Backdoor Cuts: Best in show?

April 7, 2011

Now that the college basketball season has finally come to the end, we know a few things for certain: Georgetown can’t catch a break in March, Jimmer Fredette is the second coming of Joseph Smith (or maybe just Danny Ainge), and UConn is the national champion.

What we don’t know is who the best team in the nation is.

That’s no knock on the Huskies. Their March rampage—five straight wins in the Big East Tournament, then six straight in the NCAA’s—is nothing short of remarkable, and they’re deserving champions. But while they are indisputably the hottest team in the country, there’s no way to say for certain that the Huskies are the best team.

This is the same UConn team that finished 9-9 in the Big East; the one-and-done Hoyas were 10-8. Using the transitive property of basketball prowess (widespread academic acceptance still pending), you even could argue 7-21 Fordham was a better basketball team: the Rams beat St. John’s, and the Red Storm dominated the Huskies by 17 points. They even lost four of their last five games heading into the Big East Tournament. On March 5, after UConn lost its final regular season game to Notre Dame, no one thought the Huskies were the best team in America, save maybe Kemba Walker’s mom.

Fast forward one month, and UConn is cutting down the nets in Houston, having outlasted 67 other teams to become the undisputed national champion.

Or maybe they weren’t. In the final ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll, one voter, Northern Arizona head coach Mike Adras, gave his first place vote to Ohio State, which tied for the best regular season record. Adras told USA Today he voted for “the best team in the country based on the entire body of work during the season.”

The fact is, college basketball is not designed to produce a definitive answer to the question of the best team in the country. It doesn’t have the luxury of time like the NBA, which determines its champion with near scientific rigor over the course of two months and four seven-game series. To avoid surrendering all pretense of calling its players student-athletes, the NCAA came up with March Madness, an imperfect but entertaining solution.

The NCAA Tournament is beloved precisely because it makes no pretense of trying to determine the most talented team. Its inclusive field and single-elimination format make the fluke upsets that drive bracket pools and TV ratings commonplace. Four times out of seven, Ohio State might beat Kentucky, but all that counts is that one game. That element of uncertainty is the reason March Madness draws America’s prolonged attention like no other sporting event: anything can happen and every game matters.

The meaning of “the best” in sports is too nebulous to make searching for a definitive answer worthwhile. It’s a theoretical question—one that sports are not designed to answer, at least on a grand scale. Basketball ends with the final buzzer; contextualizing the results of the game isn’t part of the sport. The final score only indicates the better of two teams in that specific instance. Any conclusions beyond that will always be subjective.

In that case, the NCAA is better off not wasting its time trying to make a tournament that would find the one best team in college basketball. The most it can do is make sure its champion has reasonably proved itself. And beating six of the supposed 68 best teams in succession certainly seems reasonable.

So Ohio State had more wins and Kansas had more pro prospects, but don’t begrudge UConn its championship. They may not be the best team, but they’re good enough.


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