Champions aren’t the Best

There has been some discussion recently over whether the format of the NCAA basketball tournament is a good way to find the best team in basketball

Do teams like VCU and Butler deserve to be playing for the championship?  Would it have made more sense to just send all four number one seeds (and there was little debate as to which teams were the top four this year) to Houston and have them duke it out for the title?  Does college football do a better job identifying the best team in the country?

Whoever wins the tournament (please let it be Butler!) on Monday night will NOT be the best team in college basketball.

They will be the the CHAMPION of college basketball, and there is a massive difference.

North American sports abandoned answering “the best team” question over a hundred years ago.  The World Series began in 1903, ensuring that an end of the year tournament rather than a long grinding regular season would determine the champion of baseball.  The idea was so noxious to John McGraw (manager of the Giants) that he REFUSED TO PLAY the American League team in 1904 because he felt his team was already the true World Champions. 

McGraw knew what what many fans and pundits still fail to grasp: in a short series ANYTHING can happen. 

The World Series, even at seven games long, was a poor way to illustrate who had the best team.  It was all about declaring a champion.

In modern times, very few sports actually endeavor to determine the ‘best team’.  Many soccer leagues come closest.  Most global soccer leagues determine their champions based on a round-robin schedule. Every team plays every other team and who ever has the most points (3 for a win, 1 for a tie) at the end is the champion. 

It can be argued that the NBA also does an approximate job of ‘the best team’ winning the championship.  A set of seven game series given the nature of basketball leads to precious few upsets.  The NBA crowns proportionally fewer champions and rarely are there ever massive upsets in the playoffs.  The best teams typically win. 

Baseball used to do a much better job than it does now in associating championships with team quality. When there was only a World Series at the end of the year, the best team didn’t always win, but they usually won. However, each subsequent round of playoffs added, beginning with the League Championship Series in 1969 increased the odds that the champion was different than ‘the best team’.  Now the best team has to endure an additional hurdle: a five game divisional series.  No one really believes the 2010 San Fransisco Giants were “the best team in baseball”.  They were a team that got into the playoffs on the last day, had a couple of good pitchers, got hot and won the World Series.

They are champions. They were not the best team.

So no single elimination tournament can claim to be an effective way to determine ‘the best team’.  Tournaments are exciting and fun ways to declare champions, but they aren’t much use as a testament to the overall quality of a team.  The NFL playoffs are essentially a crap-shoot.  The NCAA tournament is too. Baseball is already talking about MORE playoffs, further widening the gulf between the World Series winner and ‘the best team’.

The BCS is the biggest joke of all.  Not only do they determine the participants based on a deeply flawed method of comparing teams playing different schedules in different conferences who often share almost no common opponents, but then they take the imagined two best teams and have them play each other one time. The BCS is not about fairness, accuracy or naming champions. It’s about rank greed and corruption of the highest levels.

It’s fine to complain about the NCAA basketball tournament, but arguing that the BCS produces a ‘truer champion’ is patently absurd.

In North American sports we’ve sacrificed the inherent irrefutable certainty of long seasons culminating in clear champions based on record for the thrill of short series and tournaments. 

We don’t want the best team to win.

If Americans were worried about the best team winning, there would be no ‘wild cards’ or ‘March Madness’ or ‘BCS’.  These methods are not more or less ‘fair’ than other forms, but they answer different questions.  There is a kind of ‘fairness’ that comes from letting teams play to decide which one advances.  Both sides get an opportunity for victory, but just because a team wins a single game, no one should be deceived into thinking that team is better. As Brad Stevens said after multiple close wins, ‘we just had the ball last’.

There’s a trade off to admitting the best team isn’t the same as the champion.  We gain excitement and fun. We lose our right to overly criticize coaches and management.  Luck, chance, randomness are too much a part of our playoff systems for fans to rant and rave about ‘playoff failures’ or ‘early exits’.  No team, no matter how good, is immune to ‘bad luck’.  As sports fans, we refuse to acknowledge that, however, and it makes us fools.  We rip away, armed with the false knowledge that being better than the other team ought to mean something in a game and a tournament fraught with random chance.  We crush teams, players, and coaches for not having some innate immunity to chance.  Of course, if a team gets too good (like UCLA in the 60s) and they are so much better than everyone else that luck is obliterated, we get bored and stop paying attention altogether. 

As fans, we can’t have it both ways.  We can’t have the beauty of the NCAA tournament and simultaneously vilify coaches who lose to ‘lower seeded teams’. The underdog only has a chance because the teams only play once. If they played 10 times in a home and home round robin, there would be no upsets.  There would be no excitement.  We need luck. We need chance. Sports thrives on it.

We watch sports to be entertained.  Tournaments are entertaining.  Champions are to be celebrated.

Just don’t be fooled into believe the best team won.  It often doesn’t.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.