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 Mid-Major versus Major Debate – Even Rodney Dangerfield Got More Respect

March 9, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

Why is it that a conference tournament loss is absolutely meaningless to the so-called best teams in the country (who are SUPPOSED to win), while the same, lone conference tournament loss is a death sentence to mid-major teams, even those that are perceived as the best in conference?

The makeup of THE national basketball tournament is intended to provide the top 65 teams in the nation with an opportunity to compete for the national crown. Built into that is the “automatic bid” process which is designed to guarantee that the best representatives from EVERY conference, not just the “majors,” are given an opportunity to participate.

But what happens if the best team from a mid-major conference does not win their conference tournament?

Before you thoughtlessly give the canned response of “They must NOT have been the best team,” I want to point a very important truth out to you: Any team in college basketball can lose on any given night.

That is not a truth specific only to mid-majors. In the 2009 ACC Tournament, North Carolina (the top-ranked team in the entire nation) lost to Florida State during the semifinal game. Does that mean that Florida State was a better team that North Carolina? Perhaps for that night they were the better team, but the selection committee still saw fit to award North Carolina as a #1 seed in the national tournament.

The selection committee got it right. One game does not determine the worth of a basketball team. They KNEW that the best team in the ACC (and the nation) was not Florida State, or even the eventual ACC champion Duke Blue Devils (who would go on to still be seeded lower than a team within the very conference whose championship they had won). Instead, they recognized that the team which had proven better over the length of an ENTIRE SEASON was actually North Carolina. They accepted the fact that any team in college basketball can lose on any given night, and did not penalize the Tar Heels for a single loss during their conference tournament. At the end of the day, they acknowledged that North Carolina was STILL the best team in the ACC.

That same logic applies to EVERY conference in the NCAA.

If the selection committee is left to naming team number 65 in the tournament, and it is a toss-up between the 19-11 NINTH place team in the Big East, or the 23-8 FIRST place team in the MAC – a team that just so happens to lose the conference tournament championship to an underdog – it should be the FIRST place team in the MAC that receives the final at-large invitation. Failure to do so diminishes the value of the season that was played, and instead places far too much credibility in a single game.

The 2007 Akron Zips serve as the PERFECT example of this type of flawed logic, where too much credit is given to one single incident. During the 2006-2007 season the Zips played to a very impressive 26-6 record as they entered their conference championship game. They had already soundly defeated the only other 20-game winner in their conference that year (Kent State) in an impressive 61-54 performance during the MAC semifinal, and were slotted to face the fourth-seeded Miami Redhawks in the championship matchup.

The Zips carried a two-point lead into the final 10 seconds of the game, but then Miami’s Doug Penno hit a desperation three-pointer to steal the game away from the Zips.

Should the Redhawks have been punished for beating Akron? Absolutely not! They had earned the automatic bid for their conference, and deserved the reward of being invited to the March Madness tournament. However, Akron should also not have been punished because of one buzzer-beater three that cost them its conference championship. Throughout the entire season, they had established themselves as the best team in the MAC, and only lost the tournament because of a desperation shot as the clock ticked to 00:00.

The Zips WERE punished, though, making them the only school in NCAA history with at least 26 wins to NOT be invited to postseason play. They did not receive an at-large invitation because the selection committee instead felt that teams such as the ACC’s seventh place Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were more deserving. Never mind the fact that the Yellow Jackets finished the regular season with a record of only 20-10 (needing to win their final two regular season games just to finish at .500 within the conference), lost in their FIRST game of the ACC Conference Tournament, and finished behind SIX other teams within their own conference.

Because Georgia Tech played in a major conference, their resume was deemed as being better.

As an aside, both Miami AND Georgia Tech lost in their first round matchups of the tournament. Akron may not have done better, but they would not have done worse!

I can only hope that this year’s selection committee will take a more sensible approach that is less influenced by the hype and overrating of a major conference strength of schedule. When a team cannot even finish better than ninth in their own conference, they do not deserve consideration as one of the best teams in the country, especially if there is another conference LEADER still available.

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The 2010 NCAA Basketball Best Conference Tournament Debate – Expect Big Things from the Big Ten

March 5, 2010

Read the debates by Sports Geek and Loyal Homer.

What do you call it when you combine the front-runner for Player of the Year, one of the best tournament coaches in the NCAA, a team that has only been ranked OUTSIDE of the top-10 for a total of one week, and four of the top fifteen teams in the country?

I don’t know about you, but I call it the setting for the best Conference Tournament in College Basketball!

Where can you find such a marvel as this? I’ll give you a hint –Not even the Big East, Big XII, SEC, or ACC can lay claim to that combination of talent, strength, and depth. That’s right, you can only find it in one place – the Big Ten!

Player of the Year – Evan Turner

This conversation begins with two players, Kentucky’s John Wall and Ohio State’s Evan Turner. Assuming both leave college early for the NBA Draft at the end of the season, they will certainly be chosen as the top-two picks overall, and their projections are absolutely deserved! However, in the conversation of who has been better between the two this season, the conversation ENDS with only one – Evan Turner.

Turner’s Big Ten-leading production surpasses that of Wall’s with 19.5 points per game (as opposed to Wall’s 17), and rebounds (9.4 for Turner to 4.1 for Wall). As impressive as those statistics are, though, they are not the sole reason why Turner is more deserving of the Naismith Award. Simply put, the 6’7” guard from Chicago plays one of the best all-around games seen in the NCAA in many years, and his combination of speed, shooting accuracy, and play-making ability on both offense AND defense have helped turn an otherwise NIT-bound Buckeye squad into possible Final Four contenders.

Best Tournament Coach in the NCAA

With the exception, perhaps, of North Carolina’s Roy Williams, no coach has been more successful in tournament play over the last 10 years than Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans. Having earned a National Tournament berth in every NCAA tournament since 1998, Izzo has racked up five Final Four appearances, including two trips to the National Championship and one National Title (2000). Izzo finds a way to win.

Once again in 2010, Izzo and the Spartans find themselves in the thick of both the Big Ten and the National hunt.

If not for three consecutive losses (due primarily to the ankle injury and subsequent loss of their leading scorer and 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas) early in February, the Spartans would undoubtedly be ranked among the top-ten teams. Instead, they sit just outside that group at #11. However, with the seemingly invincible Tom Izzo at the helm and a healthy Kalin Lucas on the court, this Michigan State team is every bit as dangerous as the higher ranked Ohio State Buckeyes and Purdue Boilermakers.

Permanent Top-Ten Residents

Speaking of those Boilermakers – They have been a dominant presence in the NCAA all year long. After earning a preseason ranking of #7, Purdue has maintained a steady top-ten performance all year long, falling no lower than #13 in the national rankings (and only staying there for one week before climbing back into the top-ten). As owners of one of the top records in the nation, the 24-4 Boilermakers have already claimed impressive top-ten victories over the likes of Tennessee and West Virginia. They finished their non-conference schedule with a perfect record, and of their four Big Ten losses on the year, three have come against top-fifteen teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State).

While the recent loss of their star forward, Robbie Hummel, may prove to be a major setback for the Boilermakers as they prepare for their postseason, teammates and fellow standouts E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson both appear ready to pick up the extra load and help carry the Boilermakers into March Madness.

Rounding Out the Pack

Although Ohio State, Michigan State, and Purdue seem to be likely contenders for the Big Ten crown, a great deal of attention must be paid all the way down the Conference lineup.

Headlining the “rest of the pack” are the Wisconsin Badgers, who sit ranked at a lowly #15 in the national AP Poll (not bad for the fourth place team in the Conference). The Badgers have proven just as talented as their higher-ranked counterparts, having already defeated all three of them each once this season.

Behind the Badgers, you have Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan, all of whom have also notched victories against the top teams within the Conference. Why, even the last place Nittany Lions of Penn State proved last night that they could hang with the big boys of the Big Ten, as Michigan State needed to rely on last minute free throws just to pull out a two-point win in East Lansing!

Time and again, the Big Ten has proven that any team within their conference can win on any night. Throughout the entire 2009-2010 season, the best Conference in college basketball has proven to be the most competitive, a trait that will surely translate into the best Conference Tournament!

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