Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Differences in opinion

As the news radio rattled off position changes for local college basketball teams in the Top 25 poll this morning, I realized the following: In the two major college sports, college basketball and college football, the respective Top 25 polls carry far different contexts.

In Bowl-level college football, your poll position is everything. You will only play 12-13 games in a season, and when a dozen teams all finish with zero or one loss overall, and football uses a computer ranking that primarily factors poll position to decide who will play for the national title... where you stand in the eyes of a few dozen pollsters means everything.

On the flip side, while Division I college basketball also has weekly Top 25 polls, those polls are largely just a perception barometer. The NCAA Tournament awards spots to 33 conference tournament champions, then uses a selection committee to analyze the remaining teams and select the final 32 participants based on a "resume": overall record, conference and schedule strength, teams beaten, teams lost to, recent performance trends, team makeup and so on. The polls carry little to no relevance, since the committee's research and analysis focuses on more concrete factors. Any rankings strongly considered fall in line with this research goal, focusing on team performance and level of competition faced (such as the Sagarin Rankings).

The University of Washington men's basketball team is probably disappointed with their fall from the Top 25 this week, but it's not going to break their season. If they gain steam with a run of solid wins at season's end, or win the Pac 10 conference tournament, they get into the NCAA Tournament no matter where they finish in the polls. And where they get slotted in the tournament will not depend on a poll ranking, but how that well-researched committee believes they measure up against all the other teams in the field of 65. Their fate comes down to how they actually play overall, especially against good teams, or to whether or not they can win a season ending conference tournament... not how they're perceived at a glance by pollsters.

However, let's say the University of Washington football team had a 10-0 record with two games left in the season. Where the pollsters decide to rank them compared to the other 10-0 and 9-1 teams would mean everything, because the poll rankings factor into whether the BCS committee selects them for the title game... or shuffles them off to the Rose Bowl to play the Big 10 champion for pride. If they won and those other 10-0/9-1 teams won as well, UW's win would have to "impress" the pollsters compared to those other teams in order to move up the poll or retain their high position. Whether or not they get to play for the national title is literally a matter of opinion.

I don't want to get into the college football playoff debate at this time. I just wanted to note the curious disparity in leverage between the polls in different sports. In college football, impressing a few dozen pollsters matters a great deal, while in college basketball the polls simply provide a novel barometer of where the nation's best teams currently stand, and a team's fate usually gets decided by researched analysis of their performance.

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