With Marquette being ranked 11th in the country at the moment, it seems like a good time to give a few thoughts on what that ranking actually means. Rankings come out every week and tell the viewing public who the best teams are in college basketball. But what do they really mean? Should I feel good about seeing my team in the top 25, or is it a false sense of security? And most importantly (as Yogi Berra might ask): if you're in the top 25, are you really in the top 25?
Let's start with how the rankings are done. There are two main rankings these days, the Associated Press poll and the Coaches poll. Each week, basketball writers for the AP rank who they feel are the top 25 teams in the country. The same is done from a handful of coaches for their respective poll. The polls usually come out around Monday at noon each week. And of course, it is done to begin each season as well.
How do teams get voted into the top 25? While there is no secret formula for the voting (and I suspect there is often a lack of care put into it since it's pretty much impossible to watch all 50-100 of the top teams regularly to see who should be in the top 25), I think there are two main factors that put a team in the top 25.
Number one: is the team good enough overall to merit being in the top 25? I know this sounds vague so let me explain. Being "good enough" to be in the top 25 is based on a few factors: talent, record, and strength of schedule. Talent is easy to figure out. Do they shoot a high percentage from the floor? Do they play tough on defense? Do they generate turnovers? Do they play well as a team? How efficient are they offensively and defensively? This is usually determined through a team's stats as well as the all-important eye-test (did they look good when I watched them?). Record helps take the grey area out of judging based on talent (sure they looked good when I watched them, but did they win the game?). As the season progresses, teams can accumulate more losses and still be in the top 25, but usually teams with the best records will be in the top 25. Scheduling gives teams a break that play really tough teams, so that a team isn't penalized too much if they lose to another tough team, or lose on the road.
Number two: how hot is this team right now? Every season you'll see a handful of teams make their way into the top 25 for a couple weeks after winning 6 or 7 games in a row, only to drop out of the rankings after falling back to earth with a couple losses. A lot of the time it happens with teams from mid-major or high-major conferences. Harvard cracked the top 25 this season for the first time in school history and then lost to UConn, so we'll have to see if they end up getting back in the list or if it was just a fluke. The reverse can also apply, with a team who should be in the top 25 being knocked out for a week or two because of a losing streak.
Connecticut. The 2010-11 UConn Huskies provide a good example of both of these scenarios. Preseason, UConn was unranked. After storming through the Maui Invitational with wins over #2 Michigan State and #9 Kentucky, the huskies jumped to #7 in the AP Poll, and 9 in the Coaches Poll. They stayed in the top 25 for the rest of the year, but limped into the Big East tournament going 4-7 down the stretch and finishing 9-9 in conference play. UConn was ranked at the end of the regular season, but after being in the top 10 for most of the season, they had now fallen to 21 in the AP Poll, and 19 in the Coaches Poll. Of course, the rest is history. They rolled through the Big East Tournament with a 5-0 record, and won it all in the NCAA Tourney with a win over Butler in the championship. Winning it all of course gets you a #1 ranking at the end of the post-season, as it should.
So which team did we see in 2010-11? Was it a team that was good enough to merit being in the top 25? Or was it just a team that got hot at the right times and did just enough to stay in the top 25 for most of the season? Like it or not, the answer is both. UConn started out on a hot stretch in the beginning of the season which got them in the top 25. Throughout the season, they had wins over Texas, Villanova, Georgetown, and Marquette (I know, shameless plug putting MU into the "quality win" category), enough to keep them high in the rankings. Once they slid at the end, their cold streak nearly knocked them out of the rankings, as one more loss probably would've taken away the number next to their name (they may had been knocked out anyways if a couple of their losses weren't quality losses). Come tournament time, winning the BE tournament showed they were on a hot streak. What we'd eventually see though is that they were playing their best basketball of the season at that point. In the NCAA Tournament, it could be interpreted as an extension of the hot streak, but I think it was at this point the huskies were just playing better as a team, and no longer riding a streak of exceptionally good basketball. Based on how the tournament is set up, whoever wins the championship will have to beat multiple styles of teams, and the huskies did just that. Being able to beat different styles of teams (and very good teams at that) isn't just the mark of a good team, it's the mark of a great team. That top 25 team was good enough all along to be in the list, it was just inconsistent at times, that's all.
Do these polls matter at all? For a poll to matter, I think it should mean that it has some type of effect on a team's post-season. And in this case, the answer is no. In the case of college football, the polls matter greatly, as a team's ranking at the end of the regular season determines whether or not they make a BCS bowl game.
So what benefit is there to having the polls at all? The benefit to having these polls is purely for the media and conversational purposes. It gives people a sense of who is relevant during the season, and makes for water cooler talk at the office. Have I missed seeing a number next to MU whenever they're on a schedule or a scoreboard or a bottom line on ESPN? Absolutely. Seeing that "Marq 11" on my tv lets me know that people besides myself think MU is relevant and that there will be an abundant amount of articles written about them for me to read throughout the season. "Hey will there be highlights of the Marquette game on Sportscenter tonight?" "I don't know, are they ranked?" If the answer is yes, then you along with millions of other people will likely see the exposure the team is getting from the media. And if not, only the die-hard college basketball fans will know what you've done on a weekly basis.
Let me finish by saying this. Sure, worrying about whether or not your team is ranked is purely emotional. But then again, isn't following your team, and sports in general, purely emotional anyways?