March 12, 2005

Bubble Fatigue

Why you should ignore all the angst and hype about the NCAA tournament's worst teams.

Carl Bialik

You're in high school. A few of the formerly cool kids have had an off year. With the big party coming up, do you worry about whether those kids will get invited? Of course not. It's not your problem, and they aren't likely to have much effect on the party either way.

Forgive my strained analogy, but I've just been subjected to a week of Bubble Watches and Bracketologies, Build-a-Brackets and Joe Lunardi's hair. College basketball is approaching its beautiful endgame, and instead of exulting in the conference tournaments, the Cinderellas and the country's best teams as we look ahead to March Madness, we worry about the fates of some big-pedigreed schools suffering off-years.

Will Notre Dame get a bid to the NCAA tournament despite its disappointing season that ended in a loss to Rutgers? Indiana just lost its 13th game of the season. Should we throw them a bone anyway? And aside from fans of these teams (I'll be one next year, if Hakim Warrick-less Syracuse fulfills its bubble destiny), should anyone care?

Absolutely not—judging by recent history, at least. I checked the fate of teams with seeds between 9 and 12 in the last seven tournaments. There were 27 at-large teams from the big six conferences—ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10, SEC—with those seeds, the typical ones for bubble teams that get a nod. Not one of those 27 teams made even the Elite Eight. Just six of the teams made the Sweet Sixteen, and none of those bothered to knock off a No. 1 seed in the second round before bidding the tournament adieu and heading back to study hall.

There were three 9-12 teams that made the Elite Eight, but all three were champions of lesser conferences: the Mid-American's Kent State in 2002, the A-10's Temple in 2001, and Gonzaga of the WCC in 1999. Two other times the Zags won their conference, got a seed between 9 and 12, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen; it's how the Zags earned their Cinderella rep.

The familiar lesson: When it comes to seeding, big conferences are overrated, and small ones are underrated. A corollary: The selection committee should lean toward small-conference schools with gaudy records over big-conference clunkers, when filling in those final bracket slots.

But the past doesn't always predict the future, of course, and sports is full of such fallacies based on limited evidence. Commentators used flimsy historical analogues to argue that Illinois, undefeated until last week, needed to lose during the regular season to take the pressure off come tournament time. (If Illinois exits the tournament early, the new conventional wisdom will be that it's bad to have a regular-season loss.) After Wake Forest's first-round loss in the ACC tournament yesterday, SportsCenter flashed this statistic: No team has won the NCAA tournament after losing in the first round of their conference tournament. Now a part of me—the part that doesn't think Syracuse has a chance—is rooting for Wake Forest, just to overthrow this stat.

If a team with a 9-12 seed is going to overthrow my statistical case against big-conference bubble teams and make a run to the Elite Eight, it'll probably be West Virginia or Georgia Tech. And I'd be fine with that. But until they or one of their bloated brethren does so, ignore Lunardi, skip the bubble-wrap parties, and enjoy the conference tournaments.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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