Bracket Ladder Post-Mortem

Well, that was fun, but I’m never doing it again.

Over the last two months or so of the college basketball season, I engaged in a project I called Bracket Ladder – attempting to show how meaningful the college basketball regular season really is through my own attempt at “bracketology”. I knew it was probably a bad idea to try to balance such a project with my schoolwork, but I didn’t realize just how much of my time it would monopolize. It regularly took me all day to create a new ladder, by which point it would already be out of date. (Is there a reason’s RPI page, the only freely available page of its kind I know of, doesn’t update until late in the morning the following day, as opposed to, say, 1 AM PT at the latest?) By the end it was taking me two days – and I’d barely even crossed over past the tip of the bubble – largely because the tedium of doing the same repetitive comparing work for two days was starting to wear on me. The result: Despite intending to go daily during Championship Week, I pretty much decided to up and quit after putting out a Ladder Tuesday night.

All that, and I didn’t even show what I had intended to show. My original plans for Bracket Ladder involved not just the NCAA Tournament, but coverage of every team contending for the NIT, CBI, and CIT, to show that all of them are good teams in their own way, comprising still less than half of Division I, a smaller percentage than go to the NBA or NHL playoffs despite playing fewer games per team. By showing how “good” can be a relative term, I would show how even bubble teams are really among the elite squads in the country, not to show that expanding the NCAA Tournament further wouldn’t be a disaster, but to show the opposite: that the regular season is plenty meaningful and to counteract the “regular season is meaningless already” mentality behind the recent push for a 96-team NCAA Tournament. (I’m worried that the ultimate motivation for turning the first and second rounds into the “second” and “third” rounds may be to set the stage for an eventual 96-team expansion.)

There’s a part of me that regrets not getting further than the tip of the bubble (not only for not showing what I wanted to show, but for not finding out if there’s a pecking order between the CBI and CIT), and a part of me that wants to do it again next year just to make good on that, but then I realize I can’t even imagine the amount of work that would have been required by tripling the number of teams I would have had to compare (assuming all the auto bids are within or close to the top 140 teams). But even to the limited extent I was able to do what I intended, it doesn’t look good for that premise, as I found plenty negative to say just about the teams in the NCAAs. (Then again, the fact that I was able to find bad things to say about 1-seeds, and good things to say about teams on the wrong side of the bubble, probably suggests that as a whole, a longer ladder would have largely succeeded in showing “good” to be a relative term.)

Whether or not I would have shown what I wanted to show, though, I still think the concept of the Bracket Ladder is still incredibly useful. College basketball’s biggest problem is the lack of a true national “standings”. The polls extend to the top 25 only, have no bearing on NCAA Tournament seeding and don’t always reflect potential tournament seeding. Most “bracketologists” release their findings as a bracket, which is meaningless until the real bracket comes out on Selection Sunday, and the seeds can’t be used to tease out a rough order of teams because they reflect bracketing principles, including moving teams up or down a seed line as necessary. The only alternatives tend to focus on the bubble, or whether or not a team is getting in or out of the NCAAs at all, not seeding within it, and tends to be treated as radically separate from the bracket despite being two sides of the same coin – and they don’t always do a good job with relative standing, often showing three gradations of teams at most. Extending past the bubble into the NIT field, let alone the CBI or CIT fields, is extremely uncommon and subject to more severe versions of the same problems.

Having some sort of reference of this kind would help me figure out what’s at stake for every team in every game (assuming they’re in contention for a postseason tournament). Personally, I think the NCAA Tournament selection committee should embrace more transparency, which they’re slowly being dragged kicking and screaming to. Slowly, they’ve adopted releasing the order of the #1 seeds, then the RPI throughout the season, and now with the “First Four” the last four teams to make the field. But the controversy surrounding the inclusion of VCU and UAB and the exclusion of Colorado, and the tournament committee chair’s inability to explain those moves, suggests they have a long way to go. The argument that the committee doesn’t want to offend fans of included or excluded schools is starting to no longer hold water. If the committee released their full ranking of not just the at-large teams in the field, but some number of teams that were under consideration at the end but wound up on the wrong side of the cutline, it might go far to help teams figure out what they need to do to improve their chances of getting in, and it might help improve the Selection Committee’s work as well.

(It probably says a lot that my own ladder wouldn’t necessarily have disagreed with the selection committee; the last ladder had UAB – and several other C-USA teams – in the field (and two teams on the bubble, Marshall and UCF, that didn’t even make the NIT) and Colorado out. Once the good wins and bad losses of teams I was comparing no longer involved teams I had placed on the ladder, I was left to work with RPI, and my habit was to favor whoever had both the best wins and least bad losses, and if that wasn’t the same team – generally regardless of how good or bad those wins and losses were – I looked at the “index numbers” – strength of schedule, road/neutral record, out-of-conference record, and record against RPI Top 50 teams – completely equally, and even threw out numbers where one team’s wins and losses were both greater than the other. Incidentially, a funny thing I found out during this process: If the Selection Committee were really conference-blind as they claim, it would actually help teams in conferences with a lot of bids, since they play each other so much. By the end, I had 10 of the Big East’s 11 bids on the top five seed lines.)

Because of this deficiency in college basketball, I still believe in the concept of the Bracket Ladder, though I now suspect it would take a team of people to carry it out to the extent I intended (presumably, a team more versed in college basketball than I am). I still consider the colored bar on the right side of the team name to be the most important part of the ladder. Until Championship Week, it’s largely meaningless and several colors are missing because of the uncertainty and density of games during that span, breaking a lot of the symbolism – “Green”, the color for teams whose seed ceiling is 5 or less, didn’t appear until Old Dominion locked up the CAA’s auto bid – and I would consider simply having a single “green” color for NCAA tournament locks until then, but I still think that the “blue” and higher colors are important to show there are still things worth playing for even within the field, and that the seed ranges and colors would still be an important resource during Championship Week, so you know what even the teams already in the tournament are still playing for besides pride. Certainly it would be useful for me.

(I would use progressively darker shades of red to progress from “NIT Lock” – the same shade of red as “Probably out” of the NCAAs – to black for “NIT Probably Out”, the same color as “CBI/CIT Lock” or “CBI/CIT Probably In”, with a gray color for the CBI/CIT bubble and white for “CBI/CIT Probably Out”. All NCAA, NIT, and in the case of the Great West Conference, CIT auto bids would be integrated into the ladder with a different shade of gray for their color in the place they would be ranked in comparison to the other teams on the ladder.)

One last thing: I intended to eventually introduce another concept as part of the Bracket Ladder, “Recent Win Percentage”, an attempt to accomodate and exploit the committee’s decision to no longer consider any particular number of games down the stretch when evaluating teams. The idea was to average your winning percentage in your last game, your winning percentage in your last two games, your last three games, your last four games, and so on. Though it could be useful on its own, it’s mostly useful by contrast with the regular win percentage, but by the time I got around to calculating it, the Ladder was taking long enough already.

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