The Philadelphia Eagles finished the season 8-8, but outscored their opponents by 68 points, the 5th-best mark in the NFC. Seven of their 8 losses were by one score or less, and they finished the season hot on a 4-game winning streak. Most rankings that try to determine how strong a team truly is had the Eagles as high as the 4th or 10th or 7th best team in the entire NFL. The team was filled with talented players like Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, and Nnamdi Asomugha, among others, and easily passed the “eye” test as a good team capable of beating anyone at their best. In addition, two of the team’s losses came with their star QB sidelined and a third loss came when star WR DeSean Jackson was benched. When it came time to select the NFC’s playoff teams, the committee decided that Philadelphia was definitely one of the 6 best teams, and left out the Atlanta Falcons despite their 10-6 record as well as seeding the Eagles ahead of the 9-7 Giants, the winners of the Eagles’ division.
I get the feeling that if this were to happen, fans would be outraged. However, this is exactly the type of thing that happens every year in the NCAA Tournament selection process.
I recently participated in a mock bracket selection among some fellow “stat geeks” thanks to the good guys over at TeamRankings.com. Immediately, we had a discussion about whether we were selecting based on the “best” teams or the “most deserving” teams, a topic I’ve touched on in the past. Clearly my position is that selection into the postseason is a reward to be given to the teams that prove themselves most deserving throughout the regular season. I was a bit surprised to see that the rest of our stat geek committee voted predominantly for the “best” teams.
Now for those of you that prefer the Eagles making the playoffs in my scenario above and selecting the “best” teams for the NCAA Tournament, this post is not for you. Preferring to select teams based on that criteria is a matter of preference, just one that I happen to disagree with. However, for those people that do not agree with the Eagles being selected over the Falcons, perhaps you’ll find this argument convincing.
Identifying the most deserving teams is basically an exercise in evaluating a team’s win-loss record against the difficulty of its schedule. In the professional ranks, leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB have the advantage of playing a nearly-balanced schedule. They can therefore ignore schedule strength and select teams simply based on record: a simple, transparent, non-controversial method. Collegiate sports have no such luxury as teams play a wide-ranging array of schedules. However, I contend that the solution is not to scrap the entire system and change philosophies completely, but instead to do our best to merge a team’s record with its schedule strength to reward the teams that accomplished the most on the season as best we can. That’s what my Achievement S-Curve aims to do, among other similar systems.
So if we can agree that the Eagles didn’t do enough to warrant making the NFL playoffs, despite an extremely talented squad that could have caused considerable damage in the postseason, then let’s apply the same criteria to our NCAA Tournament selection, despite the added difficulty and complexity of having to deal with the varying schedules. When it comes time to fill out your bracket, use your KenPom ratings and pick the “best” teams to advance, but when it comes time to select the teams in the bracket, let’s give it to those teams that have earned it.