ESPN, you donkeys
As I write this, UNC is about fifteen minutes from continuing their ridiculous non-conference basketball schedule with a game against 4-2 Kentucky. In most polls, UNC is currently somewhere from 6th-8th in the nation. A ranking this low is understandable, given that all these polls were taken before Carolina's recent victory over championship-contender Ohio State. Yet in this week's edition of ESPN's Power Rankings, released the day after the OSU game, UNC is still a lowly fifth. ESPN has also been using phrases like "UNC did what it needed to" en masse with the implication that this wasn't really a major victory for UNC's side, despite the fact that ESPN had ranked Ohio State as the #1 team in the nation in this week's poll.
(Of course, this is the network where Jay Bilas and Duke Vitale run the college basketball field, while UNC (and Reynolds High) alum Stuart Scott is stuck hosting game shows. What do you expect?)
If UNC beats Kentucky today (Ken Pomeroy predicts a 20-point victory), when the polls come out next Monday they deserve to be ranked no lower than 2nd, probably behind UCLA. And here's why.
First, let's assume that for polling purposes, wins and losses are a primary criterion; secondary stats, the status of injured players, head-to-head matchups and the like have little or no importance. This, as far as I know, is pretty much what happens. It is true that 'perceived strength'--how good a team is thought to be coming into the season--can be pretty important, but since UNC was ranked #2 in the preseason poll this shouldn't keep us from going as high as we want. So, let's break down the wins and losses to date of the teams that could conceivably be ranked in the same places as Carolina.
UCLA: 5-0, one strong win (Kentucky), one marginal win (Georgia Tech).
Ohio State: 6-1, zero strong wins.
Pittsburgh: 7-0, one marginal win (Florida State).
Duke: 6-1, one strong win (Air Force), three marginal wins (Davidson, Indiana, Georgetown*).
Marquette: 7-0, one strong win (Duke), one marginal win (Texas Tech).
Air Force: 7-1, three marginal wins (Davidson, Wake Forest, Texas Tech).
Maryland: 8-0, four marginal wins (Illinois, Winthrop, Michigan State, St. John's/Vermont)
UNC: 5-1, three strong wins (Ohio State, Kentucky*, Tennessee), one marginal win (Winthrop)
*to be played between now and Monday
So you have three categories of teams that are more or less in the top 10 right now: teams who've played patsies for the last month (Florida, Ohio State, Pittsburgh), teams with a lot of decent wins but nothing really impressive yet (Air Force, Maryland), and teams who've had some good wins, but not a lot of them. UNC, with its schedule thus far, clearly stands head and shoulders above everyone else save Duke and, as previously mentioned, maybe UCLA. (Their schedule isn't that great, but they haven't lost yet and pollsters just love that.)
Now, let's look at one more team, for the heck of it:
Butler: 8-0, two strong wins (Gonzaga, Tennessee), two marginal wins (Indiana, Notre Dame).
Could be one of the two most impressive resumes in basketball this year. Why aren't they in my list above? Simple: nobody expected them to be this good, so they have to 'earn' their way into a top 10 ranking position. Of course it's not fair. That's how sports polling works. When they come back in January (not 'if', I personally believe) and have one or fewer losses on their belt, they can start clamoring for a good position. Now, though, they're out of luck.
There is a factor or two I may be overlooking here (margin of victory, how one classifies a 'marginal' win), but I'm trying to provide an objective ranking of basketball teams here, not auditioning for SportsCenter. I would love to discuss those issues, and how they may affect my jury-rigged judging system, in further detail, though.
In other news, I got my first royal flush in poker yesterday. I was playing Omaha (which is like Texas Hold'Em, but you get four cards dealt to you and have to use two--and exactly two--to make a hand with the board), and got Ah 2c 2d Kh. (Ace of hearts, two of clubs, etc.) The flop came Th Qh Ks, giving me a pair of kings and leaving me one card--the jack of hearts--from holding the best hand possible in most forms of poker. It came on the next card. I only won about $2 from it, given the low-stakes nature of my table, but I can't exactly say that it wasn't a big deal.