Is UConn a legitimate national champion?

Yesterday, the coach of the University of Northern Arizona voted to make Ohio State the NCAA national champion despite the fact that Ohio State came nowhere close to winning the postseason tournament the NCAA uses to determine its national champion. 

In doing so, this coach has taken a courageous stand in the age old debate about how to select a championship team in any given sport.  Increasingly, sports leagues are being challenged by two countervailing pressures.  The first is the pressure to determine a legitimate sports league champion.  The second, and more powerful pressure, is the money derived from fans who absolutely love watching “sudden death” elimination contests.

At the moment, the NFL probably does the best job of balancing those two pressures, and they have become the nation’s most popular sports league as a direct result.  The NFL champion (or the “Super Bowl Champion” as they are officially called by the league) is determined by a postseason tournament of somewhat limited participation that provides decided advantages to those teams that perform better in the regular season.  For a low-seeded team like the Green Bay Packers to have won the Super Bowl championship, they had to endure and survive a brutal gauntlet that included an extra game (compared to the top seeds) and a slate of road contests.

The NCAA tournament is probably the second most popular post-season to the NFL, but their system is beginning to tilt toward “arbitrary”.  In their postseason one-off tournament, unlike the NFL’s, the regular season’s best performers are given only slight advantage over teams that performed much worse than they.  The top performers are given a better seeding (years ago they were given a bye into the second round). 

A better seeding should theoretically set the better performing teams on an easier road to the championship. In fact, with the increasingly flat landscape of college basketball competition, and with rule changes, the higher seed no longer provides much advantage at all.  NCAA tournament games are played on neutral sites, putting lower seeded teams on an equal footing with their higher seeded competition.  Now, with the three point shot, a hot shooting lesser talented team is better positioned to take out a more talented team in a one-off contest.  Thus it is no wonder we are seeing more low seeded teams reach the National Semi-Finals.

Such results call into question the legitimacy of the NCAA’s championship system, which was essentially what the coach of Northern Arizona was doing yesterday.  The defenders of the system would argue that the post-season, unlike the regular season, tests a team under the “glare” of elimination.  I’ve heard that argument raised a number of times.  That’s just silly.  Taken to its logical extreme, one could simply skip the regular season altogether.

But its clear that fans don’t give a crap.  They LOVE the excitement of the one-off, “sudden death” post-season and they don’t care whether it produces an arbitrary “champion” divorced from an evaluation of season-long performance.  I understand that, and I know I’m on the wrong side of sports history on this question. 

People like myself and the coach of Northern Arizona are just Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills.  I realize that. 

I don’t know why he does it, but I assume its for the same reason I do it.  I do it because its hard for my mind to reconcile the fact that the ninth place finisher in the Big East Conference is our 2010 “National Champion” of college basketball simply because they triumphed over the second place team from the vaunted Horizon League in a tournament championship game.   But that’s how it is.

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6 Responses to “Is UConn a legitimate national champion?”

  1. steve eichenbaum Says:

    Amen, brother.
    And that was the worst finals game i have EVER seen.

  2. MB Says:

    I don’t think anyone is necessarily making the argument that UConn is the best team in the country, but only that they are the champions of the NCAA tournament.
    While with longer series, we see fewer upsets, & more often the team that we expect to win comes out on top (the better team in the abstract) – I’m not sure that’s always a desirable outcome.
    I think I read on here a long time ago that there are very few upsets in the NBA playoffs, for instance.
    I was disappointed when they changed the 1st round playoff format from 5 to 7 games. It meant even MORE predictability. Hell, why not make it a 51 game series, that way we can be SURE that the better team wins?
    Sometimes, I don’t care who is better in an abstract sense. If a hot-shooting bunch of scrubs win a single-elimination game, right on! That’s why we bothered to watch!
    Ohio might be the best team in the country- I’ve got no problem with that claim. However, the best team isn’t always the champion. I’d say, in the NBA, the best team is despairingly often the champion. In the NFL, less frequently. And in the NCAA tournament… maybe not frequently enough? There’s a sweet spot, I think.
    We watch sports to ESCAPE the crushing determinism of the universe, not reinforce it! 🙂

    • tywill33 Says:

      I see what you’re saying. The surprise outcome adds entertainment value and makes sports more interesting. But as I alluded to in the post, I don’t think its the right method for choosing a champion. If you take the logic to its extreme, there is really no use whatever for the regular season. We may as well simply forego that nonsense and get right at the tournament.

      I like the last line of your comment very much. I needed a smile after this week.

  3. Ra's Head Says:

    In some sense, regular season record is a better indicator of the best team. At least, it should be if every team played every other team. Ironically, the NCAA football system which has no playoff at all, just a ranking system and championship game is the other extreme compared to March Madness.

    I feel the main problem with college athletics is simply that there are far too many teams to have any practical method of reliably determining who is best. Thus, we end up with more arbitrary season ending systems that are still entertaining but fall somewhat short of ideal in my opinion.

  4. tywill33 Says:

    You’ve made great points, and I want to expound on them, but its 4:30 on Friday afternoon and my brain has checked out.

  5. Nathan Says:

    I think European soccer does a great job of determining the “best” team for a season, and retaining the excitement of tournaments. They simply separate the two. Each nation’s regular season consists of each team playing every other team twice, once at home, and once away. Whoever has the best record at the end is crowned champions. They then have national single elimination tournaments, and European tournaments, with teams from every nation. It wouldn’t work with many American sports due to the number of teams and number of games, but it works great over there.

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