The College Basketball Top 25 Purpose Debate Verdict

February 16, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Optimist Prime and Bleacher Fan.

I asked Bleacher Fan and Optimist Prime to debate the relevance of polls in college basketball, due in large part to the fact that in our pre-production meeting last week, the relevance of the polls was called into question. When that happens, that’s usually a good signal that a debate is on the horizon.

It was evident when assigning sides that Bleacher Fan would argue about the IRRELEVANCE of the polls. This was due to the fact that Mr. Fan is a proud graduate of the University of Akron and still actively follows the Zips. In fact, last year Mr. Fan managed to sneak out of the office a couple of days to walk down the street to watch some of the MAC conference tournament at The Q in Cleveland, Ohio. Surprisingly, that was not brought up in the argument. However, some quality points were made.

While the first seeds were exactly matched up with the first four positions in the poll, it did differ quite a bit the further down the research went. What struck me was the fact that Baylor, which was ranked 21st, somehow got a third seed. I forgot that fact. The selection committee obviously saw something in those Scott Drew’s Bears from Waco that the pollsters didn’t, and maybe they were right, considering Baylor did advance to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Duke. The rankings are totally disregarded as the committee tries to match up major conference representatives in each bracket as evenly as possible. Bleacher Fan suspects (and he’s probably right) that San Diego State, even with a win over BYU, could be upset on Selection Sunday with its seeding, despite a likely top five ranking in the conventional polls.

Optimist Prime takes the opposite side, but, you know, that’s because that’s what happens in a debate! The angle is that polls and rankings are relevant because they give teams a chance to gauge where they are. Maybe it provides a struggling team a boost of confidence when they knock off a ranked team or provides the opposite effect to the team that loses to the unranked team. I don’t recall the Tiger-Wahoo matchup used in the debate, but on the opposite end, imagine the uptick that Kansas State – a team squarely on the bubble – could very well get from knocking off the number one ranked Kansas Jayhawks on Monday night. That’s what I gathered that Optimist Prime was going for in the debate. Like the closing of the argument states, how would anyone know when to rush the court without that little number one beside the defeated visiting team?

I went back and forth on this even while typing this decision. I started out thinking one way, but then wasn’t so sure. But, by looking at the corresponding evidence, I am awarding the victory to Bleacher Fan.

We can all agree the rankings provide good conversation for fans. They add buzz to the games. But in the big picture, they obviously are no factor in what happens during March. The NCAA tournament selection committee looks at a teams’ RPI, its strength of schedule, and other factors. One of those others factors is not the team’s standing in the top 25. Those rankings are thrown in the nearby trash can, which is probably where Optimist Prime is going to throw this verdict. There’s just been too much inconsistency when comparing the rankings to the seeds in the tournament, and what happens comes tournament time is ultimately what matters and is RELEVANT.

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The College Basketball Top 25 Purpose Debate

February 15, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Optimist Prime and Bleacher Fan.

It’s human nature for us to check the polls every Monday to see where our favorite college basketball team is ranked. The rankings sometimes provide water cooler talk at the office, or a quick way to find scores on the bottom line or any mobile application on our cell phones. But unlike college football – where rankings do come into play due to the complicated formula of the BCS – the role of the rankings is not as clear cut.

San Diego State currently sits at 23-1 and is ranked sixth in both the AP poll and the coaches poll. However, the team has just one game that all of us remember, when the Aztecs played their showdown with BYU back on January 26th. We all know that was the Jimmer Fredette show. If the Aztecs win their rematch with the Cougars and run the table from here on out, there are questions as to whether or not they will be a number one seed due to NCAA tournament terms such as RPI and SOS…

Which leads us to today’s debate. Should the polls and rankings even matter in college basketball?

Bleacher Fan – who is a big fan of mid-majors due to his allegiance to his alma mater in Akron – will argue that rankings mean nothing. Optimist Prime, on the opposite end of the spectrum, will argue that rankings provide meaning and a sense of structure to college basketball.

I am judge and jury on this selection committee, and both of you are on the bubble. Whose bubble will burst? (Editor’s Note: Gross.)

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The College Basketball Top 25 Purpose Debate… Watch Me Pull A Ranking Out of My Hat!

February 15, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

When I was eight years old I thought the greatest illusion ever performed happened on my television when I watched David Copperfield walk through the Great Wall of China.

Then I discovered college basketball.

The NCAA Division I basketball, each year, pulls off a feat that would make Blackstone ask, “How’d they do that?!” What is the illusion, you ask? It is the illusion that there is any value at all to the top 25 ranking.

In college football, the top 25 rankings serve a very important function. They help to determine which teams get to participate in the series of the biggest bowl games, and ultimately which two teams will compete for the National Championship.

What purpose does the top 25 poll serve in basketball?

Last year, do you know what the respective national rankings were for Duke and Butler as they entered March Madness? Duke was ranked fourth in the nation, while Butler was ranked number 12. Despite those rankings (which in College Football earned #12 Missouri an invitation to the Insight Bowl… Ooooohhhh!!!!), those were the two teams that faced off for the crown last April.

Unlike the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA, every single one of the more than 300 teams in Division I basketball kick the season off with an opportunity to compete for the National Championship. They don’t have to impress any voters, or beat the “right” teams. They don’t even have to have a good regular season.

All they have to do is win the conference tournament.

Sure, the worse a team does in the regular season, the tougher their road to, and through, the national tournament is, but that doesn’t change the simple fact that a team needs only to win in the post-season, and it is through to the Tournament.

If the top 25 rankings are irrelevant and unnecessary when populating the 64 teams for the national championship tournament, they must SURELY impact the seeding in the tournament, don’t they? I mean it only makes sense to do it that way. Teams ranked one through four would be given one-seeds, then the teams ranked five through eight get two-seeds, and so on.

WRONG!

Last year, for example, the teams ranked one through four did each earn a top seed in the national tournament (Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, and Kentucky).

So what about the two-seeds?

After the top four in the rankings came Ohio State (fifth in the nation), Purdue (sixth), West Virginia (seventh), and New Mexico (eighth). But neither Purdue nor New Mexico were rewarded with the second spot in their respective brackets. Instead, it was Ohio State, West Virginia, Kansas State (ranked ninth in the country) and Villanova (ranked tenth).

New Mexico actually received a three-seed, and Purdue (the sixth best team in the country, according to the national rankings) was bumped all the way down to a four-seed, while Baylor (the 21st ranked team in the country) was seeded third, ahead of them in the same region.

What led to the disparity between the national rankings and the seedings for the national tournament? Once again, it was the selection committee.

Rather than overload a region with too many teams from the same conference, or with a prospective high-powered regular season rematch too early in the dance, they try to distribute the Major Conference representatives evenly across the bracket, regardless of their projected worth on the national stage.

Now, as this year draws towards another March full of basketball Madness, fans of the San Diego State Aztecs (currently ranked sixth in the nation by the AP) can expect the same head-scratching logic as an answer to the questions of why they were seeded third or fourth – behind some big-named program from a big-named conference like the 20-team Big East – that will simply ride the merits of their name and neighborhood into an easier road to Houston.

The top 25 rankings are completely worthless in college basketball. They provide water cooler conversation at the workplace, and give sportswriters something to do each week in the football off-season. But when it comes to what really matters (a chance at the national championship), they hold as much value as a Mel Kiper, Jr. mock draft.

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The College Basketball Top 25 Purpose Debate… Rankings Provide Gauge

February 15, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Bleacher Fan.

It certainly is nice to be writing a debate about college basketball this week. The calendar has definitely turned to that glorious time of the year between the Super Bowl and the NFL draft when the sports world can actually talk about something other than the NFL.

This topic is interesting to me because there’s been a lot of debate about college football’s dependence on its rankings and polls, but the college basketball polls really don’t generate a lot of discussion in this era of bracketology columns that get published almost year-round. Are college basketball polls meaningful and relevant? Yes, but not in the same way that the college football polls are.

As we know, college football polls have a very significant effect on a team’s season because so much of the all-powerful BCS average is calculated based on a team’s position in the polls. Because the RPI calculation used in college basketball is not impacted by rankings, and the NCAA tournament selection committee does not take rankings into account in its selections, it’s obviously difficult to make an argument that the college basketball polls are as meaningful as the college football polls. However, I believe that the college basketball polls are meaningful because they give teams a gauge of where they are throughout the regular season, and a boost of confidence – or desperation – to many important games throughout the season.

How often have we all seen a team’s season turn on a big win over a ranked team? Without the polls, that would be just another win of somewhat undetermined value. Also, how often have we seen a highly ranked team crumble under the pressure of that high ranking? Without the ranking that sense of pressure might not exist for that team.

One example that comes to mind for me is a University of Virginia team from several years ago. They came into a January game against my Clemson Tigers ranked in the top five or six of the major polls. The conventional wisdom was that they were overrated and waiting to be exposed. Sure enough, that night my Tigers put a thorough beat down on that bunch of Cavaliers and the ACC media narrative took the form of, “See, I told you so.” That game affected UVA so much that they went on a long losing streak and eventually missed the NCAA tournament. Ask any UVA fan that followed their team that season whether or not rankings were meaningful in how their season played out. I suspect you’ll get a very direct answer.

Thankfully, college basketball’s national championship is decided on the floor, and not on a bunch of computer servers somewhere. We’re glad that one loss in basketball typically doesn’t cripple a team’s season. However, I don’t think college basketball would be the sport it is without weekly rankings.

Think about the Wisconsin-Ohio State game this past weekend. It was a great game, but would it have been infused with the same meaning had it just been a good team against a really good team? No. The fact that Wisconsin can hang its hat on defeating the number one team in the nation is a significant milestone in the season, and potentially a significant milestone in Ohio State’s season as well.

Perhaps most importantly, without rankings the student bodies around the country would have no guidance for when it is or is not OK to rush the floor. Do we want to live in a world with willy-nilly floor rushing? I say no.

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