College Hoops Are Like the Jungle: Yale

Basketball and life in the wild are similar, study finds.

By LeAnne Gendreau
|  Wednesday, Mar 9, 2011  |  Updated 9:30 AM EDT
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The rules of survival and college basketball are quite similar, according to a new study by Yale University, which shows that the way science has viewed biodiversity is likely wrong.

The research sounds like something you’d see at ESPN rather than the ecology department of an Ivy League university.

Yale researchers looked at competition in college basketball and life and death in the wild to draw their conclusions and the study will be published today in the journal PLoS ONE, Yale officials said.

The premise is that a few college basketball teams win many games. Most win a few, and that pattern matches one found in nature, where few species are abundant and the majority are uncommon.

“Ecologists increasingly fit mathematical models to infer why some species are common and others uncommon in an ecosystem,” said Robert Warren, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, said in a news release. “Some scientists say the world sorts out the winner species from the losers; some say it is just random. We picked a dataset generated by sorting college basketball records and tried to find the same pattern for tree species in the tropics.”

Yale researchers went through won-loss records from the 327 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams from 2004 to 2008.

Then, they treated each team as a species, and wins and losses as individuals

Each team’s win results in another team’s loss, which is similarly in the wild in that a win by an individual of one species individual results in loss of an individual from another species, Warren said.

Teams that win the most – like the Duke Blue Devils and the Kansas Jayhawks -- tend to have the most money, better coaches, better facilities and more talented recruits.

Using this theory, researchers are challenging the popular view of how ecological communities are structured, which assumes that differences between species are irrelevant to their success.

“It doesn’t mean that the outcome of each basketball game is random,” says Mark Bradford, a co-author and assistant professor of terrestrial ecosystem ecology at F&ES, “but rather the explanations for the patterns of biodiversity that we see are incorrect. If these neutral theories are correct, then the top seed in this year’s tournament is no more likely to win than the last seed in each bracket. We know this isn’t true, and the same applies to biodiversity—some species are more vulnerable to loss than others.”

The work, however, is not done.

“Instead of only fitting mathematical models to biodiversity patterns, we need to put on our boots and head back to the woods to figure out why some species are common and so many uncommon. Otherwise, we may find ourselves unable to manage species in the face of global environmental change,” Warren said. 

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