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Reforming the Tourney, Part 4 - The NCAA Champions League

Champions League Trophy (Courtesy <a href="" target="new">flickr user eldan90</a> via Creative Commons)
Champions League Trophy (Courtesy flickr user eldan90 via Creative Commons)

You may be wondering why the trophy for the biggest club soccer competition in the world (Sorry FIFA, the Club World Cup doesn't count.) is at the top of a blog on college basketball.  Don't worry, the NCAA isn't taking a page from the NFL's apparent playbook and thinking of taking the Final Four international.  Nope, all that's going on here is that I'm looking across the Atlantic for the next piece of my tournament reform series.

You're probably wondering why I'm borrowing ideas from a sport that many college basketball fans don't care much for or know much about.  Well, the inspiration for this post (and actually this entire series) came from two separate conversations I had with two of my college friends during Championship Week.  These conversations were somewhat similar, though I did get really irritated with one of my friends when he started mid-major bashing.  Since this was very early on a Selection Weekend morning when I was trying to wrap up a bracket, invictives were thrown as I'd given up on having a rational discussion.  This is how the family-friendly portion of the conversations generally went.

Friend:  The SEC can't possibly be only getting two teams in this year.
Me:  The conference is down this year.  
Friend: But we always get at least five teams in.  Doesn't that count for anything?
Me:  No.  Remember, the Committee treats all teams as Independents when it comes to at-large selections.
Friend:  (Guiding the conversation to Florida.) But we've won two national championships in the past four seasons.  
Me:  And the team that did that probably isn't going to even be in the field.  Look if you want a tournament that bases invitations on prior performance, you'll have the Champions League.  In college basketball, that's a terrible idea.
Friend:  (Really going off the topic at hand)  But we're a better team than St. Mary's or Creighton or Gonzaga or any other...

Fin.  (Before it gets too ugly.)

Again, just like with every other post in this series, I'm offering up reality-based examples of what tournament reform proposals---even fanciful ones like this--would look like when applied to this past season.  

These two brackets look at what the 2009 NCAA field would have looked like if the Selection Committee all of a sudden decided to scrap the idea of true at-large bids and

  • used the number of bids a conference had received over the past four years as the basis for handing out bids or
  • reviewed each conference's performance over the past four years, giving more slots to the leagues that did better.
To do this, I've heavily modified the Champions League selection process to build these brackets.

Why the Champions League? Well, teams from every first division league in Europe are invited, so there are significant differences between resource levels and quality of play, much like among Division I conferences.  However, the number of qualification slots offered to these leagues varies, based on league performance in the European competitions over five seasons, which is what a few apparently think should happen to the NCAA Tournament.  I decided to cut the window from five years to four, to reflect a typical four-year academic cycle.

Here are the selection rules applied to these brackets.

  • Each conference is guaranteed one slot in the tournament, which goes to the auto bid winner.
  • The play-in game is eliminated, so this exercise seeks to distribute the remaining 33 slots among the conferences.  
  • Slots are handed out based on conference record (with conference tournament games included).
  • Calculations are based on conference membership at the time of the tournament.  For example, Louisville's 2005 Final Four appearance goes to Conference USA's record, not the Big East's.

Bid History Bracket

For this first bracket, I examined the NCAA fields from 2005 through 2008 and averaged the number of bids (automatic and at-large) a conference received. Conferences that averaged 1.5 bids or more were eligible to receive a second slot in the tournament, as they received an at-large slot on a regular basis.  The number of slots a conference received varied based on their average.  For example, the Colonial received one extra slot thanks to their 1.5 bid average, while the Big East received six because of their 7 bid average.  

The SEC received four extra bids thanks to this formula.  Their total of five is indeed an improvement over the three they received in the actual 2009 field.  The ACC wasn't so lucky. as they fell from seven bids in the real tournament to five here, undoubtedly because of subpar bid totals in 2005 and 2006.

The Atlantic 10, Big Ten. Big 12, and Pac-10 also lost bids because of this formula.  The Missouri Valley and WAC gained a bid, and so did Conference USA.  However, that's nothing compared to what happened to C-USA's representation in my second bracket. 

This bracket isn't a really great example. however.  There would be less variance in bid totals as the four-year formula is applied, and each league's bid total would eventually become static.  

Conference Performance Bracket

This bracket is far closer to the Champions League model.  In this case, I tracked the numbers of wins earned by a conference's teams in the NCAA tournament from 2005-2009.  I then divided the four-year win total by the four-year bid total.  For my example, I'll use C-USA (since I've already mentioned them).  Even though C-USA only earned eight bids between 2005 and 2008, teams representing that conference won 16 tournament games.  Therefore, their average or coefficient is 2.  That's higher than any other conference.

That means C-USA is the big winner in this bracket.  Overall, I gave additional bids to conferences whose coefficients were higher than .6, which was the average number of wins during the four-year cycle for all Division I Conferences.  The higher the coefficient, the more bids a conference received.  C-USA ended up earning five additional bids in this manner, thanks mostly to Louisville's Final Four in 2005 and Memphis's performances from 2006 to 2008.

The SEC is also a big winner in this bracket, thanks to Florida's two national titles and LSU's 2006 Final Four.  They earned four additional bids, for a total of five.  The Horizon (thanks Milwaukee's Regional Semi appearance in 2005 and Butler's in 2007), Colonial (George Mason's 2006 Final Four), Missouri Valley (two Regional Semifinalists, Southern Illinois and Wichita State, in 2006), and Southern (Davidson '08) gained also gained bids.  Meanwhile, the West Coast Conference is a surprising a one-bid league under this formula. 

The losers in this formula include the ACC and Pac 10 (5 bids); the Big East, Big Ten, and Big 12 (4 bids); and the A-10 (2 bids).

Wither Next Season?

Under these formulas, the 2010 brackets would be based on the 2006 through 2009 tournaments.  Here's what the bid distribution would look like for each formula.

Bid History Only

Big East - 7
ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10, SEC - 5
A-10, CAA, Horizon MVC, MWC, WAC, WCC - 2

See what I mean about the totals starting to become static?

Conference Performance

Conference USA - 6
Big East, Big 12 - 5
Pac 10, SEC - 4
ACC, Big Ten - 3
A-10, CAA, Horizon, MVC, SoCon, Sun Belt, WCC - 2

In the next part of this series, I'll look at tournament expansion.