Crothers: Who’s No. 1? Who Cares?
“I don’t even think it was mentioned in the newspapers here, that we were No. 2 in the polls,” Mike Krzyzewski said last week, after Duke’s win over Davidson. “In fact, I know it wasn’t mentioned, so I guess nobody really cares.”
Krzyzewsi was being coy, making more of a statement about the local media coverage of his team than on the college basketball polls themselves, but it raised an interesting question:
Should anybody really care?
Unlike the absurd power of the college football polls that influence which teams play for the national championship (another column, another day), the Associated Press and ESPN college basketball polls mean absolutely nothing. Zilch.
They are no more than a silly gimmick to juice up fans, kind of like the guy who wears the giant mascot head. This week’s polls are about as relevant to the final outcome of the season as the Oscar nominations or the Indiana Hoosiers.
The polls merely provide a GPS for the season that we toss out the passenger’s side window during the Road To The Final Four in March, which explains why as soon as the NCAA brackets are revealed, nobody ever mentions the polls again.
Still, we are a nation obsessed with lists, from the Fortune 500 to the Sexiest Man Alive. Listen to five minutes of sports radio this time of year and you’re guaranteed to be treated to Fred from Fumbuck Springs narrating his dissertation on why Gonzaga should be ranked higher than Xavier.
There exists a menacing horde of polligans out there, some of whom lurk in a dark corner of cyberspace called pollstalker.com, an ominously named website that tracks the votes of each of the 72 AP college basketball pollsters throughout the season. The site breaks down each individual voter’s weekly ballot and indicates which teams that particular voter has rated notably higher or lower than fellow voters. Then it encourages readers to evaluate the rankings, thus creating a poll on the pollsters, a subjective vote on subjective voters. Really.
Scrolling down through the AP pollsters, past celebrities like Dick Vitale and John Feinstein, I stumbled onto Ron Morris, an old friend and colleague, who is a columnist for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. I phoned him and asked, Should anybody care about the polls?
“Their sole purpose is just for sparking fan interest,” Morris told me. “I don’t think the polls have any meaning whatsoever. I wouldn’t vote if it had any meaning, because I don’t think as a journalist you should do that.”
So, why be a voter?
“I’m embarrassed to admit that I watch 20 to 25 games a week,” Morris says. “I’m the guy who is staying up until midnight watching Oregon play Pacific, which is pretty sick. I actually lobbied to be a voter, because I figured that as long as I’m seeing all of these games, I might as well put that knowledge to some use.”
Voting in the AP poll for the first time this season, Morris immediately discovered the passion of the polligans. In his preseason poll, Morris chose to omit both Memphis and Tennessee from his Top 25. He was flooded with angry emails from Tennesseans asking why he hates their state? He responded honestly in a form email: Before the season starts, I don’t know any more than you do, We’re all guessing here. Hopefully, for your sake, Tennessee and Memphis will prove me wrong.
They have not so far.
Morris was also the only AP voter to include the Matadors of Cal State Northridge among his preseason Top 25. “I figured if Northridge upsets some people, they make me look like a genius.”
They have not so far.
Morris takes his voting very seriously, dog-earing the Blue Ribbon Yearbook, scanning the Sagarin Ratings, listening to broadcasts of games on XM radio and emailing writers and coaches he knows in different parts of the country for insight on more obscure teams. Then Morris spends up to three hours each Sunday night slotting teams into his ballot.
He thinks that part of the reason the polls are so controversial is because not only are the rankings debatable but also how the rankings are determined. The voting guidelines are nebulous. Morris says the team he ranks No. 1 each week isn’t necessarily the team he favors to win the national championship. “I believe you’re voting on a team’s body of work so far, not which team you think will be the best at the end of the season,” he says. “I don’t think Pitt is the best team in the country right now, but I think they should be No. 1 until they lose.”
Morris believes Connecticut is currently the best team in the country, but ranks the Huskies second behind Pittsburgh, followed by Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke. According to pollstalker.com, Morris rates Connecticut, Notre Dame (#7) and Villanova (#15) as high, and Duke as low, as any voter in the poll.
When I mentioned the site to Morris, he’d never heard of it and he called it up on his computer while we were talking. As he scrolled through all of the information the site had to offer including his voting record and those of all of the other 71 AP voters, including the poll on pollsters, he was slightly troubled.
“Should I be letting this influence me?,” he asked, examining the myriad data. “Should I be worried if I’m way off the charts?” He was kidding. Sort of.
Morris then resolved never to look at pollstalker.com again.
So, yes, Coach K, there are plenty of people who care about the polls, but the good news is that nobody needs to. We are reminded, as Utah and Texas continue to lay claim to Florida’s recent college football national title, that college basketball’s championship is blessedly decided on the court and not the court of public opinion.
Tim Crothers is the author of The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever.