Who is good this season? Back in the days before the internet existed in a way that a kid growing up in Ohio could experience meaningfully answering that question meant getting the paper and opening it up. Find the sports section on Monday and find those two columns that told you, definitively, which team was the best. It didn’t matter that I’d never seen Virginia Tech play, the gathered wisdom of the Associated Press told me that they were better than Minnesota.
Things are different now. As I type this my son is using a mobile device to set his fantasy lineup for week 17. He’s well versed in Xavier’s KenPom ranking, the NET (to the extent any of us are), and how to research which is the better team. Whether he knows that there is a poll put together by asking coaches questions has never come up. Despite the plethora of information and games readily at hand now, the polls persist. Most years they are a fun anachronism. They have no real impact and half the voters apparently watch a handful of games per week. This season, however, they are even more divorced from reality.
Both Creighton and Xavier played one game last week. They, of course, played it against each other. In the Coaches poll Xavier’s loss propelled them up the polls two spots while Creighton’s win moved them up three. The same thing took place with Michigan St and Wisconsin. The Badgers were a top ten team that moved up two slots by beat the Spartans. That nine point road loss on Christmas day (what a treat) dropped MSU seven spots down the rankings. Does that make any sense? Of course not.
Only 32 coaches vote in the coaches poll, so sample size is an issue. That is not the case with the AP poll. A bevy of voters doesn’t keep that poll from also having some serious continuity issues. Duke is 3-2 with one ok win and two acceptable losses. They abruptly quit playing on December 16th. So where should the Blue Devils be ranked? That’s a tough question for pollsters to take on, and they took it on in a variety of ways. Duke landed at 20th, but votes came in for them everywhere from 11th to unranked.
What about Xavier? The Musketeers have played four more games than the Blue Devils, have better wins, and their only loss came to a team 14th in the KenPom and high in both national polls. Xavier is unranked, but received votes for as high as 13th. Polls near the New Year in a basketball season are generally somewhat unreliable because conference play is just getting underway. This year, they are a guessing game.
That’s not the end of the ranking fun. SMU got a vote. They are 5-0 with a decent win over Dayton to go along with victories over the Sam Houston St. Bearkats (not a typo), Houston Baptist, and two directionals. Dick Vitale has North Carolina at 17th, which makes a little sense, but doesn’t rank the NC State team that just beat them and has no bad losses. Florida, for understandable reasons, hasn’t played since December 12th but is still receiving the same amount of votes as a one loss Louisville team with what may be four Q1 wins under its belt already.
The days of the smell of typeset and running your finger down to see where Xavier landed this week are largely over. Back then, the polls were the best thing going for a fan to rank his team. Now, computer systems are everywhere and the flaws with humans voting for much of anything are being exposed. The basketball polls are still fun to look at but, like art comprised of household trash, their value is very much up for debate.