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Words You'll Hear: Seeding


Now it's time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with them. Today, we're going to talk about a word you'll hear a lot if you follow sports. The word is seed - not the kind you use to grow tomatoes but spelled the same way. You're going to hear it today because today is Selection Sunday. That's the day the NCAA basketball tournament set their brackets. That means by the time you get to work tomorrow, you'll be tempted to join an office pool, and you'll be faced with dozens of seeds - 1st seed versus 16th seed and 7th seed versus 10th seed and so on. But we were wondering - why are they called seeds in the first place? To help answer that question and more, we're joined by sports columnist John Feinstein. He has a new book out on college basketball called "The Legends Club." John Feinstein, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Michel, my pleasure. How are you?

MARTIN: Good. So where does the term come from?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it's not that different than planting a seed because what you're doing is you are planting either teams or individuals into a competition. It dates back to tennis. Tennis started it years and years ago when they wanted to make sure that in a major championship like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open that the best players didn't meet in the early rounds.

MARTIN: So it began in tennis. Do we have any idea how it began to kind of pollinate the rest of the sports world?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think that people saw that it made sense. The NCAA didn't start doing it in basketball until 1979 when the tournament expanded. And again, they didn't want to have, you know, the two best teams, say, meeting in the first round or the second round. They want to in theory, based on your record during the regular season, separate the best teams from one another until the last couple of rounds. They've even gone so far now that they seed the number-one teams. In other words, there's a number-one seed that's the number-one number-one seed. Then there's a number-one seed that's the number two and so on down the line. And in golf, when they have a match play event where one player faces one player in each round, again, they seed all 64 players in the match play event that'll be played here a couple weeks as an example.

MARTIN: So the point is to keep it interesting to the end so that the strongest players aren't knocking each other out at the beginning so that they - it winds up being, like, a terrible blowout at the end - that's the idea.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah, that's the idea. It doesn't always work out that way.

MARTIN: So they're kind of gaming us is what you're saying.

FEINSTEIN: Well, a little bit. But it also is supposed to be done in the interest of fairness - that you're being rewarded for playing well by getting a high seed and presumably not having to meet another very good team until the later rounds. Now, particularly in the basketball tournament, we often see higher-seeded teams, which are technically the lower-seeded teams - 12, 13, 14 - beating the lower-seeded teams - 1, 2, 3 , 4 - in early rounds. And that's what makes the tournament exciting because it's a very inexact science and frequently the committee that seeds the teams gets it wrong.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, well, that explains that. That's columnist John Feinstein speaking to us from his home outside Washington, D.C. John Feinstein, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FEINSTEIN: Michel, my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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