The Algorithm That Stole SWW’s Chance at a Championship
Members of the Walls basketball team on Feb. 4 / Credits: Nadia Lytle
The School Without Walls boys’ basketball team entered Benjamin Banneker High School on Feb. 4 with one thing on their minds: a win. The Penguins and the Bulldogs both found themselves on the cusp of a D.C. State Athletic Association (DCSAA) Class A bid, entering with near-identical records and battling for the eighth seed in the tournament. The Penguins escaped with a 60-54 win and, they believed, a first-ever trip to States. But the DCSAA seeding committee had other plans. Walls finished, inexplicably, ninth in Class A standings: one spot short of a much-anticipated postseason berth.
The boys spent their February practicing every weekday in preparation for the state tournament. They had every reason to believe the last spot belonged to them. The yet-to-happen DCIAA postseason, which the squad had narrowly missed, held no bearing on the States field. Further, the Penguins held better records, as well as presumably tie-breaking victories, over closely standing teams like Ballou, E.L. Haynes, and Banneker.
The bad news broke in the second half of February when the bracket was finalized. Benjamin Banneker secured the seventh seed while E.L. Haynes, holding a weaker record (10- 14 to Walls’ 10-9), weaker competition (charter schools compared to the typically stronger D.C. Public Schools), and a 56-64 loss to the penguins, held the eighth spot; the Penguins were on the outside looking in.
So how did E.L. Haynes, a team with a weaker record, weaker set of opponents, and a loss to School Without Walls finish above Walls in the standings? The DCSAA seeding committee uses a numerical algorithm to calculate an overall “rating” (a.k.a. “Point Index”) for each team, found by dividing a team’s total “points” by their number of games played. For Walls, an algorithm technicality prevented a trip to States.
The algorithm takes into account a variety of metrics in order to calculate the total number of points for each team. These points are broken into regular “points” and additional “bonus points.” A team earns two points for every victory and one additional bonus point for every opponent with a winning percentage of .501 (a team winning over half of their games) or higher. A team earns another bonus point for each team with a .701 winning percentage (a team winning over 70 percent of their games) or higher. These bonus points, intentionally or not, give charter schools a marginal advantage because the caliber of competition in the charter school league tends to be relatively weaker than the public DCIAA field.
Over the course of the season, School Without Walls tallied 32 points across 19 games: 20 from their 10 victories, and another 12 from playing opponents with strong records. E.L. Haynes earned 39 points for 11 wins and their opponents’ records across 25 games. Simple division gives Walls the edge at 1.68 compared to Haynes’s 1.56. Unfortunately for Walls, an unfortunate set of circumstances aligned to alter these ratings.
First, DCSAA deemed one of Haynes’s losses inapplicable. Thus, Haynes rating was calculated based on 24 games instead of 25. Second, according to DCSAA rules, point indexes for teams that play fewer than 20 games “will be calculated based on dividing total points by 20.” Walls’s 19-game season was treated by DCSAA as a 20 game season, pushing their rating, or “point index,” to 1.6 — just short of Haynes’s 1.625.
With Haynes edging out Walls, there was one last glimmer of hope for the Penguins: DCSAA tournament rules include that the DCIAA winner “receives an automatic bid” to the Class AA tournament, so when Bard (A) won the DCIAA finals, some speculated that they could be elevated to the Class AA bracket. Unfortunately for Walls, this rule applies only to the following year. Bard would retain their second seed in the Class A division and go on to win the championship.
At the end of the day, there was nothing Walls could do to alter their fate. By DCSAA’s book — despite head-to-head wins over the seventh and eighth seeds in the tournament, better records than both of those teams, and considerable improvement throughout the season — E.L. Haynes did earn the last spot. Postseason basketball was simply not in the cards for this year’s Penguins. Walls will have to settle for building on their strong season next year.