Last weekend Xavier played UConn in a matchup of two top 25 teams. That sentence only works in the case of one specific thing, the AP poll. Beyond that, Xavier wasn’t a top 25 team. Not in the NET, not in KenPom, not on Bart Torvik. Not in fact, in any of the factors that actually matter come the pointy end of the college basketball season.
That, of course, didn’t stop the hype or excitement. A top 25 matchup on New Year’s Eve? Sign all of us up. It doesn’t matter what the reality is so long as those teams each have a number in front of their name.
This is one of the strange parts of college basketball. Almost every fan knows that the top 25 isn’t voted on by a great many people or by people who necessarily know what is going on in the game. College of Charleston is ranked this week. They are 90th in the KenPom and 52nd in the NET. No reasonable person thinks they are the 22nd best team in the nation right now. They’re 1-1 in Quad 1 and 11-0 in the low quads. Still, they are ranked. That takes a bit of the shine off it.
The thing to say used to be that being ranked meant Xavier got out in front of more eyes, drew more attention, and made recruiting easier. That probably all used to be true, but it isn’t any more. Xavier plays almost all of their games on either Fox or FS1. Being ranked doesn’t add any more publicity than being on a major television network for every game.
There’s also the changing landscape of the game. Recruits have the same internet all of us do, and don’t need a poll to tell them who is good or not. They can check KenPom and read the NET just as well as anyone else can. What people like Dylan Sinn, who thinks College of Charleston is the 14th best team in the nation, think no longer really matters.
Perhaps far more importantly, the polls no longer matter to the selection committee. None of the committee members are voters, none of them will check the polls that last fateful Sunday. The nitty gritty report that comes out along the team sheets lists a lot of factors, but the national polls don’t appear anywhere in there. NET, KenPom, Torvik, and Sagarin are all factors in where your team goes when the tournament starts. Whether someone voted for them in the poll is not.
So why do we still care? Why is it still fun to see that number before the name? For a lot of us it is probably a visceral reaction back to a time when that did matter. For the rest, it’s a recognition. The computer numbers matter, but they are just computer numbers. There is not a lot of warmth emanating from Ken Pomeroy’s website. These are the numbers. This is what they mean. The AP poll is different. It’s other flesh and blood humans looking at 363 teams and saying that yours is one of the top 25. It’s validation.
So the AP poll doesn’t really matter. Xavier will get into or out of the tournament without it. No recruit is coming to X because the Musketeers are 18th this week or because they were 22nd last week. Still, the poll matters a little. It matters because it used to be the thing. It’s anachronistic and dusty, but it’s still something you can point to. The NET will overtake it some day soon. Until it does, we’ll keep enjoying top 25 matchups.