Bracketology, through an Academic Performance Lens

This week marks the second greatest annual sporting experience — March Madness (Eduflack is still a purist and believes nothing can hold a candle to baseball’s Opening Day).  Later this week, 65 of the supposed best Division One men’s basketball teams will square off to see which is the best (or the luckiest) basketball team of the year.  And then, on my birthday this year, we will crown a national champion.

The top four seeds are the top teams we typically expect to see — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Syracuse, with Kansas designated the number one number one.  As in most years, we see lots of teams from the major conferences, and a good mix of mid-major programs that have done their institutions proud on the hardwoods.

The annual brackets often lead some to begin discussing athletics versus academics at Division One colleges and universities.  Those who follow men’s college basketball (it is very different for women’s college basketball) are no fools.  We realize that the majority of players, particularly those who start, will never earn that sheepskin from the IHE providing them with a free, four-year ride to a top college.  Many play a year or two, then seek their fortunes in either the NBA.  Those who can’t make the NBA cut will often head to overseas leagues, hoping it will provide them a pathway back to the NBA.  And many will fail to take advantage of the opportunities that scholarship can provide, particularly in the face of the realities of how few college ballers actually make it to play professionally with LeBron, Kobe, and company.

For the fifth year in a row, the good folks over at Inside Higher Education offer up their “Academic Performance Tournament,” a similarly bracketed tourney that looks at how those teams playing for that “one shining moment” on April 5 would fair if they were judged based on the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate (that looks at academic standing and simply staying enrolled in school) instead of just the number of points one can put up during a game.  And the results are always fun to look at.

Sometimes, we do see the actual winner match up with the academic winner.  It happened last year when the University of North Carolina won.  But this year’s Academic Dance offers up some great upsets.  Ohio U over Georgetown.  Vermont over Syracuse (which has actually happened in the Tourney before).  North Texas over Kansas State.  Cornell over Temple.  Montana over New Mexico.  Siena over Purdue.

IHE offers its Final Four as Kansas, Duke, Texas, and BYU, with Kansas winning it all on April 5.  Syracuse loses its first game.  Number one seed Kentucky doesn’t make it into the round of 16.  But IHE still sides with chalk, choosing the number one number one seed to win it all, a real possibility both academically and athletically.

The folks at IHE use the NCAA Graduation Success Rate to break ties.  Eduflack wonders what the brackets would look like if we picked winners based solely on their ability to graduate the players they enroll as “student-athletes.”  The results would likely be shocking.

UPDATE: ESPN is also reporting a new report provided by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which focuses on the graduation gap between white and black players on the 65 teams found in the bracket.  According to the Institute, 45 teams graduated 70 percent or more of their white players, but only 20 teams could hit the same mark for their black student-athletes.  The study used graduation success rates, looking at six-year grad rates for freshmen.


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