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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

My earlier post is proof positive that you can use numbers to prove or disprove anything if you use them right. While everything I said there is technically correct, it was almost fitting that I wrote it on April Fools Day. It paints a picture of the college basketball landscape that is simultaneously accurate and misleading.

There are two reasons why that post doesn't encapsulate the entirety of what should be studied when thinking about college basketball expansion. In one part, I was looking at the wrong things. In another, I was looking at the right things in the wrong way.

First, what I think I was looking at wrong: I looked at the 96-team field as it compared to the 65-team field in terms of the field's makeup of major conference teams vs. smaller conference teams. Perhaps a better comparison would have been what amount of tournament teams make up each of the major conferences.

This year, three of the big six conferences--the Big East, Big XII, and ACC--sent half of their teams to the 65-team dance. The Big XII tipped the scales this year at 7/12, or 58.3% dancing. In a 96-team field, all of the big conferences, with the exception of the Pac-10, who had a down year, would send at least half their teams to the tournament. You'll recall I analyzed the Big East two different ways previously: One with all 16 teams, and one using just the nine that play major college football. Of the nine, eight, or 88.9%, make it to a 96 team tournament. An expanded field would certainly reward mediocrity and worse in the major conferences.

The other mistake I made is one in which I examined the reality, but not the perception. The numbers before refuted the fact that "everybody" gets in by showing that they proportion of  even a 96-team field to the 347 teams that play Division I basketball was on par to other college athletics. Here's the problem with that logic: To the average viewer, the number of schools that play D-I ball is much smaller than 347. Even with ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3(60) and ESPNU, and other channels like CBS College Sports and MASN showing college games, a much smaller proportion of teams matter. There are other teams that are on the radar to their alumni and their locals, and even in those cases, fans of those teams likely have at least a passing interest in the local big-conference team, or attend a big-conference school for grad school ::sheepishly raises hand:: For consistency's sake, let's place the perceived number at 125. That number includes all of the big-six conference schools, plus the schools from the other five conferences that put multiple teams into the 65-team tourney this year: Mountain West, Conference USA, West Coast, Atlantic-10, and the WAC. Using that number, suddenly the tournament seems a lot less exclusive: 52% of teams from those conferences would dance in a 96-team field, up from 36% in the 65-team field. Interestingly, the proportion--65 of 125--looks eerily similar to the 68 of 120 who go to bowl games in the "everybody plays" world of major college football. If one were to restrict even further to the major-football-playing big six conference schools, a whopping 46 of 73, or 63% of teams would see post season play.

Again, a 96-team field would reward mediocrity and worse. The numbers tell you that; it all depends on how you look at them.
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