Yesterday, the voice of the Hip Generation, Chuck Klosterman, rated the NCAA men’s basketball tournament “slightly overrated.” In doing so, Klosterman identified an emergent feature of the tournament that I’ve been talking about for at least three years: the improved accuracy with which the tournament committee seeds the teams, leading to fewer “upsets.” Why? Satellite TV. Huh? The committee is watching more games of more teams. They’re more educated about more teams, so they rank them more accurately. Can you give me an example? Sure. Gonzaga likely has always been about as good as they are today, but the little school in Spokane with the funny name (it has a Z in it you guys!) used to come out of nowhere and “upset” teams because the ‘Zags were underrated. You used to be a fool not to mark Gonzaga down for two wins. Now, though, someone in Indianapolis could watch every Gonzaga regular-season game if he or she wanted, something people likely couldn’t and certainly didn’t do five years ago, and so Gonzaga’s come back to the pack as they’ve been more accurately seeded.
The NCAA selection committee has gotten too good at its job. . . . The committee now seeds the tournament so precisely that the early rounds lack dissonance. We’ve exaggerated the import of the process. The brackets are way more accurate, but less compelling. In the not-so-distant past, the limitations of media kept college sports unpredictable. Easy example: Throughout the 1980s, it seemed like the New Mexico Lobos were habitually being shafted. In 1986-87, they won 25 games and still ended up in the NIT. And when analysts would try to explain why that happened, they’d concede that the members of the committee had not seen enough of New Mexico to give them the benefit of the doubt. They would almost admit they knew almost nothing about the program (and at the time, that felt like a problem). That could never happen now. I’ve somehow seen New Mexico play three times this year, and it’s not even my job. With unlimited media, nothing remains unknown; the committee makes fewer mistakes, and the seedings have become staggeringly reliable. Which was always the goal. The only problem is that the realization of that goal erodes the inherent unpredictability that everyone craves. The surgery was successful, but the patient died.