Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Same Old Playoff Argument, Michigan and Udinese Edition

For those of you who don’t look forward to looking at the standings of Serie A every Sunday night, Udinese is the hottest team in the major European leagues right now.  Paolo Bandini explains:

A four-horse race? That depends who you ask. "Please, you know [the scudetto] is an impossible goal," said the Udinese manager Francesco Guidolin after his team's 2-0 win over Catania, but the director Gino Pozzo – son of team owner Giampaolo – took a different view. "Dreaming doesn't cost a thing," he mused.

No one could blame the Friuliani for doing that after their recent run. The only unbeaten side left in Serie A this calendar year, Udinese have collected 33 points from the past 13 games and gone seven games without even conceding a goal. Furthermore, they already hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over Inter, and have the chance to get the same over both their other rivals, having already beaten Napoli 3-1 at home and drawn 4-4 at Milan. Their return fixture against the Rossoneri comes on the last day of the season.

Guidolin may be saying that the scudetto (the Italian word for the Serie A championship) is out of reach just to tamp down expectations, but he is also being realistic.  With eight games to play, Udinese are not just six points off the top of the table; they are also looking up at three teams: AC Milan, Inter, and Napoli.  Even if they manage to win out without even a draw, they will still have to rely on three other sides slipping up.  This is interesting to me because if Serie A followed the American model, Udinese would be the favorite in the post-season playoff.

Now, contrast Udinese’s current place to that of my alma mater’s basketball program.  While not quite as hot as the Friulani, Michigan ended the season on a fairly torrid run.  After starting 1-6 in the Big Ten, Michigan’s only losses were a pair of setbacks away from Ann Arbor against #1 Ohio State, a two-point loss at Illinois in which Michigan missed a pair of potentially winning three-point attempts, and a one-point loss to Wisconsin after a Wisconsin player banked in a three at the buzzer.  The Wolverines were a classic young team that takes most of the season to figure out how to play together before gelling for a run through the second half of the schedule.  (Not that Michigan has any experience with that.)  As a reward for this stretch and then a 30-point trouncing of Tennessee, Michigan got a shot at top-seed Duke.  That shot ended with Darius Morris missing an open runner in the lane to force overtime.

As excited as I was about Michigan basketball returning to relevance, the whole spectacle on Sunday struck me as odd.  Michigan was not good for the first half of the Big Ten schedule, as evidenced by a 19-point loss at Indiana and a 14-point loss at Northwestern.  Duke was excellent for the entire season, despite the loss of their best pro prospect.  Duke’s reward for being much better was that they got to play Michigan on a neutral court with one day to prepare for John Beilein’s system.  OK, Duke got to play in Charlotte, but as it turned out, Michigan had a number of UNC fans cheering for them (or at least hectoring the refs for calls that went against Michigan).  How exactly does the NCAA reward teams for being demonstrably superior for a four-month, 30-something game regular season?  In Italy, Udinese doesn’t get to forget an average first half of the season.  In college basketball, Michigan’s past sins were washed away.   

1 comment:

Nate said...

Isn't it more a matter of emphasis than a difference in overall system?

The overall set-up in each sport is surprisingly similar:

Winning Serie A = Winning the Big Ten

Winning the Coppa Italia = Winning the Big Ten Tournament

Winning the Champions League = Winning the NCAA Tournament

Winning the Europa League = Winning the NIT

The difference seems to be that winning Serie A in Italy means much more than winning the Big Ten does in Michigan. Similarly, baseball values winning the World Series more than it does the National League Pennant, and the same emphasis on the primacy of the season-end tournament over the league title holds true for the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL. (College football's playoff system is too strange to compare.)

I have no idea how this discrepancy developed. And what is interesting is that European soccer plays its domestic tournaments concurrently with their league seasons, which has the effect of diluting the excitement of the tournament. On the other hand, even bad teams that are out of the league title hunt (or even out of the league entirely: see Leyton Orient) can still look at a potential run in a domestic cup. England has two cups, the FA and the Carling, and that really seems to grind up players and enthusiasm, in my point of view.

I'm glad you wrote a post about this, because lately I've been mulling over which system is preferable. Emphasizing the league title is overall more fair as far as rewarding consistency for an entire season, but it also means most of the teams in the league are out of the hunt early, leaving fans out in the cold. (See this year's Bundesliga season, which was over by Christmas.)

I think European has a slight edge due to the Champions League, which is terrifically exciting but not so important that an early exit diminishes a team's league title achievemet. For example, Barcelona may have been disappointed to lose to Inter in last year's Champions League, but that didn't mean their La Liga triumph over Madrid was for nothing. Could the same be said for a Michigan Big Ten title followed by a lackluster NCAA tournament?