Friday, January 22, 2010

What College Basketball Rankings Tell Us About the BCS

North Carolina's mens basketball team began the week ranked in both of the polls. (This was before Wake Forest went into Chapel Hill and beat the Heels by double digits.) UNC gets a lot of credit for playing a brutal schedule and for early wins over Ohio State (on a neutral floor) and Michigan State. But UNC has six losses and zero road wins and their only other decent win is a home victory over Virginia Tech. Even before this week's Wake Forest loss, the Heels had lost three of their last four, including a loss to College of Charleston and a home loss to Georgia Tech. I find it absurd that UNC is ranked in both polls while UAB (16-2, undefeated in conference road games, nonconference wins over Butler and Cincinnati) and Vanderbilt (14-3, undefeated in conference road games, eight-game win streak, nonconference wins over St. Mary's [on the road] and Missouri). But North Carolina began the season ranked in the top 10 in both polls and has won two national championships in the past five years. The Heels have to mess up really bad to fall out of the rankings. Vanderbilt and UAB, on the other hand, were unranked coming into the season and are the sorts of programs that hang banners when they advance to the Sweet 16. (In my opinion preseason expectations also are the reason why Syracuse, which probably has a better résumé than any team in the country, lags behind other one-loss teams; why Michigan State has remained in the Top 10 despite having three not-so-great losses; and why Duke continues to be highly rated despite not having won on the road.)

I don't care that much about college basketball polls because they are meaningless. They are voted on by coaches (USA Today/ESPN) and persons in the media (AP), many of whom are familiar only with a certain team, conference, or region. These voters do not have the time, expertise, or resources to compare all of the Division I teams worthy of consideration. The only assessment of teams that matters in college hoops is the work of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. The selection committee is much better equipped than the poll voters to determine how teams stack up against one another, and the committee doesn't care who's ranked in the top 25.

So college basketball fans would be wise to ignore the polls. College football fans, however, cannot. In major college football such human polls account for two-thirds of the formula used to select the teams that play in the BCS National Championship Game. (Swap the media types voting in the AP poll for a team of experts with similar geographical biases voting in the Harris poll.) (They also are used to determine which teams are eligible for at-large slots in other BCS games.) Those who are critical of the BCS's method of selecting a college football champion often devote much of their energy to making a case that a playoff would be a better, more fair way to choose a champion than a system that arranges a game between the top two teams. While this is true, it will be several years before replacing the BCS National Championship Game with a playoff is a real possibility, and critics of the BCS may be better off critiquing the current method of picking the top two teams. I'm not convinced that polls of coaches and insiders (who must vote in haste each week) are a reliable means of comparing teams from across the country. We would be better off with a panel that is equipped to evaluate every possible contender without regard to preseason rankings or program reputation.


Blogger OrangePower said...

I agree, polls are for the birds, otherwise only teams with the BEST records would be on the top 25.

It has never made sense to me why teams that are 12/7 are ranked along with teams that are 18/1, etc. etc.

Just because a team has a history of "top 25" or "top ten" years shouldn't cut the mustard in the present campaign.

Don't get me wrong, I like UNC, Duke, Kansas and Syracuse but if they can't cook then they should not be in the kitchen.

MARCH MADNESS seems to bear me out oh this one, The teams with the best records usually end up in the Final Four, and that's as it should be.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well it's a good thing you like Kansas and Syracuse, because Duke and UNC aren't legit threats this year...

2:23 PM  

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