The Milan Miracle

The 1954 State High School Boys Basketball Tournament, known as the “Milan Miracle”, is a treasured memory in my adopted home state of Indiana. Milan High School, with an enrollment of 161, won nine consecutive games to best 750 other teams and take the state title, a feat that provided the inspiration for the 1986 movie Hoosiers.

Since 1997 the Indiana High School Basketball Championship has been split into four classes, which eliminates the possibility of another such miraculous win. But there are other sporting events that still preserve the possibility. Perhaps the most similar is the FA Cup, contested by 737 teams from nearly all levels of English football.

This post will consider what purpose is served by large tourneys with such heterogeneous participants, and what that means for how they should be run.

For an extreme example of a miracle that’s still possible, let’s look at a sports team located about 200 miles southeast of that other Milan, the one in Italy. S.P. La Fiorita are the current holders of the Coppa Titano, the national football cup of San Marino. By virtue of winning that cup last year, S.P. La Fiorita got to play this year in the UEFA Champions League. It lost it’s first tie (with Linfield F.C., a club from Northern Ireland), but it was at least theoretically possible for it to have won the entire competition, perhaps beating Manchester City in the final. By my count, there are 713 teams that might qualify for the Champions League one year and win it the next.

Oddly, San Marino Calico, the only professional team in San Marino, does not have this potential because it does not contest the Coppa Titano. It plays in the fourth tier of the Italian league. A small matter, perhaps, because the sun will probably go nova before any Sammarinese team wins the Champions League.

This curious arrangement is much to the advantage of soccer teams in San Marino. It adds a certain dignity the league (and, perhaps, some television rights revenue). It’s less clear how, say, the English Premier League benefits.  So perhaps it’s best explained by noting that San Marino and England each have one vote in the EUFA Congress.

Given, then, that a plucky group of amateurs from San Marino is going to get a chance, each year, in the Champions League, how should the competition be organized? Not, I suggest, by any format in which S.P. La Fiorita might be drawn against Manchester City in the first round.

The most common practice is to arrange the competition so that better teams get byes into the later rounds while the S.P. La Fioritas of the world are drawn against other weak teams.  They not only get a chance to play in the league, but they may well get to play some other team that they might conceivably beat. There will be some mismatches in any tournament, but in general the games will be more competitive if the minnows are allowed to play among themselves before facing the sharks.

Not all such tournaments adopt this sensible approach. In the NCAA “March Madness” tourneys, the minnows and the sharks not only start (with some minor exceptions) in the same round of the knockout, but they’re seeded so that the smallest minnows always play the largest sharks. The difference in the standard of play between, say, the Summit League and the Big Ten may not be as stark as the difference between the football leagues of San Marino and England, but it’s still dramatic enough that no 16th seed has ever defeated a 1st seed.

In professional tennis, the lesser players have to play two or three rounds of qualifying before they reach the main draw. And in the main draw, only a quarter of the field is seeded, so that there’s still a chance that a minnow will be drawn against another minnow, at least in the first round.

I think it would greatly improve the NCAA tourney if, as in tennis, only a quarter of the field – four teams in each region – were seeded. That would not only remove the problem of seeding waves, but would also make the first couple of rounds of the tourney much more interesting and competitive.

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