Cinderellas on the Court: Why underdogs in the NCAA aren’t actually overcoming odds

No one roots for Goliath, and the sports world is no exception. Underdog stories are perennial headline grabbers, from the 1980 Olympic hockey team to one-legged NCAA champion wrestler Anthony Robles. This year’s March Madness tournament featured one such underdog: Virginia Commonwealth University. Sports pundits heralded VCU’s trip to the final four as the most remarkable one to date, overcoming 820-to-1 odds. The hype for the team was enormous; profiles on the players, the coach, and even on the university itself exploded in media outlets across the nation.
The day after their shocking victory over Kansas University in the Elite Eight, the number one Google search was “Virginia Commonwealth University”; at number two was “VCU.” According to the Washington Post, VCU was mentioned 3,200 times in the media in the same time span it usually gets just 300 mentions; over 11 million people visited the university website. But this publicity is not necessarily warranted—both the validity of the statistics and quality of VCU’s journey are questionable. In reality, there’s a reason why March Madness churns out so many Cinderellas: the underdog storyline is built into the NCAA system.

Selection Sunday
The Cinderella stories of the NCAA tournament grow largely out of the selection process that determines which teams qualify. 68 teams enter the tournament; 30 of these teams automatically qualify by winning their conference tournament and the Ivy League regular-season champion also automatically qualifies (there is no tournament), leaving 37 others to be selected by a committee. The selection committee consists of ten members—eight of them athletic directors, two conference commissioners—from universities across the nation. These committee members are supposed to represent every national conference, giving all teams a fair chance to enter the tournament. In order to avoid conflicts of interest, members leave the room when their university is in question.
The criteria with which the members are chosen remain shrouded in mystery: some claim that choices are based a statistic called RPI, ratings percentage index, which basically assesses the quality of a team’s record based on their opponents and their opponent’s opponents; others believe the choices are based on stats like how much a team scores in a given game.
Nevertheless, the conclusions of the committee remain entirely subjective, and every year the committee finds itself justifying its selections to the general public to quell protests. Of course, of the 37 teams selected, most are not surprises: nationally ranked top 25 teams almost always qualify. However, there are always teams that are “on the bubble”—teams that aren’t sure about their chances to make the cut. These teams often face the verdict only when the official lineup is announced on television on “Selection Sunday.”
In the end, teams that should make it don’t, and others are shocked to discover their entry. The Missouri Valley Conference is renowned for being ignored by the NCAA tournament, with many quality teams high in the national rankings failing to make it. For nearly a decade, Missouri State has not been selected despite ranking well within the top 37 teams in the nation. In 2004, Utah State did not enter the tournament despite its 25-2 record for the season. In these surprising instances, both the method behind qualification and the motives of the committee have proven to be unreliable.
In their attempt to add the underdog ingredient, the committee shies away from recognizing that some conferences are simply better than others. It is undoubtedly more entertaining, and an inspiration to smaller universities with lesser athletic programs, to have the tournament structured to allow teams from all these conferences to qualify automatically. However, if the aim is truly to put the best talent on the center stage, there is a clear structural flaw—the Ivy League gets a free in? But the surprising outcome of “Selection Sunday” should not necessarily come as a surprise: it’s not clear whether it is, in fact, in the best interest of the tournament to allow teams like Utah or Missouri—who should technically qualify—to play.
It makes good sense to ignore some of the more qualified teams in favor of lesser-known underdogs that are “on the bubble.” First, it makes the pre-tournament hype much more exciting, introducing an element of anticipation that has led to the development of an entire field of sports analysis. “Bracketology,” in which sports analysts make educated predictions about the findings of the selection committee., results in hours of television, radio, and Internet coverage of the tournament even before it gets underway. Second, in addition to increased exposure, the selection committee’s more interesting choices are a win-win of sorts for the NCAA. If these underdog teams are eliminated in the early rounds of the tournament, then the homemade brackets of fans and pundits alike are enhanced, as most bracket-makers opt for the likely winner. Thus, potential viewers are compelled by the success of their brackets— interpreted as March Madness clairvoyance—to continue to watch the tournament, thus benefitting the NCAA. On the other hand, if the underdog pulls off an upset, then the NCAA gets to bask in the publicity surrounding their Cinderella, and again, major boosts in media coverage and viewership ensue.

Statistical Limitations
The success of these underdogs through the years highlights the problematic structure of the tournament itself, allowing good teams to slip through the cracks. The defining element of the NCAA tournament is that every game matters: win and move on, lose and go home. In each game, teams are fighting for their life and for the one chance they may ever have in their short college careers to claim basketball glory. But the effect of this one-and-done tournament style is that the good teams fall prey to the underdogs far more easily than they would in a 7-game series, like those in professional basketball. Trivialities like the team’s dinner or the quality of their sleep become determining factors that could decide whether a team will imprint itself onto the historical memory of the NCAA tournament—which, for the majority of the players on these teams that never go pro, will be the most famous they will ever get.
Virginia Commonwealth had only to play five games to reach the Final Four—and while their chances were very slim, the reality is that the insane 820-to-1 odds cited by sports analysts fail to display the heightened capacity for flukes particular to the NCAA tournament. While that statistic has been thrown around a lot in the past week, its origin is largely a mystery. It is the compilation of various factors—wins and losses from the regular season, injury status of players, point-difference in games won and lost, efficiency ratings—all of which neglect the intangible factors that dominate the tournament. In March Madness, the victor is not always the one with the best mathematical probability of winning—much more so than in other tournament styles. It is often the result of momentum, passion, and emotion. For example, consider the matchup between a team that casually demolishes its opponent by 20 points on its way to the next round, and a team that had to battle and push themselves to the last second in an exciting matchup in its previous game. Though the former’s domination would add up statistically to portray them as the likely winner, the momentum carried through from the emotional performance of the latter is a major factor to drive them in the next game.
When it comes to the NCAA, such stats are reductive, though they are ironically the information most treated as gospel—the computer models that produce them are so complex that few sports analysts can actually understand what 820-to-1 actually means. It becomes a digestible sound bite that can make pundits seem particularly erudite, and in the process, make VCU look like a miraculous Cinderella rather than a fortunate opportunist.
Though the NCAA tournament tale of Virginia Commonwealth University ended last Saturday, unable to break down the stalwart Butler defense, the spotlight remains. Coach Shaka Smith will face a barrage of offers from more prestigious athletic programs; players like Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez who emerged as stars for VCU may even have NBA prospects. All the while, the NCAA gets a nice slice of the merchandise pie as the university sells out of all its Final Four shirts, mugs, and hats.
For most of us—drinking a beer, watching the game—VCU is the paradigm of NCAA entertainment. The world of big-shot college basketball programs is replete with corruption and rule violations, pampering athletes like poodles with plenty of under-the-table cash tossed toward recruits. From the Fab Five at Michigan University—a group of freshmen phenoms later discovered to have received massive amounts of money from the university—to Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, who reportedly had someone else take the SATs on his behalf, the Goliaths of the NCAA deserve to get punched in the face by an unlikely candidate.
But even though we cherish the underdog storyline, the fact is that lesser teams ultimately enhance the chances of the major universities. The consistent success of underdogs in the tournament belies the fact that they are really a gift to the teams that face them later on—evidenced by the fact that almost every famous Cinderella of March Madness never actually won the title. The more effective ‘fuck you’ would be to put the best talent on the court and force the inflated egos of these college stars to throw down. Otherwise, there is really no incentive for mediocre teams to strive for greatness. As NCAA-spurned Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin asks, “What’s the point of having a regular season if it comes down to this?” The NCAA must clarify for whom exactly the tournament is played—the viewers who love the underdog, the teams that often suffer because of the underdog, or the organization itself that gets rich from them.

DAVID ADLER B’14 knows a dream is a wish your heart makes.

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