From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (2)—NCAA Tournament Brackets

[a] Structured Madness RF
This is the second in what promises to be a long and involved series of posts dealing with a major set of theoretical concepts—structure, history, and culture. There is no better place to begin than the introduction to the series, and Tuesday's post (Packing the Car) took some very basic steps toward explaining how the concepts work in practice. Today's post is driven by events more than logical progression. The NCAA (Men's) Basketball Tournament begins in earnest today, and I couldn't resist this post even though the "structures" about which we are talking are much more complex than a car trunk. Sill, here are the very basic ideas (if you find this to be simple, you either have a background in Sahlinsian structuralism or are not paying attention). We "negotiate" structures all of the time—and all kinds of them—physical, intellectual, cultural, and beyond. Each time we interact with a structure, we make choices. There is a great deal of individual choice in these matters. These choices result in an event—a particular set of choices intersecting one or more structures. Once that particular event is over, it is history. The particular negotiations of structure accumulate over time and become culturally recognized ways of negotiating those structures. 

I like to say that we are structure-negotiating animals. If you learn to think this way, it will change your life and ways of thinking...about everything.
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[b] Prognosticator RF
How are your brackets looking? Finish 'em up, because the tournament is starting at noon (EDT).

Most of us are used to thinking about matters as weighty as winning and losing from individual and "team" perspectives. We speak of college basketball teams "going on a run" and fueling their competitive successes with big doses of talent and emotion. Yet even the most "free will" leaning basketball fan cannot help but see the structures that must be negotiated if a team is going to win the NCAA Basketball Championship...or even make the sixty-eight team field that (in theory at least) gives it a chance to take away the coveted plaque after six games and three weeks.

Let's begin to dip our interpretive toes into the structures of the NCAA basketball tournament. It all begins with a thing called "the one seed." If you paid attention to basketball this past weekend, you heard all about the conviction that certain teams (Kentucky and Syracuse, both with 30-1 regular season records) were assured of "one seeds," while a few (Ohio State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri, and a small handful of others) would have to see things break their way in conference tournaments to get the coveted seed.

[c] Structured RF
I remember a few years back hearing an angry caller on a Madison sports show bemoaning the "four seed" the Wisconsin Badgers had received that year. He was counting on a "three" and hoping for a "two," he said. He was frustrated, and articulated the structures of the tournament in compelling ways. "You don't understand," he told listeners who thought there wasn't much difference—that it was just a game. "A two-seed advances at least two, if not three rounds before meeting stiff competition. A four-seed already has problems in the second round." 

Whatever could he mean?

Well, this is one of those little parcels of culture that make all the sense in the world to insiders, as it were, and are a maze of obscurity to those who have not been enculturated. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and yesterday, otherwise normal-looking people started talking about "5-12 matchups" and the possibility that—maybe this year, for the first time ever—a "sixteen can beat a one." 


Here's the basic idea. There are four "regions," each with teams ranked #1 through #16. Getting a number one seed, as it is called, is a big deal, and has become an independent cultural marker of a basketball program's success. No coach, player, or fan would claim that being seeded number one matters for itself (none would trade a number one seed for an early loss in a kind of Faustian basketball bargain). Still, pundits and programs note the number of NCAA tournament appearances and, if applicable, number one seeds, Final Four appearances, and national championships. That's culture. Where "structure" kicks in can be found in the relatively easy path a #1 seed has when compared to a #8 seed.

          First Round: #1 plays #16; #8 plays #9. Let's assume 1 and 8 win.
          Second Round: #1 plays #8. Let's keep assuming that the lower seeds win.
          Third Round: #1 plays #4 (and #2 plays #3).
          Fourth Round: #1 plays #2.

If everything goes just right, all four #1 seeds will make it to the national semifinal games. That is the structure. In history, it has happened only once, in 2008.

[d] 2011 Structures RF
Again, if you follow the tournament, this is so easy you are pulling your hair (or have quit reading). If you have never thought much about it, this all seems impossible (right?). 

The brief, structural message is that a #1 seed has what should be the smoothest road through the region—not meeting a comparably-ranked team until the third or fourth round. If you are a #16 seed, you meet one of the best teams in the country right away (none has ever won). If you are a #8 seed, you meet a comparable foe (#9) in the first round and then the #1 seed in the second round. It is all about structural negotiation, and comparable teams worry a great deal about being ranked #5 or #6 or #7. There are subtle implications to all of them, and basketball junkies spend inordinate amounts of free time (and disturbing chunks of work time) pondering them. That's culture...and personality.

So let's take a look at these things called brackets—the NCAA tournament "structure" we'll be considering. This one (illustration d, below) is from last year's tournament. It has the advantage of letting me show how some of the matchups "worked" within the structure, and gives the picture of how the first round played out, so to speak, in practice last year. Do you see the gray rectangles? Those are matchups (most of them as you'll see) in which the lower seed defeated the higher seed—for example, the #2 seeds all defeated the #15 seeds.

[e] Structure, history RF
Twenty-eight games held form; there were four "upsets." Four.

Some years have more raucous opening rounds, but 2011 was not unusual. From a quick "structural-historical" glance it might sound like no big deal. Almost everything followed form, with a small hiccup here and there. 

Well, that's one way to look at it. Almost anyone who watched, though (who "lived the history," as it were), remembers it differently. From the "lived experience" perspective, the events played out in exhilarating and tumultuous ways, with three lower seeds prevailing in one region (#11, #12, and #13) and one of them (Virginia Commonwealth University at #11) going all of the way to that storied structural pantheon, The Final Four

Another sorry little #8 seed (the "favorite" against the #9 in the first round but the underdog facing the #1 seed in the second round) also made it all of the way to the championship game. As a big, three-week long event, I and many others remember it as a wave of exhilarating upsets. 

It was...and it wasn't. 
[f] Culture...nature RF
As I have mentioned, the vast majority of games "held form," with lower seeds defeating higher seeds in the first, second, third, and fourth rounds. By the time they got to the Final Four, though, it was a "mess" for those who like to pick favorites. Not a single "number one" seed ended up being number one in its region (the "history" looks very different from the structure). Not one. 

That is how structure, history, and culture "work." While I can tell you that most games "held form," you could tell me right back that—for those who love basketball, at least—the upsets made history. We're still talking about it many, many...months later (it was only last year). On the other hand, we are still talking about 1983 and 1985 as though they were yesterday. If those references don't click, stay tuned during the next few weeks as we dig a little deeper in the the culture (and economics) of NCAA basketball.
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And to round out our discussion, I encourage you to look at the following items, as well. The first is a New York Times piece on "bracket personalities." The second is an interview on Morning Joe with that shaman of college basketball, Dick Vitale. If you have never heard of him (or heard him) you owe it to yourself to explore this odd little acreage of American culture. Trust me.


  1. I've never known what people were talking about when they referred to "seeds" in any context outside of agriculture, and barely had a working knowledge of brackets until reading this post. Cultural knowledge 'skips over' a few of us it seems.

    That being said, this was a wonderful way to learn about it. Especially the perceptual difference between the 'structure' as it can be seen in the brackets and the 'lived history', as experienced in the run of the season. It reminds me strongly of course of Paul Cohen's "History in Three Keys," but it also makes me think of the cognitive dissonance that keeps casinos and lotteries running, where the prospect of one 'upset' allows for hundreds of tickets/bets to 'hold form' (and vice versa). Here the 'upset' almost seems built into the structure. Claude Levi Strauss talks about this somewhere in "Tristes Tropiques," but I cannot find the passage now.

  2. Yes, I think that this "skipping" of cultural knowledge is one of the most interesting things about shared social/cultural life. We all get skipped, and know a few other things. Carburetors trip up a lot of people, but there is something about the NCAA basketball tournament that cleaves society in two (or three). To the non-aficionado, it is about as obscure as...NASCAR. To the person who watches ESPN shows about brackets, it's "obvious." That's culture...and history.

    I really like your lottery reference. For some reason, I can't think of the Tristes Tropiques passage you mention (this pains me). I'll do some looking when I return to D.C. in a few days.