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Wishing for Better Playoff Systems

As the Butler Bulldogs and Connecticut Huskies clanged shot after shot in last week’s NCAA title game, pundits raced to explain the ugliest championship in a generation. Both teams played stifling defense. They gameplanned well. They were tired after long seasons and long tournament runs.

There are grains of truth in each of those explanations. But all those justifications ignored the obvious: These were two mediocre teams, brought together by a playoff system that’s exciting, unpredictable…and criminally unfair.

We haven’t seen a World Series quite that bad in recent memory. But Major League Baseball’s playoff system also gives very little advantage to teams who fared best over 162 games. Again, unfairly so.

If sports are meant to be a meritocracy, aren’t we doing this all wrong? What’s the point of sustained greatness if all it gets you is a favorable seed in college basketball that’s relevant for one, maybe two rounds? As the gap between the best teams and Cinderellas narrows, there’s greater potential for more Butlers — as well as ninth-place conference finishers like UConn — to play for championships. Which means there’s also greater potential for ugly title games that produce terribly unsatisfying results, and 19% shooting.

And while NCAA hoops give us 30-plus regular-season games, Major League Baseball offers 162. For all the hand-wringing by Red Sox fans over their team’s 2-9 start, or Albert Pujols hitting below the Mendoza Line, we know those results won’t continue all year long. Baseball’s six-month schedule provides a true test of skill for every team and every player. You might see an occasional fluke season by a ballclub or individual. But we still have a larger sample of evidence to separate great teams from lousy ones than in any other sport.

So why do the best teams then get thrust into the exact type of situation that encourages flukish results? A best-of-five League Division Series with multiple off-days and potential bad weather in open-air East Coast ballparks dramatically boosts the import of any one game, or match-up. A badly outmanned team with a pitching ace and a few lucky bounces can topple the most complete, proven winners. Where college basketball at least gives #1 seeds a break with gimme games in the first (and sometimes second) rounds, you might see a 98-win team face a 93-win team in a short, first-round MLB playoff series, with final-game home-field advantage the only notable advantage — assuming the series even goes that long.

Baseball gets derided for its lack of parity, with popular perception holding that the Yankees and Red Sox are guaranteed winners every year. But MLB has seen 18 different World Series winners since 1984, with just one repeat winner in the past decade. Parity has its place in sports. But how far should we go to foster it? When an 83-win team like the 2006 Cardinals or a flawed Wild Card club like the 2003 Marlins ride a four-week hot streak to a title, other teams’ season-long excellence suddenly becomes irrelevant.

There’s got to be a way to keep hope alive for David-vs.-Goliath clashes, while providing greater rewards for teams that proved their greatness over the long haul. In baseball, the most obvious move should be to turn the League Division Series into a best-of-seven format. If MLB does expand to 12-team playoffs, giving byes to only the top two teams in each league and having the other four playoff teams all play in round one could help. Returning to the old best-of-nine format for the World Series could also tilt the scales a bit toward more deserving clubs.

Whether it’s baseball or college basketball, the pedigree of the team isn’t the issue. If the Pittsburgh Pirates earn the best record in the National League, let them get that edge. If mid-major stalwarts like San Diego State play well enough to earn a higher seed than a big-name Big East or SEC school, they should earn some extra rest as surely as should a Kansas or Ohio State.

Don’t take away our Cinderellas. But don’t use virtual coin flips to decide champions either. We should never have to suffer through 12-for-64 — or its baseball equivalent — again.