Thursday, December 07, 2006

I mid-Majored in Political Science of Athletics

The college basketball season doesn't really get heated up until conference play starts in a few weeks. So if you haven't really been paying attention to scores yet, I don't blame you. Here is a quick recap of some notable results from the last few days:

Tennessee routed #16 Memphis 76-58 to improve to 7-2.

Indiana destroyed Western Illinois by 52 points and is now 5-2 on the season.

Notre Dame went into Maryland and beat the #23 Terrapins 81-74, for their 6th win against one loss.

#18 Gonzaga struggled in Pullman, losing 77-67. However that was only their 2nd loss of the season, which removes only a little luster off of their 8 wins, including one against North Carolina and one at Texas.

So what do Tennessee, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Gonzaga all have in common other than having no more than two losses? They've all been beaten by the undefeated Butler Bulldogs of the Horizon League. Butler, who beat Ball State by 24 Wednesday, has four quality wins and is now a perfect 10-0 on the season. They've won their last three games by an average of 21 points, and their Sportsline RPI, an approximation of the Ratings Percentage Index, is #1 in the country. So...where did pollsters put Butler this week? Well, the AP has them at #15 while the coaches bumped them up to #14. Say what??

This week, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the BCS and the problems inherent with using polls to help determine a champion. While the flaws of polls are most glaring in college football, they have similar failings in college basketball. The system sets up these polls to be failures from the onset by virtue of asking its voters to rank teams before any team has actually played a game. Preseason polls, while great for selling magazines and initiating discussion, do little more than to harden preconceived notions about traditional powerhouses while handicapping less renowned schools with institutional obstacles that are very difficult to overcome. In football, Rutgers and Boise State were hindered by these obstacles. Both teams were among the last of the unbeatens (the Broncos still haven't lost), yet neither were given a sniff of being #1- mostly because nobody anticipated them to be good; and therefore, their initial ranking was so low that even a steady climb wouldn't get them to the top. Now the basketball season has begun, and Butler is dealing with the exact same scenario.

I suppose the question to ask is: What are these polls supposed to represent? Should voters be picking the team that they think is the best (i.e., the greatest accumulation of talent), or should they be choosing the team that has actually performed the best? If the answer is to just pick the best team, then in basketball, Florida should be #1 in the country throughout the entire year. Their losses should just be viewed as aberrations that have no effect on their actual ranking. Just keep them at the top until tourney time. But if voters are supposed to be choosing the team that has actually had the best performance to date, then it seems to me that Butler should be the #1 team in the land. (No offense to UCLA, who I'd have at #2, as their wins over Kentucky and Ga Tech don't seem quite as impressive as they did back in Maui.)

Fortunately, basketball has a playoff system, so rankings aren't quite as big of an issue in hoops as they are in college football. However, rankings are certainly used as a factor in determining tournament seedings, so they aren't completely irrelevant. Additionally, for a small school like Butler, being ranked #1 for even just a week or two would be a tremendous reward for the players. Unfortunately, with the system in place today, Butler players will never be fully rewarded for their early accomplishments this season.

There is, however, one silver lining for the Butler Bulldogs. By staying out of the limelight of being #1, at least they'll be able to avoid having Dick Vitale call their games. On second thought, maybe being an unheralded mid-major isn't so bad afterall.


At Thu Dec 07, 02:02:00 PM PST , Anonymous greg said...

Great post. Polls are worthless early in a season (football or basketball). It's all on potential and teams can get punished later for not being ranked higher to start the season (see Auburn 2004, who was probably better than Oklahoma but had to settle for #3). I'm a Duke fan, and they were overrated to start the season last month. Now that they've played a few games, I realize that they were (and still are) even more overrated than I would have guessed. And yes, considering how often Vitale is calling the Duke games I watch, Butler should count their blessings.


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