From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (4)—NCAA Basketball First Round

[b] First Round RF
This is the fourth in a 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. Thursday's post (NCAA Brackets) was really much too complicated for the baby steps toward deep understanding that I prefer in this series, but the NCAA tournament is upon us, and I cannot resist pointing out timely matters of structure, event/history, and culture. Even if you have not yet read the first few posts, 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] Event RF
I do want to point out—this is geared especially to those readers who are either bored or mystified by basketball—that I will not be posting on NCAA basketball tournament topics every single day for the next fortnight or so. Really. Having said that, I should also note that the NCAA tournament provides a particularly good opportunity to think deeply about matters of structure, history, and culture.

Round One is over. Thirty-two of the sixty-three total games the tournament offers are over (if you count "play-in" games, thirty-six of sixty-seven are over). We are one round into a six-round tournament and half the games are done. Half of the teams, in other words, get to play only one game. One. What's up with that?

For schools such as South Dakota State, Montana, North Carolina-Asheville, St. Bonaventure, and Long Island University, getting to the tournament is a very big deal. It is a feat that will figure in recruiting for their programs for several years to come. Same deal with Harvard. That university is little used to being pitied, but they received the equivalents of pats on the head all through the media this week. "Harvard made it to the big tournament for the first time! Good for them. They have had so little to show for themselves in the past."

Montana, South Dakota State, and Harvard. They'll remember.

And yet it was to be a brief moment in the sun, shared with thirty-one other games over a thirty-six hour feeding frenzy of college basketball (with up to four games going on at one time). These first two days of the tournament (the structure we call "Round One") are over so fast that the victors usually only have forty hours or so to prepare for Round Two, and the losers often don't know what hit them.

Early on this Saturday morning, with the last game fading from event to history just moments ago, I want to consider what happened in Round One this year and to reflect just a bit on matters of structure, history, and culture. 

[c] Prediction/historic/wrong RF
Before we begin to look at what really happened, let's take a quick glimpse at the structure of the seedings. Each region (of four) is seeded #1 through #16. One way to think about it is that the seeds in the first round always add up to the number seventeen. Take a look.

#1 plays #16                    #5 plays #12
#2 plays #15                    #6 plays #11
#3 plays #14                    #7 plays #10
#4 plays #13                    #8 plays #9

That's the structure. I have not shown how the second, third, and fourth rounds look. They are another matter for another....year. We'll deal with that stuff in the 2013 tournament (I think). For now, let's stick closely to structural-historical matters in Round One (Thursday and Friday, March 15-16, 2012). The "theory" is that the lower (better) seed will beat the higher (less accomplished) one. That is how the structure has been erected, and results have flowed through the structure like so many dominoes falling into rhythmic place.


Events play out differently sometimes (that's why they play the games and the fat lady sings), but—now that the "sixty-four" team tournament has a history of its own—we can actually see how things have worked in practice. Let's examine how each of the seeding structures above have played out over the last few decades. People keep track of these things, and some of them actually get paid for it. Here is the record from 1985-2011 (we'll consider this year's event soon):

                     #1 against #16              100%                  108-0
                     #2 against #15               96%                   104-4
                      #3 against #14                 85%                     92-16
                      #4 against #13                 79%                     85-23
                      #5 against #12                 67%                     72-36
                      #6 against #11                 67%                     72-36
                      #7 against #10                 60%                     65-43
                      #8 against #9                   47%                     51-57

[d] Rapt RF
Now we're getting somewhere. This isn't "theory." These are the actual head-to-head results of seed against seed. In theory, a #1 seed should beat a #16 seed. There have been 108 matchups before 2012, and theory and practice cohere. The #1 seed has won all 108 games. In theory, a #8 seed should beat a #9 seed, at least a little bit more often than not. This is the one place in which (barely) things appear a bit aberrant. #8 seeds have lost a few more games than they have won against their #9 seedlings in sneakers.

As much abuse as the NCAA tournament selection committee can get from fans and pundits, their record is pretty impressive here. Lower seeds beat higher seeds, and almost always more often the greater the disparity between seedings. It really is a thing of statistical beauty, and it really happened.

Still, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The "it" that happened was 108 games at each level between 1985 and 2011. What has your seed done for you lately, though? How did this year's games turn out? Did this year's tournament hold true to form?

[e] Structured action RF
Yes. It held true to form. All of the #1 seeds won and most of the lower seeds beat most the higher seeds.

It also held true to structural form in another sense. There were some upsets—large and small. If you looked carefully at the first round history of the tournament (above), you will know that a #2 seed loses a game every half-decade or so and both a #11 and #12 seed will win a game almost every single year. The #8s and #9s will split (with the slight advantage to the latter).

How did the events work out in 2012, now that the first round is in the history books? It isn't theory. The events (all thirty-two of those structured tussles) happened. "Upsets" are in bold.

#1 Kentucky defeated #16 Western Kentucky, 81-66
#1 Syracuse defeated #16 North Carolina-Asheville, 72-65
#1 Michigan State defeated #16 Long Island University, 89-67
#1 North Carolina defeated #16 Vermont, 77-58

#2 Kansas beat #15 Detroit, 65-50
#2 Ohio State defeated #15 Loyola Maryland 78-59
#15 Norfolk State defeated #2 Missouri, 86-84
#15 Lehigh defeated #2 Duke 75-70

#3 Marquette defeated #14 Brigham Young, 88-68
#3 Baylor defeated #14 South Dakota State, 68-60
#3 Florida State defeated #14 St. Bonaventure, 66-63
#3 Georgetown defeated #14 Belmont, 74-59

#4 Wisconsin defeated #13 Montana, 73-49
#4 Louisville defeated #13 Davidson, 69-62
#4 Indiana defeated #13 New Mexico State, 79-66
#13 Ohio University defeated #4 Michigan, 65-60 

#5 New Mexico defeated #12 Long Beach State, 75-68
#5 Vanderbilt defeated #12 Harvard, 79-70
#12 Virginia Commonwealth defeated #5 Wichita State, 62-59
#12 South Florida defeated #5 Temple, 58-44 

#6 Murray State defeated #11 Colorado State, 58-41
#6 Cincinnait defeated #11 Texas, 65-59
#11 North Carolina State defeated #6 San Diego State, 79-65
#11 Colorado defeated #6 University of Nevada-Las Vegas, 68-64 

#7 Gonzaga defeated #10 West Virginia, 77-54
#7 Florida defeated #10 Virginia, 71-45
#10 Xavier defeated #7 Notre Dame, 67-63
#10 Purdue defeated #7 St. Mary's (Cal), 72-69 

#8 Iowa State defeated #9 Connecticut, 77-64
#8 Kansas State defeated #9 Southern Mississippi, 70-64
#8 Creighton defeated #9 Alabama, 58-57
#9 Saint Louis defeated #8 Memphis, 61-54

[f] Analysis RF
Structures matter. Most of the favored seeds won—most. History matters, too. Some of the underdogs won, and a few of them won in historic fashion and concentrations. This year had pretty much a decade's worth of #15 over #2 upsets, and at least one #1 seed (Syracuse) got quite a scare. A healthy little overachieving cluster of #11s, #12s, and a #13 won, too, while sevens, tens, eights, and nines fought to more-or-less a draw.
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We have spent most of our time today discussing event and history—what actually happens (and has happened in the past) within the structure of seedings. Let's conclude with one of the most fascinating aspects of culture—the mythology of the upset. Someday a #16 will defeat a #1 seed. Everyone will remember it, and one poor little major basketball power will be mocked for a hoops eternity. It will be the only Goliath to lose to a puny little David...ever. Grandparents will tell their grandkids in 2055 that they watched on CBS as the gutsy little guards from Tiny College stayed with the University of Behemoth all game long and won with a shot at the overtime...walking uphill to the game...both ways. No one will ever forget the day that #16 Tiny beat #1 Behemoth.
[g] Birth of an upset RF

As embarrassing as it is today to be Duke or Missouri (#2 losers), nothing will compare to the rockets and flares of mockery that comes to the #1 that fails. And it will happen. The "happening" is history (to come). "Culture" will take care of the rest. We have all sorts of stories about things like that, and all sorts of places to tell them.

That's culture.

Enjoy the rest of the tournament, and think about structure and event, history and culture as you watch. 

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