SoCon tourney “flip” is a flop

Well, I’m disappointed The Citadel lost its tourney opener today to Appalachian State, obviously, but what I wanted to write about doesn’t have much to do with today’s game, but rather the conference tournament as a whole.  It’s a topic that features the SoCon, but it could apply to any conference tournament.  This is going to take a bit of explaining, also, so please bear with me while I outline what I think is a serious flaw in the conference tournament format.

The Southern Conference tournament has two distinct four-team pools (at least, they should be distinct).  One team from each of those pools survives to play on Sunday in a single-game championship.  In other words, it’s possible for a team to go undefeated in its pool, and play a one-loss team for the title, lose the title game, and thus finish with just one loss but no championship.  This is done for television (SportSouth will televise the title game on Sunday).

Now, we’ve all seen this one-game-for-all-the-marbles deal before.  The College World Series did this for over a decade, and nobody really liked the idea of a team in a double-elimination tournament not winning the title despite only losing one game, especially when there were no other undefeated teams.  It happened occasionally, too (Texas did not lose until it fell to one-loss Wichita State in the 1989 final, in only the second year of the single-game championship format; the very next year one-loss Georgia beat previously undefeated Oklahoma State for the crown).

The NCAA has now changed to a best-of-three series for the title, which I think everyone likes.  The current setup is exactly what the college baseball championship should be.  However, what I want to emphasize is that even in its imperfect single-game state, the College World Series bracket was not set up the way the Southern Conference bracket is this year.

Essentially, the league is “flipping” two teams in the bracket for Saturday’s play.  This concept can be confusing, so much so that the conference initially released a bracket .pdf that was incorrect.  It’s now been fixed, and you can see it here.  Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier describes the “flipping” of the bracket:

There are two four-team brackets — Cid, App State, Davidson and GSU in one, and Elon, Furman, C of C and WCU in the other. On day three (Saturday), however, the bracket is flipped, with the 2-0 team from each bracket sent to the other.
If The Cid, for example, wins its first two games in bracket one, it will be off Friday and sent to bracket two for its third game on Saturday. This keeps one team from playing another three times in the tournament. It also means two teams from the same bracket could meet in the finals.

The next-to-last sentence explains the rationale for the “flip” — but the last sentence exposes the problem with it.  Let me give an example:

Let’s say that Appalachian State follows up its win over The Citadel by beating Georgia Southern, and then (after the flip) beats Elon on Saturday in the early afternoon game to advance to the championship game on Sunday.  The Mountaineers would be undefeated, and would have beaten the top three seeds in the tourney.  However, what happens if the opponent in the title game on Sunday were to be The Citadel or Georgia Southern?  That would mean that Appalachian State would have to beat one of those teams twice without losing to win the championship.

In other words, say in that scenario Georgia Southern beats Appy.  They would both have one loss (to each other) but GSU would be the champs and the Mountaineers would be out of luck.  Avoiding a potential third game between the two schools by employing the “flip” would thus prove detrimental to the Mountaineers.

The difference between flipping and not flipping the teams is this:  if you have a one-loss team and an undefeated team, and they come from completely separate pools, then at least you could make the argument that the one-loss team came from a stronger pool, so it winning the title against an undefeated team from the other pool isn’t quite as unfair.  You really don’t even have to make that argument; the fact that the two pools are distinct from one another makes things at least somewhat equitable (in theory).  You certainly don’t have to worry about a situation where two teams beat each other, but one gets an edge because it lost in a double-elimination situation before a one-shot title game.

Flipping teams like this isn’t a bad idea for a true double-elimination tournament.  In fact, in that situation it’s probably a good thing.  When there is already an inherent flaw in a format, however, trying to get even cuter with the bracketing just serves to exponentially increase the chances of having an unjust resolution to the tournament.

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