Don’t Hate on Michigan or Kansas … Hate the College Basketball Polling Process

There is a fundamental problem with how we rank college teams in this country.

While this comes to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the inconsistencies will still be a weekly source of frustration for hardcore fans for the foreseeable future.

Should Bill Self's Jayhawks be #1? Or Michigan? Don't look to this week's polls to provide a definitive answer.

Should Bill Self’s Jayhawks be #1? Or Michigan? Don’t look to this week’s polls to provide a definitive answer.

If things go as expected, then at 1:00 today, we will have two teams – Kansas and Michigan – that can call themselves the nation’s #1 Team.

Kansas fans will be quick to point out that the coaches, a.k.a. “the guys that really know” voted their team number one. And why wouldn’t they?  The two teams have identical records, but Michigan lost just two weeks ago to a team that the Jayhawks handled themselves. Kansas is riding a 17-game winning streak while Michigan has yet to hit the most brutal part of their schedule.

Wolverines fans will remind us that even though the nation’s coaches have great basketball minds, they really have no time to actually study all of the games from around the nation. In fact, these “guys that really know” end up doing foolish things like this (ranking an 8-2 UNC team that lost to Butler AHEAD OF an 8-2 Butler team) on a weekly basis.

More than that, though, Michigan passes the eye test, has more depth, plays in the tougher Big Ten, and has simply looked better on a more consistent basis than the Jayhawks in 2012-13.

Here’s the thing: both guys are right.

The result is that we have two #1 teams, an oxymoron that will lead us all to agreeing that polls don’t really matter and the teams will hopefully be able to settle it for themselves in March Madness.

The problem is that March Madness, while exciting, still has its flaws and often doesn’t really ensure that the best team wins it all.

When it comes to polling, there seem to be two schools of thought. It would be good for the sanity of everyone involved if the pollsters just decided which school they wanted to uphold.

School of Thought #1:

The “Every Single Game Affects Everything About Our Rankings” Method

This is the school of thought that the coaches seem to hold on a weekly basis.

Ignoring the fact that there is no way that Coach K, Tom Izzo, and Rick Barnes actually care about the rankings (well, actually Rick Barnes might care…after all, there is no way one of his teams is going to settle something come March, right?), it’s more than likely that most head coaches probably just give their list to an assistant who simply looks at last week’s rankings and adjusts it using the following logic:

  • Did a team lose? If yes, move down four to five spots no matter who they lost to. If no, move them above any team that they were nearby that lost.

Obviously, this makes about as much sense as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend is making these days.

Whether it’s football or basketball, there is no room for analysis in this format.

This past season, #8 Michigan played #2 Alabama to kick off the college football season. Now, if we were to agree with those initial rankings, then we should all agree that the Crimson Tide, on a neutral field, would most likely beat the Wolverines. Alabama is the second best team in the country and Michigan is eighth…since 2 > 8, it’s logical that 2 would beat 8.

That’s exactly what happened.

Of course, Michigan needlessly plummeted to #19 under the always flawless logic that, “Since Virginia Tech beat Rutgers by a field goal, they have to be better than the Wolverines.”

This happens every year in both sports and is completely insane.

Over the next two and a half weeks, the Wolverines will play AT Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin ,with a home game against arch-rival Ohio State thrown in for fun. Three of those teams are currently ranked in the top fifteen. None of those games will be easy.

If Michigan goes 3-1 over those four games, they will most likely fall in the rankings. Nobody that follows college basketball would start believing the Michigan was a worse team – except for the pollsters.

This method has to go. It’s inane.  It’s insane.  It’s outdated.

Again, the idea that one game should dramatically affect whether or not you think a given team is the best team in the country is simply ludicrous. We must adapt our ideology to allow legitimate analysis to enter the equation.

School of Thought #2

The much better “I’m actually going to watch the games and decide for myself how good each team is” method.

Obviously, this method is not perfect. Subjectivity is rarely going to be completely accurate and satisfy everyone.

For instance, Michigan fans can explain away their loss at Ohio State by saying, “We played poorly, we started out flat, and it’s always tough to beat your rival.”  All of those things are correct, but Ohio State also did exploit something in Michigan’s game that we had yet to see at that point in the season – Trey Burke couldn’t handle Aaron Craft’s pressure, and as good as Tim Hardaway Jr. is, he’s not really cut out to be a PG.

Of course, this flaw is pretty minor. Trey Burke is the best PG in the nation, and on a nightly basis, he will completely dominate opposing PGs. He’s also not the first guy to be driven insane by Aaron Craft’s unbelievable on-ball defense – just ask Tyshawn Taylor.

Still, as deep as Michigan is, they would not be able to survive an injury to Burke were it to happen. What the Ohio State game also showed was that if Burke can’t get it going (he was 4-13 with four turnovers), Michigan is not nearly as unstoppable as they sometimes look. Hardaway can dribble, slash, and drive to the basket as well as anyone in college right now, but he can’t run the show for Michigan.

All teams have weaknesses, and Michigan’s weakness is probably the most minor of anyone’s. That’s why, in many minds, Michigan should be the #1 team. They pass the eye test.

Of course, many of you probably disagree with my analysis – after all, it is my own. That’s why this analysis should always be mixed with (hold your breath, old-timers) some advanced metrics.

Take a look at the RPI. Study the Pomeroy Ratings. What does Jeff Sagarin have to say?

All three of those indexes do something that we can’t do: they look at the data objectively.

The RPI and Sagarin have Kansas ahead of Michigan. KenPom has Michigan in front of the Jayhawks.

A smart pollster would study the teams and trust his own analysis to get him to a certain point. Then, when things are close, he should consult the unbiased sources to help him “break some ties.”

This would also mean that coaches shouldn’t even have a poll.  I don’t think they would mind.  After all, every coach is scrutinized on a daily basis, why does he need to be criticized and mocked for his rankings too?

I think Michigan is slightly better than Kansas. KenPom agrees, while the RPI and Sagarin disagree. At this point, it’s my call.

I say Michigan is #1 and Kansas is #2. Feel free to disagree. At least it’s much better than saying, “Michigan lost two weeks ago, they can’t be better than Kansas.”

And the next five games probably won’t and shouldn’t change that. Well, unless Michigan goes 0-5 and Burke blows out his ACL. Then each and every game will start mattering a little more.



About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.

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