Kentucky is by far the best team in the NCAA tournament this year. So much so that there are prop bets where you can pick Kentucky or the field to win the title this year. Over half of the people who have filled out brackets on ESPN.com so far have picked Kentucky to win the tournament. The Wildcats are a massive favorite. Even Louisville fans will admit that Kentucky is the undisputed best team in basketball this year. Which makes this a crazy thing to say, but it’s true — Kentucky doesn’t get much benefit from its dominance. It still has to win six games, just like every other team in the NCAA tournament. Sure, they’re the number one seed, but that advantage disappears once you get to the Elite Eight. You’re still playing a bunch of really good teams, teams that would have no chance of winning a series against you, but teams that can string together an improbable forty minutes and win a single game.
The NCAA tournament is a great event if your team is an underdog. If your team is a runaway favorite? Well, it’s not so great. That’s because while no one ever wants to criticize the NCAA tournament because the opening weekend is so much fun — can you think of any other sporting event that gets less fun as it continues? The NCAA tourney peaks at the beginning — it isn’t a particularly desirable way to pick a champion. It’s arbitrary and inexact and totally random.
The NCAA tournament is the only major sport in our country — aside from football which never has and never will play a series because it’s impossible — that allows a single game to determine a champion. What’s more, it allows a massive field of teams to play for the championship. There are sixty-eight teams that could theoretically win a title. Sure, you can eliminate all but sixteen of those teams with about a 99.9% probability, but that just adds to the randomness. It’s hard to make the college football playoff or the NFL playoffs or, to a lesser extent, the NBA or NHL playoffs. But college basketball? We have trouble even finding 68 teams that really deserve to go. Yet all of them have a theoretically even chance to win a title. Once the NCAA tournament’s first round of 32 games is over, the regular season doesn’t really matter at all.
Think about how often an NBA champion loses games in the playoff. It’s basketball, random events happen. One game a guy can’t miss from three, the next the entire team can’t make free throws. Single games are frequently poor predictors of the best teams. Even champions occasionally lose by twenty. Over the course of a season or a seven game series these odds even out. The best team wins a seven game series. But a one game playoff? Good Lord, can you imagine if the NBA chose its champion in a sixteen team single elimination tournament?
Kentucky has been flawless all season — presently 34-0 and sending their insanely dumb fan base off to sell platelets or rob banks to try and afford tourney tickets — but they really haven’t won anything so far. (SEC basketball titles don’t count.) If college basketball played a best of five or a best of seven game series among the top teams, it’s virtually assured that Kentucky would win the tournament.
But a single game elimination tournament? Who knows.
The Wildcats still have to win six basketball games in the NCAA tournament. If they don’t win these games then despite being far and away the best team this year, they aren’t the champion. In fact, many will remember them as chokers, the team that dominated in the regular season and then couldn’t make it happen when the tourney got here. But is that really fair at all?
When there is a prohibitive favorite like this — a team we all know is the best in the country — the entire tournament is an exercise in randomness, a hope that the unpredictable will happen if you root for someone else, or, if you root for Kentucky, a hope that probability will remain on your side. Somewhere along the way Kentucky may lose and if they don’t lose they will probably be challenged at least to the point where good fortune has to smile on them. Lose any of these games and the perfect season doesn’t just go up in smoke, the entire year is generally forgotten. So while everyone is collecting money for your brackets in the largest illegal sports gambling ring in our country every year — LEGALIZE SPORTS GAMBLING! — it may be unpopular to point out, but college basketball has the worst way to crown a champion of any sport in the country. Sure, it’s exciting and fun to watch, but if rewarding the best team is the purpose of the season, college basketball frequently fails in that regard. The NCAA tournament is really just a celebration of arbitrary outcomes that aren’t likely to be replicated in a seven games series.
Sometimes the best team wins, but frequently the best team doesn’t win at all. Sure, it’s fun television, but the NCAA tournament is the worst way to pick a champion in major sports. At least, that is, if we care about the best team winning.