Who’s Right? Sports Guy vs. Sports Lion

If you’ve ever listened to On Press Row, you’ve heard the debate about mid-majors and the unfairness it is for them to get into the NCAA Tournament for March Madness. You have two different sides to the coin.

The Sports Guy’s side

  • As a total UNI homer, and a self-professed one at that, Gary is all about the “little guy” getting a chance.
  • He believes teams that don’t finish .500 or better in their conference should only make March Madness if they win their conference tourney.
  • Gary is more about team’s with gaudy records overall, so long as they have, at least, a few signature wins.

The Sports Lion’s side

  • A staunch power conference elitist, John believes more the power conference teams the better.
  • He believes, for the most part, the mid-level power conference is stronger than the top level of mid-majors.
  • John is a proponent of those who have played a higher concentration of power conference games, even with slightly above average results.

So who is right?

As someone who has done college basketball bracketology for years now, even before I was doing it officially for the On Press Row site, I have been torn in this debate. Myself, I am a numbers guy. Have been since I was probably six or seven years old. I’m constantly looking at different power rankings, be it football or basketball or underwater basket weaving efficiency. Just in the last couple of years, I even created my own metric for basketball, initially called the RiSK Rating. RiSK was equal parts RPI(Ratings Percentage Index), Sagarin and KenPom. Now that the NCAA has done away with RPI, even though you can still find it, and switch to the new NET(NCAA Evaluation Tool), I did a quick switch-a-roo and recreated the SKiN Rating. This still has Sagarin and KenPom, but now includes the NET instead.

The biggest dilemma as far as putting a bracket together is deciding who deserves those last four to six bids, usually. Do you take a mid-major team who is 27-5 or a power conference team who is 19-12? Right there, that Sports Guy vs. Sports Lion. I can identify with both sides. Even with teams playing 30+ games, the crossover to get a good gauge is still difficult when you have 354 Division I teams. You have seven power conferences, five to seven mid-majors and the rest are almost always one-bid leagues.

From the Sports Guy’s perspective, a team from a mid-major who has a record of 27-5 has proven they win games. Teams from mid-majors who have records like this are typically upper-class dominated and those players have a chemistry of playing together for three and sometimes four years. Despite not playing a schedule that is loaded with top level competition, these teams are usually very hard to shake emotionally. They’ve played as a family and handle adversity pretty well. They may have come to college as a 1-star recruit or maybe even a walk-on, but they’ve developed into a 3- or 4-star player by the time their senior season has come along. Teams like these, you have no question about their attitude and hunger to show the rest of the nation their brand and what others missed on them.

From the Sports Lion’s perspective, a team from a power conference who has a record of 19-12 has battled most of the season against superior competition. And, hey, 19-12 is still a pretty good record. Many times, these teams are a mix of all classes. Occasionally, they’re led by a freshman or sophomore. These teams might not have the experience as the top level mid-majors, but they far exceed those teams in natural talent at a younger age. Many of these players have come to college as 3- and 4- star recruits from jump street and might have been offered scholarships when they were still in high school. The talent is undeniable, but sometimes the work ethic is. The ceiling might be higher, but the basement can also be lower. But the fact that they’ve had to prove their worth two or three times per week all season, 19-12 is more than deserving.

When you look at power rankings, there’s no denying who holds the majority of the top spots – the power conferences do. And there’s good reason for it. 90 to, sometimes, 100% of their teams have winning records after non-conference play. When they’ve played teams from mid- and low-majors, they have won most of those games. Then conference season comes around and you’re playing 65-75% of your overall schedule against these same teams that contributed to their conference dominating non-conference opponents. This is why the power conference teams get multiple times the amount of games against Quadrant 1 and 2(NET term for higher ranked teams) competition.

Every year, you have a few mid- to low-major teams who jump out from the pack of their conferences, surprise a nationally ranked opponent, then run their conference to a record of 27-5. This isn’t counting Gonzaga, who is technically a mid-major but plays almost exclusively a non-conference schedule of national heavyweights – and wins, year in and year out. The problem is these upstarts might only have one or two real shots to make a name for themselves. If they do, they do get pushed towards the front of the mid-major line. But once conference season rolls around, they usually have a schedule of teams that rarely exceed the top 125 or 150. It’s impossible to build a real resume with 25 to 28 of your games coming against also-rans.

The record of a mid-major, many times, is like shiny new flag pole, but it’s not planted very deep(lacking a foundation or support). When compared to a slightly shorter flag pole, from a power conference team, that has been buried four feet deep with cement. In other words, you know what you’re seeing with a power conference team. That’s not to say the “little guy” shouldn’t be appreciated, but that record does come with some question marks. It’s a very delicate balance. And when it comes to bracketology, trying to compare the apples and the oranges is very difficult sometimes.

So who is right?

In a way, both are. But there’s still 36 spots that go to at-large teams in the bracket. The “little guys” who deserve it, shouldn’t be automatically snubbed because they didn’t get the number of chances a power conference team did. Sometimes doing more with less is better than doing more with a lot more. This is where I always run into problems making a bracket. I give too much credit to the overachievers and discount the underachievers too much. But if I had to choose who’s more right?…

Sports Lion, 55% to 45%.