Saturday, December 02, 2006

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).
Florida: 7-1 2, two marginal wins (Western Kentucky, Florida State* good grief. Is it still not classy to chant "Overrated"?).
Kansas: 6-1 2, one strong win (Florida), one loss at home two losses to Oral Roberts University and DePaul. (Really. DePaul?)
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.


At 4:20 PM, Anonymous ree ree said...


(Now you have one).

At 2:38 AM, Blogger David Hodges said...

good analysis on the polls. i also suspect unc to be #2 behind UCLA, but no lower than #3 in either poll.

i disagree that butler isn't ranked because it wasn't expected to be great and it's too early in the season despite its success. butler isn't ranked higher because it's a midmajor. despite whatever crap the page 2 writers at try to push about the "rise of the midmajors," so long as there are a greater quantity of rich alumni and better tv markets surrounding the power conferences, they will always get the attention, hype, focus--and probably win more games--than the midmajors. combine that with the fact that the nba requires draftees to be one year removed from high school, and there's going to be more talent in college basketball (see the excessive fawning of sports announcers that this is the "best class" ever in college basketball as evidence of this). and who do you think is going to win the recruiting wars on this talent more often? the uncs, kentuckys and dukes; or the george masons, butlers and witchita states?

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Brice R. said...

I agree that Butler's being in the Horizon League probably affects their ranking some, but not nearly as much as you may think. If, say, Clemson had played the same 9 teams Butler had and ended up with the same record, would they really be much higher than #18 right now?

(I also apparently forgot to mention that my simplified polling factors only applied to this point in the season. If Joachim Noah broke his arm tomorrow and didn't come back until February, and Florida went 10-5 in the intervening games, I could understand an exaggerated ranking uptick when he returns.)

I think that the current one-year system was the worst possible solution to the high-schoolers-declaring situation (including just leaving it as it was), but there is a reasonable chance that this could help the mid-majors in the long run. If you only have to spend one year in college basketball, would you rather do it leading a team, boosting your stats and getting a few national games, or would you rather be a small fish in a big pond? The BCS schools clearly have an advantage in alumni giving, but I'm not immediately sure what they all have in common that gives them this alumni network aside from a long tradition of participation in high-level college athletics.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger David Hodges said...

i think these one-and-done kids are going to go where the big games are going to be. yea you can be a big fish in a small pond at wichita state and win a bunch of games. but people will hear about you once a year, in march, if at all. you could get upset in your conference tournament and never be heard about at all. bigtime conferences have bigtime games all year, with national spotlight attention, and they're going to keep grabbing these young kids who only have eyes for the shoe deals and signing bonuses.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Brice R. said...

So apparently we're 3rd in both polls behind Pittsburgh. I can live with that, because I'm sure as heck not going to take the time right now to argue with a system that has Xavier ranked and not Air Force.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger David Hodges said...

i think the polls are bullshit personally. the coaches who do them say they don't really spend much time thinking about it (they, you know, have teams to coach), and the sportswriters are so disconnected from reality thanks to their overanalysis of trivial details that sometimes it's amazing they put their pants on correctly in the morning.

but people like lists. especially hierarchical ones. it makes them feel organized. and so the polls will stay, even though they mean almost nothing...


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