I can remember being young and excited to check the USA Today on the day the media polls came out. Back then it generally took some scanning but, with persistence, there we were: receiving votes. I’d take the time to tabulate where the votes would have put us (34th, alright!) and then go over and do the same with the AP Poll. Back then those numbers released once a week were the only way to rank your team against the rest of the nation. On them, hopes of an at large bid rose and fell.
Things are different now. For one, it’s now painfully evident how out of touch most voters are with college basketball. As one example, Scott Mansch has Rhode Island eighth, Wichita St ninth, and Nebraska ranked. John Feinstein thinks St. Bonaventure and Vermont rank amongst the top 25 teams in the nation. Yes, the St. Bonvaventure that dropped back to back games to Dayton and St. Joe’s. Other people on whom we used to rely for information did similarly absurd things like vote for ETSU (best win, NKU and a loss last time out to UNC Greensboro), or Oklahoma St, who is 65th in the two best metrics available an 5-7 in the Big 12.
The other toll now available to the discerning college basketball fan is a whole host of online metrics. Even if you don’t want to spend money, the free parts of KenPom are a wealth of information for comparing teams. The BPI is ESPN’s own answer that skews a bit more toward rewarding wins rather than simply playing good teams close. The Massey Composite ranks the teams based on the composite of every available rating as well as with it’s own algorithim. It’s possible to get lost in the noise (does Sagarin or BPI adjust better for home court advantage?), but the information is there and presented for anyone who cares to look, something most pollsters apparently don’t do.
So no, the polls aren’t a good way to tell how good your team is. They are the equivalent of gathering a bunch of ill-informed type A egomaniacs at a bar and then ranking the teams based on which names you heard yelled more often. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter or that you shouldn’t care.
For starters, those numbers in front of the names bring eyeballs. Pull up your ESPN app now and you’ll see the college basketball scoreboard is set to Top 25. That’s the same for all of the top recruits in the nation, having that #4 next to Xavier helps when guys like Samari Curtis pull their phone out. The same thing goes for highlight packages on ESPN, Fox Sports One, or NBCSN each night. The networks can’t show every team nationally, but that top 25 makes a nice cross section, so those teams get the views.
The other reason polls matter is because not everyone you talk to is an intelligent college basketball fan. This time of year, concussion ball fans are beginning to emerge from their Natural Light induced stupors to realize that there is actually a real sport being played.* The best way to engage with people like that when they ask you how Xavier is doing is not to mention the standard deviation numbers between KP, Sagarin, BPI, and Massey but to simply reply “fourth in the nation.” Yes, our team is very good this year.
Until the metrics complete take over, until college basketball becomes more like baseball, there are going to be these debates. The media polls are an ancient and inaccurate way of measuring which teams are good, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. Sometimes, it’s best to grit your teeth, take a breath, and enjoy that little number. And that one next to it that means some people think Xavier is the best team in basketball.
*This is a crass generalization. Some football fans are good people and can still think quite well. Don’t @ me.