Monday, January 05, 2009

Reason #812 Why Polls Are Stupid

College basketball polling is stupid; we all realize this, and yet we all are somehow swayed by the charm. Mostly these days the rankings matter only to fans of a team for the purposes of bragging rights, and to ESPN, looking to hype a game between two "top ten teams." You have the preseason rankings, which is about as predictive as just picking the final four teams out of a hat (so long as the hat only has the names of schools from the BCS conferences). Midseason, the formula for figuring out how a team will do in next week's ranking is simple: did your team lose this week? If yes, then they will be ranked lower; if not, well then they'll probably have the same ranking next week, depending on how the teams above them did. The rankings are not even meaningful at the end of the regular season, because the rankings that might be used by the NCAA selection committee when they fill the brackets on Selection Sunday are from the previous week, and don't reflect any conference tournament results! Luckily, reporters who have infiltrated the committee report that RPI, and actual team performance matter a whole lot more than what seventy sportswriters have to say.

To me, it's particularly hilarious watching teams rise and fall solely based on how they performed on Sundays. A team can lose two home games during the week, and then knock off the #1 team in the country on the road on Sunday night, and suddenly they are everyone's sleeper. What happened this week is not as much of an extreme example, but it is pretty telling about the minds of the coaches and writers who vote in the polls.

Let's look at Boston College. Before last night they were 13-2, having won ten in a row since back to back November losses to Saint Louis (on the road) and Purdue (neutral court). Their other wins last week included a twenty point home win over San Fransisco followed by a thirteen point home victory over Seton Hall two days later. Before the game they were ranked out of the top 75 teams in the country according to Most importantly, they had never received a single vote in either the AP or Coaches' poll in the first eight weeks (including the preseason poll).

Then, in Chapel Hill yesterday, BC knocked off top-ranked UNC, 85-78. Less than 24 hours later, ESPN published the new college basketball rankings. Boston College miraculously generated 90 points in the Coaches' poll, vaulting them from nowhere into 24th. The AP poll was even more generous, vaulting BC to 17th! From not even in the NCAA tournament to the sweet sixteen, all thanks to a poor shooting night by Tyler Hansbrough! Statistically, BC is ranked 52nd in the nation by, along with such giant killers as UAB and Iowa. Jeff Sagarin, whose rankings are based on teams played and score margin, has BC ranked 37th.

I write this not to belittle the accomplishment of Boston College. It was a gritty win, and continues to prove that the ACC is the best conference anywhere. But I tend to think that any unranked team in a BCS conference would have lept to 17th in the AP poll the day after beating God's Gift to Basketball Teams, the 2009 UNC Tarheels. The writers are not studying game film or getting crosseyed from looking over statistics to determine which are the 25 best teams in the nation at this moment. What they know, for certain, is that UNC is the best team ever, and Boston College beat them, in Chapel Hill, and so the Eagles must be this great team we didn't know about. UNC is still great, you see, and they're still going to have them ranked third, because it's impossible to believe that they overrated UNC, of course.

Let's contrast this to what happened after ESPN's touted "game of the week," between #6 Duke and #7 Xavier at the Meadowlands on December 20. The network actually cut away from the game with Duke up by 25+ points in the second half, but the writers and coaches chose not use Duke's stomping over the #7 team in the country as a referrendum proving Duke was the New Team To Beat. Instead, Duke raised only to #5 in the rankings while Xavier was pushed to #14. The keen poll-watcher would know that there is no way the voters could have pushed Duke any higher, because all four teams ahead of them (UNC, UConn, Pitt, and Oklahoma) were undefeated, and how could a one loss team possibly be better than an undefeated team?!?

I'm not so much griping as a Duke fan-- the loss to Michigan did the same thing for the Wolverines in early December that it has done for Boston, before other losses backed them out of the top 25. Another hilarious polll oddity happened soon later; Duke dropped from #4 to #7 in both polls following the loss in Ann Arbor, and a week later gained a place, despite not playing a single game! I suppose I don't really have a point, just that all these rankings bemuse me. They don't matter one bit, and I feel sorry for the fans who really care about them. When it comes to major college sports, though, I suppose I should feel lucky that the championship in the sport I care about is decided on the court, rather than by a bunch of coaches before the season even starts...