Let's Talk About Success
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Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the NCAA tournament.
The excitement, the stress, the relief, and even the disappointment of my team getting knocked out early always gave me a strong emotional tie to March.
When you’re young, the tournament is everything. It is after all, the entire college hoop campaign's climax.
It’s what analysts talk about all year long.
ESPN won’t let you forget about it. Each week, you see 5-10 games highlighted by their Journey to the Tourney stamp they stick on important games.
They invented the word bracketologist and even created a job for one guy -- Joe Lunardi -- to put together mock brackets all year long. Hell, Lunardi even puts out his first version of the next season's bracketology a day after the national championship!
Incidentally, ESPN touts Joe Lunardi as their bracket expert, but dude's generally considered to be pretty average in terms of getting them right. The Bracket Project, which ranks a littany of bracketologist, puts him as merely the 22nd best at predicting the bracket.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how fickle the tournament really is.
To me, its one-&-done format is both its biggest allure and it’s biggest detractor. In a single game, no sport gives more room for 'upsets' to happen than basketball.
You only have five guys on the court for your team at one time. For most teams, you really only have one, two, or sometimes three players who do the heavy lifting. If just one of those dudes has an off night or suffers an injury, it can tip the scale of the game rather dramatically.
This is what makes the tournament so exciting; anything can happen. But it’s also what makes the tournament such a random experience.
Most media make so much of what teams do in March. Get upset in the first round by a double-digit seed? What a disappointing year. Make the Final Four? Wow, what an incredible team!
And to a certain extent, they’re right.
The tournament should hold some significance to the year that a team had, but it should stop there. The regular season should hold some significance, but how does it make sense to judge a team’s year on a single game or even six games?
But that’s exactly what happens. Coaches, in particular, get knocked for being the ones who've been upset in the tournament across multiple seasons.
So how should we determine success? It seems so simple, but maybe we should actually consider the season as a whole?
What makes a successful season?
From the team’s perspective:
- Success is winning 20+ games and beating a few quality teams along the way.
- Success is doing well in March, as well as any pre season tournament.
- Success is finishing in the top part of your conference standings.
- Success is being awarded a high seed in March Madness.
In a way, the seed you’re given in March Madness is actually one of the best ways to put a number on how good a team was this season.
From the fan’s perspective:
- Success is having a reason to be excited about your team and wanting to go see the team play live.
- Success is looking forward to a big matchup and talking at work about the game over the weekend.
- Success is beating your friend’s teams and other rivals.
- Success is watching a team grow and improve their flaws.
Yes, it’s great to do well in the tournament, and it will always be crushing when your team gets upset. But once the dust settles, let’s remember the entire season and maybe not put so much emphasis on the now.
Tournament success should matter. But it should be one piece that fits into the puzzle of your season. I would argue that the conference regular season title is a much better indicator of a quality team than the tournament.
With this in mind, I want to talk a little about the media’s reaction to the ACC getting six teams into the Sweet 16.
Six is an impressive number, and the ACC had an excellent year, but let’s take a look at the teams they beat to get there.
- The highest seed they beat is a No 7, and only two victims of the ACC were single-digit seeds.
- The average seed that the mighty ACC defeated? 11.8.
Let me be the first to congratulate the ACC goliath for beating such storied and talent programs such as Middle Tennessee State, UNC Wilimngton, and Green Bay.
Now, it’s not the ACC’s fault that higher-rated teams lost in order to create these double-digit seed matchups, and all they can do is play the teams in front of them.
There’s also something to be said for not losing any of these games.
As I stated, six teams reaching the Sweet 16 is truly impressive, but how does this make them the clear-cut best conference in college basketball?
This is a perfect example of overrating March Madness success/failure. It should matter that they advanced six teams. But it should be one part of the picture.
If, before the tournament, someone’s argument was for the Big 12 as the best conference in basketball, what’s happened in the tournament thus far should have little bearing on that argument.
All year long, the ACC and Big 12 looked to be the strongest conferences. Both had extremely good teams at the top and, while the Big 12 had more depth, that’s also a function of the Big 12 only having ten teams. For my money, I’d take the Big 12 as the best conference this year, but not by a large margin.
We’re a society that suffers greatly from recency bias. What happens now is so much greater and more important than what happened yesterday. But the tournament is a crapshoot. Media, fans and your dad all put 'way too much emphasis on March Madness being an indicator of success. Anyone can win a single game. Ask our friends from East Lansing.
Michigan State lost to a 15-seed, but the Spartans were still one of the top four or five teams this year. They went 29-6 and won a number of games against truly tough teams in a quality conference. They had a player of the year candidate and actually won a number of games while he recovered from an injury.
In short, Michigan State had an incredible year. But all people will talk about is that they were upset by a 15-seed.
Let’s all pledge to try a little harder to shun our recency bias and take a look at the season as a whole.