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Friday, April 01, 2011

March Madness: Will Cinderella make it past midnight?

How can we explain the "Cinderella" syndrome?

This weekend the NCAA Basketball comes to an end, and "March Madness" fans will be glued to their screen to watch the semi-finals and final match ups from Houston's Reliant Stadium.  Basketball in in form is not a sport we write about too often here on The Science of Sport, but on the back of our post about panic and choking it seems useful to visit the NCAA basketball tournament.  The reason is that it has a reputation for producing upsets and "Cinderella" stories of teams who are 1) poorly ranked nationally, 2) barely qualify for the tournament, and 3) yet survive deep into the competition, sometimes making it all the way to the semis or final game.

Of course in our recent post about the South African cricket team's loss in the Cricket World Cup was about choking and panic---that is, the favourite team, destined to win, crumples under pressure and loses to the underdog.  On the other side of that equation, so to speak, is the team that produced the upset.  So today we wanted to take a look at why these things might happen, because on paper, and sometimes overwhelmingly so, the favourites are very unlikely to lose---yet lose they do!

A marketing stroke of genius

The first thing to realise about this tournament, and that is all it really is, is that it has unique components and characteristics that help build its hype.  These are special names given to part of the tournament, and the tournament itself, that even World Cups and other international tournaments do not have.  As a whole, the tournament is most often called "March Madness" or "The Big Dance," and once the wheat is separated from the chaff, we have "The Sweet Sixteen," and then the "Elite Eight," finally followed by the semi-finals and finals, known to all as the "Final Four." 

I am not sure if it is known for a fact where these names originated, or if even an NCAA marketer came up with them.  March Madness was not originally coined by the NCAA, and interestingly enough many law suits were filed about them using the trademarked name illegally.  In any case, however, these terms are used fully in the broadcasting and marketing of the tournament.

The Cinderella phenomena

So the one side of the coin is the favourite who chokes or panics.  As we mentioned in our earlier post, sometimes it is not a choking or panic situation, but instead the underdog is actually just better on the day.  The fascinating thing about that component is of course how on earth that happens.  On several occasions a lowest-seeded team has advanced past the first round, obviously beating a highly-seeded team that none would have guessed they could do---for example when #15 Richmond beat #2 seed Syracuse (13th ranked team in the nation at the time) in 1991.

The analysis is difficult because although a loss is a loss, it does not tell us the entire story, and many teams who should have been steamrolled by a favourite have ended up losing by just one basket, which some might argue is a moral victory of sorts.

The Coach:  Military strategist or psychological salesman?

How these upsets happen can defintely be explained on the one hand by the favourite simply choking and "under performing."  However it also might happen that the underdog really does rise to the occasion and outplay a championship team.  And we are not talking about the friendly games or end of season matches that effectively do not count---we are talking about matches when all the chips are down, matches that are must wins else the favourites limp home being shamed by their fans all the way.  Why or how is it that a team that performs dismally for most of the time suddenly plays at a championship level?  Often times going on to be embarrassed in the next round, seemingly reverting to their normal level?

The role of the coach is important here, and how a team or coach defines their role will be crucial to success.  But independent of how much strategy a coach actually calls during a match, part of their role must be "selling" the players on success.  Namely, making them believe that, in fact, they can and should beat some given opponenet.  What can the coach say to his players, both collectively and individually, that will cause them to push that extra bit, reach that extra inch, or focus that much more?  And this goes beyond team sports, as even individual athletes will need "convincing" from their coaches that they can indeed beat their best ever time.

This is the unmeasurable part of sport, something we cannot quantify, although throughout history we have coaches that clearly are legendary in their sport.  I hope the Sports Psychologists out there are reading, because they will have the know-how to understand what are the characteristics of those coaches are are seen to be the best of the best.  Everyone is different, but my guess is that the "greatest" coaches of all time will share a core set of qualities that allow them to push the right buttons in their athletes, buttons that do produce greatness, even in "average" athletes, when performance is most important.

Who will be the 2011 Cinderella?

 That leaves us with the current "Cinderella" stories of this year's tournament.  Both are untanked teams, and not seeded highly.  One of them will play in the final, because Butler, a #8 seed, and Virginia Commonwealth University, a #11 seed, will meet in a semi-final match on Saturday.  Historically, a #8 seeded team has advanced to the finals twice before, and one the championship one of those times.  An 11th or 12th seeded team has made it to the quarterfinals four times and the semifinals three times. 

Butler was sort of the Cindarella last year, making it all the way to the championship game as a #5 seed.  They beat teams seeded lower than them to make it to the quarterfinals, when they started their upsets to make it to the final.  So this year perhaps it is not so surprising that they have come this far---experience counts.  VCU is really interesting, because they have beaten higher-seeded teams in each round, finally upsetting a #1 seed to make it to the semi-finals. 

Admittedly, it will happen that sometimes a lower-seeded team is in fact better than a high-seeded opponent, but coming is as a #11, is VCU really "better" than all of those higher-seeded teams?  The simple answer is "Yes!" because they beat them!  But it is unlikely that they are really that good else they would have been favoured going into the whole event, and no one would be talking about how incredible it is that they are in the semis as such a low-seeded team.

Why these things happen will likely remain a bit of a mystery, because right now I cannot begin to think about how to unravel the issue.  The problem is there are so many intangibles and other factors that will bias results and seeding and other items that a definitive answer will not be found, but cracking that code is valuable because if we can learn about what factors tend to combine to produce great performances, then coaches at least have chance at trying to reproduce those factors when the game is on the line in the future.

For the basketball fans in our audience, enjoy the action, we are pulling for the underdogs and the upsets!