Archive for October, 2009

The Science of Who’s the Best

The Physics ArXiv Blog recently discussed a paper on the statistical problem with soccer tournaments.  In particular, the authors note the problem that there is only a 28% chance that the “best team” won the most recent World Cup.  They also point to the presence of intransitive triplets,  or rock-paper-scissors type relationships where team A beats team B beats team C, who then beats team A.  They cite these results to support their claim that single-elimination tournaments, and soccer games in general are a bad experiment to determine the best team.

I don’t know much about soccer, but as a basketball fan, I’m not surprised to hear about the existence of these intransitive triplets.  Sure, after an 82-game NBA season where every team plays each other at least twice,  you can feel pretty confident about ranking the teams on a rough hierarchy.  But three teams of roughly the same level can definitely have a rock-paper-scissors relationship because of different areas of strength.

More interesting, however is their claim about single-elimination tournaments, as it makes me think of the age-old debate that seems to come up every March: Which is better, NCAA or NBA basketball?

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