can. (It is the South, after all). The immediately adjacent neighborhood offered a nightmarish elementary school mascot,  a Sand Bumble, fresh pirate fish, a dance studio where I listened from a block away to a lone woman dancing an insanely rhythmic and powerful flamenco, lots of chickens and roosters running wild, and a grocery named after my father and nephew.

kpierBut the best neighborhood attraction to a native Southerner like me was, of course, the graveyard, in this case the awesome Southern Keys Cemetery, an entrance to which was a mere half block from where we were staying. Because of the hard coral and high water table, most of 100,000 deceased are interred at or above ground level, (which lends itself to the interesting grave on legs), making this a true necropolis, even for the condo set. The Cemetery offers some strikingly beautiful vistas, and its inhabitants are clearly well visited and remembered. Markers range from the classical to the touchingly simple. There’s also a memorial to the sailors of the USS Maine, the 1898 sinking of which in Havana, Cuba (a mere 90 miles away) set off the Spanish-American War. One of the Maine‘s masts is at the Naval Academy, so I used to see it regularly. Nice to see this memorial as well.

duval2A few blocks past the cemetery is Duval Street, the heart of this most-party friendly town. We spent a couple of days working our way around Duval and its environs, including Mallory Square, the famed terminus of Route 1, the Audubon House and the Hemingway House, where the big-footed polydactyl cats (like our thumbed Ladyjane) have their own Hemingway Cat Houses out among the gardens. As we happened to be in Key West for New Year’s Eve, we got to see Duval turned into a blocks long, traffic-free, outdoor party to boot. We spent most of the evening in Margaritaville, with great new friends from Missouri (Royals fans, no less!) we’d met earlier in the week on the golf course. Just before midnight, we went out and joined the crowd gathered to watch the annual drop of the drag queen in a giant shoe, who was later replaced by a slightly less well-dressed (but equally popular) dancer. It was a great night out, especially with The Queen of the New Year.

Marcia found another of my now favorite Key West attractions when she stumbled into the West Martello Gardens while out for her morning run. My distaste for sand and history of skin cancer makes sitting out on the beach one of my least favorite warm weather activities, so what made these gardens so great for me was that they were right on top of the beach, so on one side of the fence, Katelin and Marcia could sun tan, while I could sit in the shady green on the other. The gardens were built in an old, crumbling fort, and there were lots of cool little nooks and alcoves filled with green living things. I found a perfect table, and spent a great afternoon reading one of my excellent Christmas books. jrbbq2I also found a neat old oil painting tucked away in one little corner that had been exposed to salt water and air, so that some of its elements had crumbled, leaving something more beautiful and strange for all of its accidental mishaps. West Martello was free, but I’ve rarely been happier to put a sizable contribution in a donations box as I was this day.

Most days, I got up early and went out and explored things on my own while Marcia and Katelin got their beauty rests (even on vacation, my body doesn’t let me stay in bed past 7:00), and I usually made a stop at the Southernmost Waffle House while I was out and about, as reported earlier. I also spent a morning trying to find the spot where my Navy chums Greg and Blaine and I would park back during our prior visit all those years ago, for full-day barbecues on the beach. It didn’t take me too long to identify the spot on Smathers Beach where we would bake ourselves bronze all day long, as well as the nearby parking lot where we pretended we belonged, even though we didn’t, since it was reserved for campers. (We would just park real close to someone else’s camper and pretend we owned it, or were part of their party). You’re still not supposed to park where I parked, but it was early, so I did. I also got a shot of the BOQ where we stayed, though I had to get it from afar, since I no longer have access to such facilities.

Having a kitchen in the house meant that we didn’t eat out as often as we might usually during a long trip like this, but three meals do merit mention. The first was, in fact, at home, when I got a couple of pounds of some of the sweetest, freshest, most succulent shrimp that I’ve had in ages and ages for our New Year’s Eve dinner. Simply magic. The secondtort3 was at a relatively new restaurant called Out of the Blue. They had a great outdoor courtyard a couple of blocks from our house, where Marcia fabulously avoided the flashes of the paparazzi and Katelin explored her inner nom nom nom. The final meal worth mentioning was at Cafe Marquesa, and all three of us agree that it was clearly, easily, obviously among the two or three finest meals out that we have ever experienced, with not a shred of hyperbole in that statement. Everything was simply perfect, with flavors unlike any we’ve experienced before, and fine ambiance and exceptional service capped one of those evenings out when everything just clicks. This one will probably lead to another future foodie blog post about other such perfect meals, so I’ll save the details for when I do that. Here’s their website, in case you too might be going to Key West. You need to go there, if you are.

The other adventurous highlight of the vacation was our full-day catamaran trip out the Dry Tortugas, 80 odd miles north and west of Key West, where we got to sit on the beach and snorkel around the massive, crumbling Civil War-era Fort Jefferson, tucked away on a remote island, incongruously with a moat surrounding it. Marcia and I took a self-guided tour around the interior of the fort after snorkeling, at which point she returned to the beach with Katelin, and I and my trilobite book found another lovely interior shaded space in which to explore our inner geek. It was interesting to watch geological processes unfolding in man-made settings, as the lime in the mortar of the fort’s bricks was slowly leaching out to form stalagmites, just as happens in caves. It was also a great treat to watch the Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeling above us on their seven-foot wings. Truly spectacular, and hard to see anywhere in the United States outside of the Florida Keys. The only downer on the day was that a cold front passed through and whipped up the seas a bit, so the two and half hour catamaran ride back was a bit of a bump and bob trip.

We left Key West on Saturday to drive back up to Fort Lauderdale for an evening, and on our way back up we stopped at another totally worthwhile free attraction, The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, where injured wild birds are nursed back to health, ideally to be released back into the wild, or to be given safe, secure homes for the rest of their days if they are unable to survive on their own. The Center provided an amazing ability to get up close and personal with egrets, pelicans, anhingas, owls and other native birds, though you did have to pay close attention to which way they were pointed when they were sitting above you.

All told, a wonderful vacation in a great, warm, affordable little town. It’s a long way to go, and it’s hard to get there, but once you do, you’ll be glad you did.