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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