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.

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