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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Fun with Numbers

If you ever ask me, I'll openly admit it: I hate math. Yet somehow, I tend to be quite good at it, which serves as an asset: I can turn to numbers if ever I need to get a point across, support or disprove a theory, or show that I know what the hell I'm talking about.
*writers note: All numbers are as accurate as an internet search or my own counting allowed for. Replicate at your own risk.

So let's turn to a number I'm not liking particularly much right now: 96. Ninety-six, in addition to being a city in South Carolina, is the number to which the NCAA Tournament seeks to expand. I firmly believe it should remain at the current 65, or at worst, 68, adding three play-in games so each region gets one. The NCAA has done a study that concludes that expanding to 96 teams makes the most sense, so I figured I'd do a study of my own.

The hypothesis which which I begun was that the potential of expansion would be more about adding teams from the Big East or ACC than from America East or the NEC, as I postulated here. While Doug Gottlieb made it a point of noting during the halftime show of what could have been the last NIT that there's no way of knowing who would have been in a 96-team tournament this year, to me it's pretty elementary. A 65-team NCAA Tournament + a 32-team NIT = (roughly) 96 teams. I realize there's the play-in game to work around, but as you'll see in the work I did, that really didn't factor into the equations any.

For starters, let's agree on definitions. The "Major" schools to which I refer are those in the Big Six--football's BCS--conferences. I realize there's some dispute there. For example, teams like Xavier and Gonzaga, and even conferences like the A-10 and Mountain West can lay legitimate claim to major status, but I'm going to exclude them and here's why: When speaking of the haves and the have-nots across all of sports, the money that these schools have access to through their participation in major college football and specifically the BCS eclipses the potential from the other schools and conferences, despite their basketball acumen. And while the BCS means nothing in college hoops, the differences therein are often replicated in TV contracts.

Which brings about an interesting point. Nearly half of the schools that play basketball in the Big East don't play major college football. Don't you worry, I've got machinations to account for that.

So first of all, I learned that my initial assumption, at least this year, was incorrect. In the current 65-team tournament, 32 of those teams are from major conferences, or 49.2%. That percentage drops to 44.6% if you exclude the Big East non-football schools (while Notre Dame doesn't play Big East football, I keep them in the equation, since they do play major college football and thus have the aforementioned access).  But when the field is expanded to 96 teams, utilizing this year's NIT, those percentages become 47.9% and 42.7%, respectively. In each case, that means that less of the field is taken up by the big boys. And while that difference may or may not be statistically significant, it does say that at the very least, chances are not being taken away from the other schools by expanding the field.

Let's look beyond the major conferences and look simply at multi-bid leagues. This will sweep in some of the others that are "have"s simply in the college basketball sense. This year, in addition to the A-10 and Mountain West, Conference USA, the WAC, and the WCC put multiple teams into to Big Dance. Certainly multi-bid leagues are getting the advantage from an expanded tournament, right? Interestingly enough, the answer is again no. Those 11 conferences made up 47 of the field of 65, or 72.3%. Looking at the field of 96, you've now got 65, for 67.7%.

Clearly the numbers aren't on my side with this one. But I've got another. With 96 teams participating, clearly EVERYONE gets in, right? We're turning college basketball into the "everybody gets a medal" reality of youth leagues. So I figured I'd take a look at some comparable leagues in Division I. I think we'll all agree that FBS football, where over half of the teams go to bowl games, is an outlier. Beyond that, it seems FCS football may be the most stingy, where even with the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 20 teams only 18% of teams go to the post-season tournament, though that number increases to 21.5% when one excludes the Ivy League and SWAC, which traditionally do not participate. College basketball is next, with the women's tournament--are they talking of expanding that as well?--inviting 18.4% of participants and the men's tournament currently inviting 18.7%. In men's college soccer, 24.2% of the teams compete in the 48-team tournament, while the 16 teams that compete in the men's lacrosse tournament represent 26.2% of the field. Baseball invites the most, where their 64 team tournament comprises 30.3% of the 211 eligible teams. An expanded, 96 team field for college basketball means 27.7% of schools that compete at the Division I level go to the postseason tournament. It's a bit high among the benchmarking sports, but by no means is it ridiculous. Looking at the pro ranks, basketball and hockey are the biggest offenders, where 53.3% of the NBA and NHL makes the playoffs. Playoffs in the NFL and MLB comprise 37.5 and 26.7 percent of the league, respectively.

With all of the science behind it, I begin to see why, other than dollars signs, of course, increasing the field to 96 makes a bit of sense.

Good thing I was never a science major. I still say hell no.
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