Now that your favorite college team has been bounced from March Madness, possibly at Duke-like speed, you probably find yourself groping for a team to root for. In a Final Four full of alpha teams and without an underdog like George Mason, whom should you support? If you can't get jazzed, try an alternative point of view. This weekend's games won't just determine the best team in the NCAA Tournament. They'll also decide who's the worst.
College basketball's tournament is a pyramid of basketball Darwinism. Over three weeks, the strong are crowned with laurels mulched from the corpses of the fallen. Yet those losers are quickly forgotten. Every year we count up six wins to find the champ, but we rarely count backward to find the anti-champ. Just as a winner emerges from the bracket, so too does the bracket quietly determine the team that's the worst in the field. Call it a pessimist's approach to bracketology.
How do you determine the worst team in the field? Simple: It's the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the NCAA champion. Need an example? Let's figure out the worst team in the South Regional. This year, Ohio State won its region with a 16-point drubbing of Memphis. Memphis beat Texas A&M to get a shot at the Buckeyes. The Aggies got that far by beating Louisville. Those Cardinals beat the Stanford Cardinal in the first round. So, the South Regional's bottom feeder, the team with loserhood so virulent that it infected every subsequent team, is none other than Stanford.
In the West, UCLA took down Kansas, which sunk Southern Illinois, which vanquished Virginia Tech, which eliminated Illinois. The Illini are your anti-champs. In the East, Georgetown will play for the title; New Mexico State is the ur-loser. In the Midwest, Florida advanced, while Texas A&M Corpus-Christi lies under the wreckage. There you have it: Stanford, Illinois, New Mexico State, and Texas A&M Corpus-Christi. Ladies and gentlemen, your Fetid Four!
Stanford fans will likely take umbrage with this assessment (or at least ask their parents to hire someone to take umbrage with it). Perhaps the Cardinal could have beaten, say, Central Connecticut State. We'll never know, though, any more than we'll know whether Memphis would have fared better against Tennessee than they would have against Ohio State. What's done is done; the bracket has spoken. Ohio State is in the Final Four. Stanford is the regional runt.
You can have some fun with this at home. What would it have taken for Duke to have been the worst team in the tournament? Well, the Blue Devils took the first step by losing to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round. VCU followed through by losing to Pittsburgh in the second round. Then Pitt lost to UCLA, proving it was no sleeping giant. Alas, UCLA feasted on Kansas' festival of missed layups to return to the Final Four, sparing Duke worst-in-regional status. Barely.
Glancing back at past seasons, the biggest-loser distinction has gone to some unexpected teams. In 2004, for instance, Florida lost to Manhattan in the first round. Manhattan turned out to be a one-hit wonder itself, and so on, until Georgia Tech's loss to Connecticut in the final meant the Gators were the font of all loserhood. A bracket that unfolds strictly according to seeding means a No. 11 will be the tourney's worst. But Oklahoma achieved the distinction in 1995 as a No. 4 seed. Last year, Big Ten champion the Hawkeyes were the worst team in the tournament. And all this time you thought it was Monmouth.
Does deconstructing brackets like this give you an edge in the office pool? After breaking down the last 20 years' worth of anti-champions, I haven't found many hidden statistical indicators. The best factoid I've unearthed is that St. Mary's is the Typhoid Mary of losing: The tiny Catholic school has been the worst team in its region all three times it's made the tournament in the past two decades.
After Monday's title game, we'll be able to name the worst team of the 2007 tournament. If Florida beats Ohio State in the final game, then New Mexico State will be your anti-champ. If Georgetown beats UCLA, the loser to end all losers is Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. There will be enough TV timeouts this weekend for you to figure out the rest of the scenarios on your own.
Who am I rooting for—and, I guess, against? Out of vaguely populist principle, I refuse to support Florida, Ohio State, and UCLA in any athletic contest, so I guess I'm a Georgetown fan this week. But I'm fully expecting the Hoyas to lose in the title game. Hoops heads knew on selection day that Stanford, the bum of Ohio State's regional, was the worst team in this tournament. When Ohio State loses to Georgetown and Georgetown then loses to Florida, the brackets will confirm it.