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Why March Madness isn't that mad

Streeter Lecka / Getty Images file

Is there a scientific reason why the Duke Blue Devils are perennial basketball favorites? A professor from Duke says yes.

A professor from Duke University says it's only natural that the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament highlights the same teams year after year ... like Duke, for instance.

This sounds like either an attempt to get in good with the higher-ups at the university in North Carolina, or one of those "duh, right" studies that merely confirm common sense. If your sports team builds up a reputation, of course it'll continue to attract good athletes and coaches to keep up that reputation — and that goes for the Duke Blue Devils as well as other sports dynasties.

But the point behind the newly published research from Adrian Bejan, an engineering professor at Duke (and a former basketball star from Romania), is that sports dynasties serve to illustrate evolution at work.

"The science of sports evolution is a significant step in evolutionary biology, where the accepted view is that evolution is impossible to observe because of its long timeframe," Bejan said in a news release. "With sports, we can focus on a particular population of athletes and witness 'live' the evolution of the design and performance of this selected group."


Bejan's analysis of hierarchies in basketball and academics was published online this week in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics."

Constructal law
Bejan says only a few sports teams can rise to the top of a hierarchy, and that hierarchy can be predicted in line with a theory that he calls "constructal law." The theory, which Bejan developed 15 years ago, is based on the principle that flow systems evolve their design to minimize imperfections, reduce friction or other forms of resistance, and increase their efficiency with time.

As a college basketball program becomes successful, the "friction" involved in recruiting those prospects is reduced. Less effort has to be expended to bring in the best athletes, and that solidifies the university's standing in the athletic hierarchy. The way Bejan explains it, this process is as natural as the fact that a river cuts a deeper channel as time goes on.

"In this case it has to do with the players," Perry Haynsworth, a former student of Bejan's who contributed to the study, told the Duke Chronicle. "The easiest path for these high-school basketball players to the NBA is to the top 10 schools, and because of that these top 10 schools have more success."

For the record, the top 11 schools listed in the paper are, in descending order, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Cincinnati and Ohio State (rankings based on NCAA Final Four appearances). This year's anticipated top seeds, as projected by Dave Ommen for NBC Sports' "Beyond the Arc" blog, don't exactly track that list. Duke, Kansas and Ohio State are the only teams from Bejan's list of 11 that are projected to be No. 1 or No. 2 seeds when the NCAA announces its brackets on March 13. But Bejan emphasizes that his study is about long-term trends rather than any one year in particular.

To be sure, Cinderella teams can break into the Final Four, and the top-rated teams can be upset as well. But Bejan and his colleagues say a college that wants to establish itself in basketball's top tier would have to spend more on its program and recruiting efforts than the existing top-tier teams. By the same token, the top teams tend to keep their reputation even if they have a bad year once in a while ... like Duke, for instance.

"The principle is that winning will return to a campus such as Duke because Duke is one of those channels of processing the best talent in the country," Bejan told the Duke Chronicle.

Academics and athletics
Bejan's analysis applies to academics as well as athletics, and he maintains that there's an evolutionary lesson in the way that colleges develop specialties. Universities, like species, have to balance the expenditure of resources for a variety of purposes. Some species have super-sharp hearing. Others rely more on their sense of smell or their sharp vision to survive. Similarly, some universities are better-known for academics than for athletics (Hooray for the Caltech Beavers!) while it's vice versa at some other universities I could name (but won't).

Some universities may show up on top-10 lists for athletics as well as athletics ... like Duke, for instance. But Bejan said "most of the universities appear only in one of the rankings — they seem to separate themselves into two different worlds." He maintains that academic powerhouses follow the same evolutionary rules that athletic powerhouses do.

This isn't the first time Bejan has blended athletics and evolution: In previously published research, he found that Olympic swimmers and sprinters have grown bigger, taller and faster over the past 100 years — recording an average growth rate that's almost three times as high as the wider population's average growth rate over the same time frame. More controversially, he has sought to explain why the top-rated sprinters tend to be black while the top-rated swimmers tend to be white. (He and his co-authors contend that it has to do with torso length, as measured by the position of the belly button.)

Do you think Bejan has hit the mark with his evolutionary analysis of March Madness, or has he thrown up an airball? Feel free to add your color commentary in the comment space below.

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