Let Teams Choose Their NCAA Bracket Position

Nate Silver has (another) truly insightful post demonstrating the possible perverse advantage of receiving an 11th seed instead of an 8th seed in the NCAA tournament.

He explains:

[An average] team like Arizona would have a considerably better chance — about two-and-a-half times better, in fact — of winning its second round game and advancing to the Round of 16 as a No. 12 seed than as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed. This, of course, is because it has not yet had to face the No. 1 seed.

He also understands why this is a problem:

I think you need to be concerned any time you create an incentive for losing — which is what the current tournament structure does. For example, a team playing in a conference championship that figured to be a No. 9 seed if it won the tournament but a No. 11 seed if it lost might have some incentive to tank.

But when it comes to solutions, he misses an obvious one (which is somewhat inspired by Scorecasting’s suggestion that NFL coaches bid for possession in overtime).  The NCAA could rank the 16 teams in a bracket  from best to worst as it does now — but then allow the teams (starting with the number one seed) to choose which bracket position they would want to occupy.   The first and second ranked teams would almost certainly choose different halves of the bracket.  The 15th and 16th ranked teams would almost certainly still have to play the top ranked teams (because no other bracket positions would be left).  But we would quickly see whether the 8th ranked team would follow the Silver reasoning and opt for what is now the 12th ranked bracket position to increase its chance of surviving to the Sweet Sixteen.

Silver prefers a solution where the NCAA ranks only the top 6 teams, and the rest of the bracket position are determined by lot.  He envisions a tournament selection show “expanded from one hour to two, with the last half involving Vanna White and Dean Smith drawing ping-pong balls out of a tumbler.”  But I’d prefer for the second hour of the show to be having coaches on the clock choosing in succession their bracket position.  Creating an additional strategic decision might be even more fun than drawing ping-pong balls.


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  1. Robbie says:

    You neglect other factors, in particularly geography. Most teams will choose a seeding that will keep them close to home, rather than one that gives them easier opponents. it’s not obvious how you could simultaneously choose location and seed and do so in an equitable manner.

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  2. Josh says:

    What about a system – and this would been going back to the old way of determining locations and doing away with pods – of having seeding done like we do now, but go back to where half of one bracket is all played in one location, and the other half played in the other location, and then basically re-seed (or re-arrange) the bracket in each location.

    So you have a 1/16, 8/9, 5/12, and 4/13 in a given location, and the 1, 9, 12, and 4 wins. Then re-seed the teams so that the 1 plays the 12 and the 4 plays the 9, instead of doing 1 vs. 9 and 4 vs 12 as it is today.

    Then when you get to the regional semifinals, you can re-seed again, based on who is left.

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  3. Drew says:

    I have thought about this before and it brings up a very interesting point. Though, I would argue that it has a very large flaw in that lower ranked seeds get a choice of the opponent while the higher ranked seeds do not. This would allow the lower ranked teams to pick opponents that may be better against an “average” team, but that is a favorable match-up for the lower rank teams. This advantage seems as though it may give a team even more incentive to lose so that they can choose who to play.

    Perhaps the way around this is to rank the teams 1-16 and the higher seed chooses the opponent and the region?

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  4. Chris Bennett says:

    Or they could reseed, a la the NHL playoffs.

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  5. Chris Bennett says:

    If the 8 beats the 1, it gets the 1-seed’s draw for the rest of the tourney. So in effect, 8s are one big upset away from an easier draw.

    Not so for 11 seeds, for example, who replace a 6 if they win, but get a 6-seed’s tougher draw the
    as long as they survive.

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  6. John says:

    I like the idea however I think you over value the incentive of playing a weaker team. If a coach has hig confidence in his preparation skills he might select a strong team to play against the first weekend because he’ll have the opportuntiy to prepare for that team. Also there is the matchup factor. NCAA bball has so much to do with matchups and playing a “worse” team might be less appealing than playing a team that you simply match up with well. And finally your dealing with competetive college athletics. There is a macho factor that would result in mid level teams selecting the best team to play the first weekend because of course to be the best you have to beat the best. That sais none of these things necessarily precludes what is an interesting (albeit unrealistic) idea.

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  7. Steve Nations says:

    This is a great idea.

    Another great idea would be to realize that a playoff with 68 teams is just an unholy mess. I mean, really. Am I the only sports fan in this country who thinks the NCAA basketball tournament is a monstrosity that should be done away with? And why did the tournament expand in the first place? Because some team that was in theory the 68th best in the country was upset that it didn’t make the playoffs? Sixty-eighth best teams do not get to whine about being left out of the playoffs. And when football goes to a different playoff format with 8 teams, how loudly do you think the 9th ranked team will complain? Especially if it has the same record as the 8th ranked team, which would be the case probably half the time, at least. I could go on and on. . . .

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  8. Jacob says:

    or let the top 8 teams choose their slot, and opponent.

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