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February 28, 2007

Bracketology Folly

On February 11, Duke lost its fourth straight game, to Maryland. That same night, Syracuse beat St. John's to end a string of four losses in five games. Judging from the commentary at the time, both teams were at risk of missing the NCAA tournament. Fortunately for them, the tournament selection committee was going to wait another month to make its decision. Duke and Syracuse are now both in good position to make the field of 64. Neither will be a favorite to win it all, but perhaps they can help win something else for the rest of us: The end of sports media obsession with predicting the future.

On Feb. 10, ESPN.com's Bubble Watch had Duke as "should be in," and Syracuse with "work left to do." Now Duke is a lock and Syracuse "should be in." In the interim, every SportsCenter college-basketball segment, every broadcast of a college-basketball game, and print coverage of every game is focused entirely on who's in and who's out. Who cares? You don't know, you won't know, you can't know until all the games have been played—hence the rising fortunes of the Blue Devils and Orange(men), and the concurrent fading fortunes of Oklahoma State, Clemson, and Indiana. And even once all the games have been played, predicting the vagaries of the selection process is impossible (or so you'd think scribes might have learned after they got a chance to try to place the field of 65 into a bracket earlier this month).

Then, once the bracket has been set and we finally know who the bubble teams are and not just who they should be, they tend to lose pretty early in the tournament and be forgotten for good. I wrote as much in 2005, updated it before last year's tourney, and last year the five big-conference bubble teams won a total of three games, all in the first round. Bubble teams (seeded 9-12 from big conferences) are the obsession of sportscasters in February, irrelevant in March.

(There are also unnecessary statements of precision about the top teams. Back in December, Sports Illustrated called Ohio State "the team to beat," a decision the article's own writer questioned later, attributing it to the headline writer. It was a sad reminder of the same magazine's statement in November that Ohio State's football team was "the best. period." Florida had a different opinion.)

Sports commentators are obsessed with what can be, rather than enjoying the present. Signing day and the NFL draft, when football players are allocated to college and pro teams, are celebrated and anticipated for as long as actual championship games. Everyone's lining up now to make baseball predictions that will be forgotten at first pitch in April. NBA commentators are already looking ahead to a Mavs-Suns Western conference finals matchup (the Spurs and Jazz be damned, or at least forgotten, apparently).

It'd be one thing if we were any good at predicting sports events. But as ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbook has shown, NFL predictions stink. Sports Illustrated's fantasy-football predictions are questionable. And as I wrote a couple of years ago, predictions about the college-basketball tournament are often pretty disastrous. (That was for a year that played to type, with North Carolina beating Illinois; last year's tournament defied all expectations, with no top seeds making the Final Four.)

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- Sports
- posted on Mar 01, 07

I agree. These brackets are ridiculous and really overrated. I never thought I would grow to hate someone as much as I hate Joe Lunardi. It's all speculative and the opinion of guys like Lunardi and Bilas are so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things that listening to them speculate and make new imaginary brackets is the biggest waste of time. I'm ready for Selection Sunday so we can bid farewell to the bracketologists. www.patrickdonohue.wordpress.com

- Sports
- posted on Mar 01, 07

Without "Best of" Lists and Predictions...what would all these analysts do all day???

- Sports
- posted on Mar 01, 07

AMEN! I also love that ESPN wants me to PAY for access to their in-depth predictions. If that's the case, do they refund me when their analysts get it wrong? Of course not!

- Sports
- posted on Mar 01, 07

What would you have people do, just report the scores and whatnot? This is what sports fans do - we state our ill-founded opinions and then make predictions based on those opinions. What Bilas and Lunardi and Jerry Palm are doing is trying to predict what the Selection Committee will do just over a week from now. I personally like it because it gives me the chance to look at any teams I may have overlooked when it comes to filling out my own bracket next month. I guess my point ultimately is this: there is obviously some demand for what these guys do, so like anything else, if you don't like it, don't watch it, and hope that the market follows your lead. I don't see it following you on this one, but if it does, then kudos, man.

Oh, and Duke is totally going to be a 4 seed this year, but look for them to bow out in the first weekend, depending on the matchup.

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