Recalibrating What the NCAA Tournament Means

UConn has been playing like #1 for a month, but what about the regular season?

Tonight, Connecticut plays Butler in the championship game of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.  This undoubtedly means something.  And the winner of the game will undoubtedly be something.  The definition of that "something" though, has not yet reached a public consensus.  Or, perhaps more accurately, there was a consensus, which is now slowly wasting away.  Or, perhaps most accurately, any dissension on this definition is all in my head and the heads of other contrarians (both those who dissent for rational reasons and those who do so for the sake of dissent itself).

Regardless of its genesis (and, frankly, of its mere existence), the lack of consensus over the definition of that "something" boils down to this question: Official proclamations aside, can the winner of the NCAA basketball tournament rightfully make a claim -- predicated only on its status as champion of the tournament -- that it is the national champion of all of college basketball for the season?

After tonight, could Butler (an 8-seed with losses to Wright St., Evansville, Valparaiso, UW-Green Bay (twice!) and Youngstown St. (2-16 in the Horizon League!)) or Connecticut (which finished 9th in its own conference and lost 7 out of its last 11 regular season games) really claim to be the champion of all of college basketball? Or should they more appropriately be considered simply what I believe that they are: the champion of a very difficult tournament that bears no relation to the rest of the basketball season?

Make no mistake; each deserves credit for what it has done: gotten hot at the end of the year and beaten a slew of very good teams in rapid succession.  By the same token, however, neither deserves any more credit for something that they have not done: been the best team over the course of the season. The two are entirely different animals and the fact that we conflate the two does a disservice to many teams who spend the entire regular season playing at a high level only to run into a bad matchup (or a bad call) in the tournament.

The question of which team deserves more praise -- the Ohio State or Kansas that dominated the regular season but didn't make the Final Four, or the UConn or Butler who struggled throughout the season but got hot at the end -- is highly debatable and perhaps not possible to answer.  But what is possible is to make a distinction between types of greatness, and to recognize that greatness can happen at any time, not just the end of a season.

For all the problems the BCS has (and they are myriad), I think that one game does a better job of determining the champion of the sport than the NCAA basketball tournament.  And for all of college football fans' sturm und drang about the BCS, we hear not but mere peeps about the NCAA tournament's "inverse BCS" problem.  

While the BCS eliminates teams that may have a claim to be the best from consideration for the "national championship", at least the team that does win will also have a claim to be the best. In the NCAA basketball tournament, so many teams participate that are not even close to the best that very often, this year included, upsets will occur and a team like Butler or UConn will be in position to be named "national champion."  These are inverse but similarly troubling problems.

The simple solution, at least as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, is to stop equating tournament success with championship of the entire sport, even if it's on a merely personal (rather than official) level.  There's sublime beauty in a 64-team bracket where only one team comes out on top, and I believe we need to appreciate that for what it is rather than conflating it with something greater.

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