Bracket Ladder: A new approach to bracketology

One of the most common arguments against a playoff in college football is that it would turn college football into college basketball, where – allegedly – the regular season is completely meaningless.

This is complete bullshit. If you’re going to use the “meaningless regular season” line, college basketball is not the place to use it. (That would be the NBA and NHL, which push more than half their teams into the postseason.)

There are about 347 teams in Division I college basketball. Only 65 get to play in the NCAA Tournament, or 18.7%. By contrast, major league baseball puts 26 2/3% of its teams in its postseason – even counting the NIT, college basketball is nearly as selective, putting 27.95% of its teams in the postseason. But college basketball’s regular season is far more meaningful than baseball’s because its teams only play 30 or so games. We can get a rough estimate of how meaningful the regular season is by taking the reciprocal of the selectiveness percentage and dividing it by the number of games. By that measure, college basketball’s regular season is more meaningful than that of the NFL.

(Incidentially, college football, if it adopted a 11/5 playoff, would still only put 13 1/3% of its teams in the playoffs and have a far more meaningful regular season than any other major sport. Right now, its meaningfullness index number is 5, which means it’s too meaningful because its number is over 1.)

So why does this perception of the meaningless college basketball regular season persist? Undoubtedly, a lot of it has to do with the subjectivity of the process, and its cousin, the unbalanced schedules played by college basketball conferences. In the pros, you know exactly the impact a given game will have on a given team’s chances to make the playoffs. You can’t know that for certain in college basketball. What’s at stake for Kansas entering today’s game? Are they already locked into a #1 seed? Are they in trouble of sinking to a #2 or #3? Are they going to get an ideally situated region, or can they? We don’t know.

The fast-growing field of “bracketology” (a neologism invented out of whole cloth by ESPN) could help answer these questions and help us know exactly what to expect out of a given game. Unfortunately, most bracketologists post little more than their reckoning of where the field stands right now, not how close all the teams are to each other. So we know that North Carolina is (for example, since I’m writing this during 2008’s March Madness!) the second #1 seed. Could they rise up to the overall #1? Could they fall? How far could they fall, and how soon? We don’t know. The closest most bracketologists come, if you’re lucky, is a “bubble watch” feature tracking only whether teams are in or out of the field, not how high they are if they’re in. Often, even that only contains vague descriptions. Seeds matter too – almost all of the national championships in the modern era have gone to the top three seeds. Say what you will about Joe Lunardi and his tendency to get way more play than his accuracy would indicate, but if you’re willing to pay for ESPN Insider, he’ll give you percentage chances for every possibility you could care about. That’s way more than most bracketologists.

If. You’re willing to pay for ESPN Insider. (And the subscription to ESPN the Magazine Insider requires.)

Over the next two months, leading up to Selection Sunday, I’m thinking I’m going to run my own bracketology project, showing the information college basketball fans really want to know: what’s at stake. I’ll tell you exactly who has a shot at the overall #1 seed, the range of seeds a team could get, whether a team’s in or could still be out or if they’re on the bubble or if they’re out but could still be in, using color-coded bars and all the information you could ever need. You’ll get to see exactly where your team is on a ladder extending from 1 to 64 and beyond, and how far they could climb or fall

I’m going to make an effort to use the same information the selection committee uses, but the NCAA seems to be more tight-lipped about what info the selection committee uses than I recall them being in the past. (Is the committee really using game scores now?) So I’m going to use the same information I use for my Golden Bowl selection process, courtesy of’s RPI Breakdown pages: record, RPI, strength of schedule, out-of-conference record, road/neutral record, record in the last 12 games, record against other teams in consideration, quality of wins and losses. (I’m okay with using injury info and the like.) However, this is not an effort to attempt to predict what the selection committee will do, because the purpose is to demonstrate the format. Rather, this is a record of what I would do if I were on (or rather, were) the selection committee.

I’m spending today and tomorrow going through each team’s resume and forming an initial ranking. I hope to have a first, rough sketch of where I see the field by 5 PM PT Tuesday. And we’ll see where we go from there.

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