Posts Tagged ‘sports’

When sports decide which teams make the playoffs, there are often tiebreakers used to sort-out teams with identical records.  One of the most common tiebreakers is the “head-to-head” record.

Head-to-head record is a poor tiebreaker, especially compared with, say, strength of schedule.

Let’s NCAA basketball as an example.  Suppose Wake Forest (my alma mater) and Western Carolina (the school where I teach) both go 29-1 in the regular season.  Suppose Western Carolina’s only loss was to Mars Hill, and Wake Forest’s only loss was to Western Carolina.

Image result for western carolina basketball

The diehard “head-to-head” people would say “Western Carolina should be ranked higher!  They won the head-to-head matchup!”  But I say: what about the other 29 games?  Wake Forest plays in the ACC, and has multiple games against Duke, UNC, Miami, NC State…you get the picture.  Western Carolina has a much weaker schedule against the likes of Wofford, the Citadel, VMI, Chattanooga.  Sure, Wake Forest lost to Western Carolina, but in turn, Western Carolina lost to Mars Hill!  Which loss looks worse, hmm?

Image result for wake forest logo

The problem with head-to-head is that it’s only one data point.  Any team can lose a single game.  Maybe Wake Forest was missing their starting 5 due to the flu for that one game against Western Carolina.  (Clemson’s loss in football to Syracuse, earlier this year, was partially due to their starting quarterback being out).  A tie-breaker should be as broad as possible, and take the entire year into consideration.  This is especially true in basketball or baseball, when the long seasons make head-to-head records well-nigh meaningless.

I’m thinking about this now because college football is nearing its end for the year, and some arcane committee will have to decide who gets into the college football playoff and who stays out.  There are those who have complained that an undefeated Wisconsin team (currently #3) should be ranked higher.  But the Badgers have played an easy schedule, compared to, say, Auburn, who has faced the toughest road possible.  (Look at strength-of-schedule rankings here.)  In fact, I personally rank Auburn (10-2) higher than Wisconsin (12-0) for that very reason.  We only have 24 total data points here, but if Auburn and Wisconsin swapped schedules, then Auburn would be 12-0 easily and Wisconsin would be, at best, 7-5.

I can’t say it enough.  Head-to-head is a garbage tiebreaker.  It’s only one data point.  Strength-of-schedule incorporates literally dozens of data points and should always take precedence.


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Image resultLeBron James will sign with the Golden State Warriors, “sources” hinted at Tuesday.

“This will be a new chapter in the legend that is my life,” James is alleged to have maybe said.  He announced his intentions in an unsubstantiated tweet at 12:02 AM Tuesday, just minutes after his Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Warriors in the NBA finals.

The tweet said, “Joining the bandwagon!  I need another ring!!!”

James is expected to sign a one-year, $177 million dollar contract.  When asked if Golden State could possibly afford such an amount, James shrugged and said, “Maybe they’ll cut Patrick McCaw or something.”

James said he was switching teams for “personal growth” reasons:  “I need to go in a new direction,” James wrote in an alleged email to someone.  “I need an opportunity to expand my horizons.  And the only way for me to grow as a human being is to have another giant ring on my finger.  Three just isn’t enough.”

James thanked Cleveland in an off-hand way.  “I’m glad to have played here in Toledo, um, I mean, Cleveland.  Or wherever it is that I am.  But I’d love to move to Golden State…that’s in Wyoming, right?”

James will join Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, who already play for the Warriors, along with Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas, and James Harden, who are all expected to sign with the Warriors soon.

“We all need rings,” James said.  “That’s the only thing that’s important.”

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There’s a lot of talk these last few days of how horrible it would be if, for example, Penn State wins the Big Ten championship but doesn’t make the college football Final Four playoff.  This would happen if, say, Washington (the current #4) loses to Colorado in the Pac-12 championship.  Presumably, then, Michigan (now currently #5) would move up into the #4 slot, leaving the Nittany Lions crying into their Wheaties.

Why would this (ostensibly) be horrible?  Well (the argument goes) you’d then have two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Michigan) in the playoffs who didn’t even win their conference.  Some people think this would be a travesty.

I disagree.  Winning (or not winning) a conference is essentially meaningless.  That’s because it’s entirely possible to win the conference with a shitty record.

Image result for big 10 trophy

First, we have to discuss how the Big Ten champ is chosen.  There are 14 teams in the Big Ten, not 10. (We’re already in Twilight Zone territory here).  7 of the teams are in the West division, and 7 are in the East.  Each year, each team plays 4 non-conference games, and 8 conference games; of those 8, 6 are in the same division, and 2 in the other division.  The winner of the West will play the winner of the East to determine the Big Ten conference champ.

Suppose, in the East, Michigan, Ohio State, and Maryland all post 11-1 records; each losing only one division game to one of the other two.  Based on arcane tie-breaks, one of these (presumably) good teams will be invited to the Big Ten championship.  Let’s say it’s Maryland.

In the West, however, imagine that all 7 teams have identical 3-9 records.  They achieve this by losing all non-divisional games, and splitting their West division games 3-3.  One of these (crappy) teams will go to the Big Ten championship game by tie-break.  Let’s say it’s Iowa.

So it’s Maryland (11-1) vs. Iowa (3-9).  Maybe Iowa wins on a fluke (Maryland’s QB gets the flu, or a ref gives the game to Iowa by awarding a 5th down…these things happen).   Despite this head-to-head result, is anyone really going to rank the now 4-9 Iowa Hawkeyes over the 11-2 Maryland Terrapins?  Of course not.

Here’s the mathematical reason that conference championships are meaningless: all they tell you is that you’re the best team out of a subset of teams.  And that doesn’t really tell you much at all.

Suppose we had a tournament for BIG COUNTRIES.  Who would you rank among the top BIG COUNTRIES?  My top four would be Russia, Canada, USA, and China.  “But wait!” says Algeria.  “I won the Africa division!  And the USA is smaller than Canada and so didn’t even win its division!”

If we want to pick the BIG COUNTRIES, then being the biggest country in your continent is meaningless.  Similarly, if we want to find the best teams, finding the best teams in conference divisions is meaningless.

One way to mitigate this problem is to eliminate conference divisions entirely.  In the hypothetical scenario mentioned above, if the Big Ten just had one 14-team division, then Iowa would stay home and Maryland would play Michigan (say) for the conference title.  Still not perfect, but we’d definitely know then that a good team had won the conference.

I’m not lobbying for any sort of change in the NCAA playoff selection rules.  I have every expectation that the committee will do the right thing, regardless of whether Washington wins or not.  Their ranking Ohio State #2 despite not even going to the Big Ten title game is indicative of that.  What I am advocating for is for people to shut up about conference champions.

Hey, Algeria: just because you’re the biggest country in Africa doesn’t make you a top-4 country.

Image result for algeria flag

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Here’s something that will never happen, but it would be awesome:

The NCAA should go to a Swiss-system for college football.  And I don’t mean for the playoffs; I mean for the entire season.

First of all, here’s a brief primer on what the Swiss-system is.  I don’t think I can explain it better than the hive mind on Wikipedia, so here’s a quote:

“A Swiss-system tournament is a non-eliminating tournament format which features a predetermined number of rounds of competition… In a Swiss tournament, each competitor (team or individual) does not play every other. Competitors meet one-to-one in each round and are paired using a predetermined set of rules designed to ensure that each competitor plays opponents with a similar running score, but not the same opponent more than once. The winner is the competitor with the highest aggregate points earned in all rounds.”

Such systems are very common in chess tournaments, and also used in backgammon, squash, and eight-ball tournaments.  I’ve never heard of them being used in team sports, which is a pity.

Image result for bern

If I were Emperor of the World, here’s how I would implement the Swiss-system for college football.  At the beginning of the season, I’d rank the 128 FBS teams (teams that normally are bowl eligible) from #1 to #128.  (Well, I probably wouldn’t rank the teams personally, but I’d have a computer and/or a committee rank the teams much as the BCS does now.)  The great thing is that a ranking of #1 vs. a ranking of #5 (say) at the beginning of the season wouldn’t matter much at all.

The first week of the season, #1 would play #65, #2 would play #66, and so on.  For illustrative purposes, if we based seeding on the current NCAA rankings (as of Nov. 7, 2016), we’d have Alabama (#1) playing Southern Mississippi (#65), Michigan (#2)  vs. Texas Tech (#66), Clemson (#3) vs. Georgia (#67), Washington (#4) vs. NC State (#68), and so on, down to California (#64) vs. Florida Atlantic (#128).  Every higher-ranked team would be favored of course, but you’re going to get plenty of upsets: every one of the matchups I just (arbitrarily) presented would be a decent game.  Gone would be the days when an Alabama would play a non-FBS Western Carolina for their first game and win 49-0 to pad their resume.

Starting with week #2, things are already interesting.  Every week after the first, each team plays another team with the exact same record (if possible).  Continuing with my example, and assuming that all the higher ranked teams won in week 1, you’d already have on the table Alabama (#1) vs. Troy (#33), Michigan (#2) vs. Tulsa (#34), Clemson (#3) vs. Minnesota (#35), etc.  None of these games are cake-walks by any means (for perspective, the current records of Alabama, Michigan, and Clemson are all 9-0, but the current records of Troy, Tulsa, and Minnesota are 7-1, 7-2, and 7-2, respectively.)

Here’s the thing: starting with week 2, every single game in college football is a competitive game.  And starting around week 4, every single game is almost evenly-matched.  We’ve eliminated the all-too-common problem with the current system: that the top teams really only play 2 or 3 meaningful games a year.

Suppose we were using the Swiss-system, and we were making the matchups for the coming week’s games (Nov. 12).  What games would be on tap?  Well, there are currently 5 undefeated teams, which in a Swiss-system would be very unlikely after 9 weeks.  Just for fun let’s assume that it’s possible, but let’s ignore Western Michigan (no way they’d go 9-0 if they faced a few good teams).  With Alabama, Michigan, Clemson, and Washington all 9-0, this week’s marquee matchups would be Alabama vs. Washington, and Michigan vs. Clemson.  It’s likely that next week you’d have Alabama facing Michigan.  This, in early November!

The good matchups continue all the way down the line.  One-loss teams would all face each other, and you’d perhaps have games like Louisville vs. Ohio State.  Even at the bottom of the barrel, with a Rice playing a Florida Atlantic, the games would be evenly-matched.  This would be great for fans, because as it stands, when a Rice fan attends a game, they fully expect a loss; but with a Swiss-system, that same fan can be hopeful for at least a 50-50 shot at winning.

At the end of the season, an undefeated team would be almost impossible.  It’s likely you’d have 3 or 4 teams that were 10-2, and they’d all have already played each other.  That’s when a playoff would kick in.

For the playoff, we’d have the 4 (or better yet, 8) teams with the best records play each other in a standard elimination format.  At this point, it wouldn’t matter if they’d already faced each other in the regular season; rematches at this point would be desirable.  The great thing is that these teams would all be excellent teams.  In a Swiss-system, if you go 10-2, facing tougher opponents every single week, no one can argue you aren’t one of the best teams in the country.  Built into the Swiss-system is an important feature, which is that basically, every team at the end with a similar record faced a similar strength of schedule.

This is important, for in the current system, teams which are 12-0 can be left out of the playoff discussion if they’d didn’t play any good teams.  That’s never struck me as particularly fair.  If my team goes 12-0 and doesn’t get to the playoffs, then that means the team never even had a theoretical shot at making the playoffs to begin with.  What’s the point, then?  It’s a sordid fact that in the current system, there are only 30 or so teams that can ever even theoretically make it to the playoffs in a given year.  I’m sorry, Florida Atlantic, but if you go 12-0 next year you ain’t playing in a major bowl game.

There are obviously a few objections one could raise to my brilliant scheme.  Let’s address them.

  1. What about logistics? How in the world could you have teams flying around the country, facing each other, planning trips on only a week’s notice?  Well, as Emperor, it wouldn’t be my problem.  But in any case, it’s the 21st century for Xenu’s sake, so I think with some 747’s and the internet, it could be done.
  2. What about revenue? If Western Carolina doesn’t get to play and get crushed by Alabama, then Western Carolina loses out on some big time TV money!  OK, sure, but the games will in general be much, much more competitive, and many more fans will go to see WCU home games since they finally have a chance to win.  I really believe TV revenue would be up across the board.  We could even implement a TV revenue-sharing scheme, but that’s a topic for another day.
  3. What about rivalries? Well, what about them?  The current system doesn’t give a fuck about them in any case.  I can’t even keep track of who’s in what conference these days.  (Syracuse is in the ACC?  When did that happen?  They’ll always be a Big East team to me.)  With a Swiss-system, conferences become meaningless, and I say good riddance.

Image result for army navy game 1963

As for the handful of actual rivalries that still exist, and haven’t become jokes, such as Army vs. Navy (come to think of it, that has become a joke) or Alabama vs. Auburn, you could have the teams play an extra game in mid-December that doesn’t really count for anything.  If you think it’s unfair that a team has to play an extra game compared to other teams, well then, why not have every team pick a greatest rival that they have to play every year?  Hell, these games might even be the first games of the year, a sort of pre-season-type game, and the results don’t affect the Swiss-system per se, but the results might inform the seedings.  So Navy plays Army (a joke game, usually) but if Navy loses, we might initially rank them a little lower than otherwise.

Would any of this ever happen?  Not one chance in a million.  But it’s fun to speculate about.  And mark my words, in the universe(s) where I actually do become Emperor, initiating an NCAA football Swiss-system is one of my first magnanimous acts.

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With the World Cup in full swing, I thought I’d try to tackle that age-old question: why do so many Americans hate soccer?  Maybe if I can get to the bottom of that question, I can help some Americans find joy in the “beautiful game”…at least until World Cup 2014 is over.

First, a little context.  I am an American who loves sports of all kinds but, I will admit, I hated soccer when I was younger.  The reasons for this are many.  I like to think that I’m typical in my soccer-aversion—typical of many other Americans—and this is what gives me some credibility in writing this blog post.  But what’s interesting is that I eventually came to enjoy soccer, and it is partly the journey from hatred to enjoyment that I wish to share with you.

Why did I not like soccer?  I can think of at least 4 reasons:

1)      Turnovers.  To an American immersed in the culture of American football (henceforth just called football) and basketball, it seems as though (in soccer) teams commit turnovers every five seconds or so.  A little bit of background: a turnover (in any sport but soccer, really) occurs when one team gives up control of the ball.  Normally, in most sports, a turnover is a major thing; statisticians keep track of turnovers, and the team that “turns the ball over” more loses most of the time.  In basketball, a turnover often leads to a “fast break” (an exciting play usually leading to a score).  In football, turnovers are catastrophic; fumbles and interceptions are often the most exciting plays in a game.  They represent huge reversals of fortune.  A football team which commits six turnovers in a game will almost always lose.

So imagine an American kid like me, watching soccer on TV for the first time (something that didn’t happen until I was almost in college, by the way).  I see Spain playing Belgium in the World Cup.  Spain has the ball…but within five seconds Belgium has the ball…but then within five seconds Spain has the ball…ad infinitum.  An American football announcer could not possibly keep up: “Spain turns it over!  Belgium kicks it…and turns it over!  Now Spain has it but…oh no, they’ve turned it over!  Belgium has a chance here…nice pass to Ceulemans…but he turns it over!”  If you grew up watching football and basketball, this turnoverfest is maddening.  It appears random, like pinball.

What I failed to realize, back in 1986, is that soccer is a game of averages, of field position, of drift velocity.  It doesn’t really matter in soccer if the ball is “turned over” often.  As long as (on average) the ball tends towards one end of the field or the other, one team will have an advantage.


Soccer is a game of drift velocity.

It’s like an electron in a copper wire, under the influence of an electric field: the motion of the electron is mostly random, but over time it tends to move in the opposite direction as E.  If Brazil has a better team than Cameroon, then—despite the large number of apparent “turnovers”—the ball will tend to drift towards the Cameroonian goal.  This drift velocity was apparent in the final stats from Monday: Brazil had the ball 54% of the time, and had 19 shots on goal (compared to 12).

I’ve learned to enjoy soccer, in part, by turning off my instinctual aversion to turnovers.  When I watch soccer now, I am watching the semi-random kicking of an electron, which will tend (over time) to drift in one direction or the other, due to the superior ability of one of the teams.  It’s a game of statistical mechanics; it’s irrelevant whether you keep the ball continuously for any particular length of time.


2)      Low scoring.  To an American used to basketball scores like 95-92, or football scores like 35-28, soccer seems boring, in part because scoring is so rare.  But the “low scoring” of a soccer game should be taken in context.

For one thing, football isn’t as high scoring as you might think.  The average number of points scored by American football teams in 2013 was 23.4.  Consider that a touchdown (analogous to a goal in soccer) is worth a de facto 7 points (since the extra point is almost always successful).  To compare football scoring to soccer scoring in any meaningful way, football scores should be normalized by dividing by 7.  A score of 35-28 is analogous to a soccer score of 5-4.  High scoring, sure, but not overly so.  And a defensive battle like the Panthers/49’ers game last November, which ended with a Carolina victory of 10-9, is much like a soccer score of 1-1.

As for basketball, well, goals come so often that (individually) they lose almost all meaning.  I like basketball, but a soccer goal is much more exciting for being so rare.  Of course, it’s possible to make scoring too rare: I imagine that a game of Ullamaliztli was pretty boring indeed.  You can only use your hips, and have to get a 9 pound ball into a tiny goal?


The losers are executed.

Which brings us to a tangential point.  Basketball is a very pixillated sport, since the “quantum of scoring” (one point) is so meaningless.  In soccer, the quantum of scoring (one goal) is a much, much bigger deal.  This makes soccer goals more entertaining, on a 1-1 basis, than  basketball goals; but it also means that you’re measuring the worth of individual teams with a very blunt instrument.  A football victory, 10-9, becomes a draw in soccer (when normalized) because the goals are not finely-tuned enough to “detect” a difference in such evenly matched teams.  Whether this is a good thing or not is up to debate.


3)      Red cards.  To an American, penalties are a common and necessary part of having a physical game.  But in soccer, the penalties seem very out of proportion to the offenses committed.

Consider a tackle in soccer.  It’s OK to tackle the opponent if I get my foot on the ball.  But if I miss the ball, I’m going to get penalized.  And if the referee thinks that I was trying to trip the opponent on purpose (a very subjective thing), I’ll get a yellow card waved in my face.  Two yellow cards equals a red card, and I’m out…and my team is now down one player.

Seriously?  Down one player for the entire game?

The same thing happens in ice hockey.  It’s called a power play.  And when the other team scores, the penalized team gets the player back.  The power play ends, and everything is fair again.  Why can’t it be like that in soccer?

I’ve always felt that your entire team losing a player for the rest of the game should be the nuclear option of penalties, such as if one of your players bites another on the shoulder.  It shouldn’t be used against a player that commits two ticky-tack penalties.  This is especially true in an era when diving (called flopping in the USA) has become a cottage industry.  Why not dive, when you have a good chance of ejecting a player from the game entirely?


In football, you have to do something egregious to get tossed out of a game, like throwing a punch.  Even then, your team is not down a player; a substitution is allowed.  In NBA basketball, you can commit up to 5 personal fouls; you’re tossed out on the 6th (this is called “fouling out”).  Again, when you foul out, your team isn’t penalized unduly…they put in someone else to take your place.

How does an American learn to accept the harshness of the red card system?

With difficulty, I admit.  I still don’t like it.  But I sort of understand it.  After all, how else can you penalize a team in a game in which there’s no stopping of the clock?  If players were allowed five, or four, or even three yellow cards before being tossed out, I daresay there would be more tripping, more pushing, more dangerous plays…and more injuries.  Then again, there would be less diving…


4)      Offside.  This might be the hardest aspect of soccer to fathom, to a person raised on Michael Jordan fast breaks and Dan Flutie Hail Mary passes.  Why do you penalize a team for having a player in scoring position?  Get rid of the offside penalty (the idea goes) and scoring would go up, and the number of exciting plays would increase.

Oh, who am I kidding.  I still hate the offside rule.

“But wait!” the soccer aficionado says.  “You get rid of offside penalties, and people will just park in the goal, waiting for a ball.  What’s the excitement of that?”

Um, that happens already.  It’s called a corner kick.  And corner kicks are exciting.

Sure it would change the game.  There would be no more beautiful offside traps.  Instead, there would be fast breaks.  Which is more likely to end up on a highlight reel: a well-executed offside trap, or a well-executed fast break?  I’ll let you decide.

Which brings me to soccer’s flaws (yes, it has flaws, just like every game and sport does.)  Not only should the offside rule be tossed out (or at least relaxed), but shootouts to decide a game are ridiculous.  Why?  Consider that a shootout contest has little relation to the actual game of soccer.  It is, if you will, a different (but related) sport entirely.  Settling a game with a shootout is like settling a basketball game with a free-throw shooting contest.  Why anyone thinks that shootouts are a good idea is anyone’s guess.  Sure, they can be exciting…but settling a soccer game with a spin of the roulette wheel would be “exciting” too—that doesn’t mean we should actually do it.  Just have extra periods until someone scores a golden goal.  And if you’re concerned with players getting too tired, well…there are a lot of players sitting over on that bench.  Don’t you think some of them would like a chance to play?

Ultimately, I like soccer, despite its flaws.  I’ve gotten used to the offside rule; I recognize it as a rule that purposely rewards passing and open-field play, at the expense of shots-on-goal.  It’s a choice, to make soccer a particular kind of game, no better or no worse than the (different) game you’d get without the rule.  Similarly, I’ve learned to embrace the shootout: they are rare, after all, and only occur after an extra period has failed to designate a winner.  In such a case, the teams are so evenly matched that we might as well use a flip of the coin.  And we’ll call that coin flip a shootout.

Note: I’ve made no mention of baseball in this discussion.  The reason?  Come on.  Baseball is just boring.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy my book Why Is There Anything? which is available for the Kindle on Amazon.com.


I am also currently collaborating on a multi-volume novel of speculative hard science fiction and futuristic deep-space horror called Sargasso Nova.  Publication of the first installment will be January 2015; further details will be released on FacebookTwitter, or via email: SargassoNova (at) gmail.com.

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