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Thursday, March 3, 2011
Circular evolution in the NCAA tournament

By Eamonn Brennan

Why are some teams better in the NCAA tournament than others? Why are dominant programs dominant? Why are weak programs weak?

You, the layman and college basketball fan, might sum it up as such:

The more success a team has in the NCAA tournament, the more money and exposure that team receives. The more exposure a team receives, the more attractive that team becomes to top players around the country, most of whom share the goal of one day making it to the NBA. The more NBA prospects go to a school, the more that school wins in the NCAA tournament. And so the circle of basketball life is created.

If you were a distinguished member of Duke University's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, you would agree. But you might phrase things a little differently:
"The emergence of hierarchical design is illustrated with the rankings of university basketball programs. Although basketball rankings have the same character as the university rankings, there is no correlation between the two rankings. Academic excellence and basketball excellence are two different ow architectures on the same area, like the flow of humanity (demography) and the flow of water (river basins). Together, they show how the evolution of sports allows us to witness biological evolution in our life time."

That paragraph is pulled from the abstract of a new paper titled "The Natural Design of Heirarchy: Basketball Vs. Academics." The paper was written by Adrian Bejan, a Duke professor most notable for his development of the "constructal law of design in nature" to explain how flow systems work.

Perhaps I'm a bit of a nerd, or maybe I took an unusually perverse pleasure in reading academic papers while in college, but this is pretty interesting stuff.

This isn't interesting because it tells us something we don't already know about college basketball. As I wrote above, any college hoops fan can tell you in pretty simple terms why Duke is good. It recruits well. It wins. So it recruits well some more. So it wins more. It's a cycle, and the only appropriate reaction is a big fat "duh."

No, this is interesting for the exact opposite reason: It tells us something we already know about college basketball in a way that makes the sport a profound metaphor for life. And I'm not talking about the old, clichéd "sports reflect society" trope. I am -- or, rather, Bejan is -- talking about biological life itself.

When you watch the NCAA tournament, you're watching players and teams and coaches and programs vie for the highest honor in collegiate basketball. You're watching a basketball tournament. But when you skip out of work early on Thursday, March 18, and prepare for the festival of Gus Johnson "ha-HA"s soon to great your eager earlobes, you're not just watching a basketball tournament.

You're watching, in brilliant high definition, the same evolutionary forces that created the Amazon rain forest and the Nile River. You're witnessing the same governing principles that led to the formation of ancient Babylonian society, the same natural laws that gave us the Seven Wonders of the World. You're watching life constantly whittle itself into evolutionary successes and failures on an almost imperceptibly small scale. But whether the endgame is a national title or the plentiful Euphrates, life is life, flow is flow, and evolution is evolution.

Of course, it's entirely possible I have no idea what I'm talking about, and that I missed the point of Bejan's paper altogether. There were a lot of big words. But still ... that's kind of cool, right?