|[a] Structured Madness RF|
|[b] Prognosticator RF|
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|
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.
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|
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|
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|
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.