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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Monday, March 19, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (5)—Sweet-n-Sour Sixteen

[a] Tournament pause RF
This is the fifth 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 last week's posts on packing the car, driving across the country, and various aspects of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament give a glimpse of the way I teach about this concept in my classes. 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.
 ***  ***
I know that I wrote a few days ago that I was going to save the rest of my NCAA basketball posts until next year. That is still more-or-less the plan, but one aspect of structure, history, and culture is just too sweet (and sour) to pass up, and I wish to cover it before moving on to other topics. This is the "concept" of the Sweet Sixteen team. This is one of the more ridiculous confluences of structure and culture, but you will be hearing or reading the term for the next few days if you watch or listen to media in the United States at all. I challenge you to check your regular web pages, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper and not see the term before Thursday.

[b] Real sweet (sixteen) RF
Sweet Sixteen? Why on earth would the NCAA (and various media types) have let that term stick? The sixteen teams that won both their first round games and this weekend's second round contests have been whittled from a structural bracketing of sixty-four* teams. In just four days of breathless events (forty-eight games in eighty-four hours), all of the hopes and plans and enormous institutional resources of many of college basketball's best programs have been pared down to just sixteen. Two rounds have structured the field. By early Saturday morning, there were thirty-two teams. As I write this early Monday morning, there are sixteen.
*Yes, yes. I understand that the field now has sixty-eight teams on "Selection Sunday." By the time the tournament begins in earnest on Thursday, however, there are sixty-four. I get it.

Sweet sixteen. I will editorialize briefly that I really dislike this stupid and inanely cross-gendered phrasing. It has at least four or five layers of fairly profound inanity that you can figure out for yourselfbecause I find even thinking about it annoying...except for the rich relationship between culture and alliteration. That is something I find fascinating. The words "sweet sixteen" flow out of the English speaker in a way that enhances rhythmicality even as it contributes nothing significant to understanding. That it is a term most often associated with a kind of patriarchal festival with highly questionable gender leanings seems not to matter in the face of syllabic fluency.

That's culture.

[c] Another measure RF
Structure is something else. Sixty-four become thirty-two, and then thirty-two is trimmed to sixteen. No amount of "event power" will change the structure. Even the best game in the history of organized basketball could not change the fact that sixteen (not seventeen or fifteen) teams advance.  

That's structure.

 Remember a few days ago when I mentioned that major universities with (seemingly) much better things to do are quite obsessed with the number of times that they are selected for the NCAA tournament? They keep records of these sorts of things and tell them to young recruits in the living rooms of America's 6'8" youth. Well, the South Dakota States and Harvards of the basketball world keep track of the number of times they've been selected for the tournament. Much more storied programs keep track of another number—the times its team has competed in the round of sixteen, in other words, the number of times a team has won its first two tournament games.

If the first paragraph of the article you're reading mentions that it is the tenth trip to the Sweet Sixteen in seventeen years, or that your program has been to more Sweet Sixteens than any other program since 2000, well, you are not Montana, Lehigh, or Norfolk State. You are Ohio State, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, or Syracuse. You have an excellent basketball program, and you assume that you will "make the field" most years. The real test is advancing to the third round, when only you and fifteen other teams are left. After that, (almost) anything can happen. I'll save for another day the kinds of schools that measure success in terms of Final Fours and national championships. Let's keep thinking about the winnowing process that leads to four square(d).

[d] Recruiting structure and history RF
That's just a little bit of the culture behind the structure. We could call the third round anything we want. That it has become a mellifluous measure of college basketball excellence is a sign—a semiotic marker—of the way we think, act, and plan. The structure has been in place since the beginning of bracketed tournaments (everything from high school baseball to Wimbeldon works this way). The events play themselves out...and become part of the record of the past (history). Culture is that fascinating web of understanding that not only helps us interpret what has happened (how events proceed through the structures) but shape the very events themselves. I watched just a little bit of the tournament action this weekend. I was stunned, even in my small sampling, to see how many players and coaches, not to mention pundits, noted that "getting to the sweet sixteen" was a goal in itself.

A little reflection should make that pretty easy to understand. A very real bottom line hovers over the Sweet Sixteen. Teams that make one are "in the conversation" in a manner that almost never comes to lesser-known programs (such as Ohio University or Xavier). Even well-known programs gain a kind of cultural capital that can be seen in the endless recruiting cycles that hover in the background of college basketball life. All of these things are "cultural." You will notice that I have not said—not once—that these things are "merely cultural" or "sidelights" or in any way less important than bottom lines. They are all wrapped together, and the careful analyst will be unable to see where bottom lines begin and culture ends. I will have much to say about those matters in the coming weeks.

[e] Sweet RF
For now, let's think about Sweet Sixteen basketball. A wide array of "seeds" made it out of their initial structural positions this weekend. Those sixteen seeds in each region have been cut to four. In "theory," each region should now be looking at the #1, #2, #3, and #4 seeds. With four regions, we get sixteen hard-working and exhausted teams (sweat sixteen). The structural-historical situation is a little bit different, though. Take a look at what really happened, and how the four teams in each region were seeded—structure...and history. I am told that this is the first time that four teams from one state have advanced, and why should it be surprising that the battleground state of Ohio would be the one?
                 East Region                                    South Region
                 #1 Syracuse                                     #1 Kentucky
                 #2 Ohio State                                   #3 Baylor
                 #4 Wisconsin                                    #4 Indiana
                 #6 Cincinnati                                    #10 Xavier

                 Midwest Region                              West Region
                 #1 North Carolina                             #1 Michigan State
                 #2 Kansas                                        #3 Marquette
                 #11 North Carolina State                  #4 Louisville
                 #13 Ohio University                         #7 Florida

[f] Patriarchal alliteration RF
You will notice that not a single region advanced seeds #1-4. Not one. On the other hand, all of the number one seeds are in the third round. That's history (and event). It's why the NCAA tournament is not a "theoretical" exercise, even though it is most definitely a structured one. Only one of the four teams in each region will advance after the two games this week (Thursday through Sunday). And if you think that a more logical structure would prevail and #1 Kentucky would play the lowest seed (#10 Xavier) would be wrong. #3 Baylor plays #10 Xavier and #1 Kentucky plays #4 Indiana. That's how the original structure worked, and the various contingencies, such as upsets, have nothing to do with it. The general idea is that it will all work out in the end.

We'll see. Why don't we end today's post with just a little more alliteration, though? Eight "Sweet Sixteen" games will be played on Thursday and Friday. The winners of those games will play on Saturday and Sunday in what has come to be called the Elite Eight. Have you had it with these phrases yet? Bear with us as the winners of the Elite Eight contests rise to the Final Four...before mercifully leaving just two to play in the distinctly unmelodic national championship game. Let's see how the debutantes do on their way to Suite 16.

And that's culture.

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