Mythbusters: No. 1 is no fun
On Sunday, Connecticut became the fifth team this season and fourth in four weeks to be named the No. 1 team in the Associated Press' college basketball poll. So it seems an appropriate time to finally debunk a long-held college hoops myth: The No. 1 ranking actually matters.
First and foremost, it's important to understand that the AP poll is not exactly a statistically precise endeavor. There are 72 writers who vote on the best 25 teams in the nation. For each vote, points are assigned, with the top team receiving 25 points and the 25th-ranked team receiving one point. The points are then tallied and, voila, you have the AP poll. While these writers are obviously very knowledgeable about college basketball, they are human (we hope) and humans make mistakes, which might be why no top-ranked team entering the NCAA Tournament has won a national title since Duke in 2001.
But aside from the human element of the rankings, the main reason the No. 1 ranking is essentially meaningless in college basketball is because we have this beautiful tournament in March that allows 65 of the best teams in the country to compete for a national championship. Unlike in football, where the BCS determines which two teams will play in the championship game, college basketball relies on a more inclusive and just system. And that's a good thing.
(If last year's college basketball championship was determined by the final AP poll before the tournament, Kansas would have been left out in favor of North Carolina.)
In a sport like college basketball, where the season is five months long and teams play 30 games before they even make it to their conference tournament, it's important to not put much stock in mid-season rankings. Too many things can happen during such a long period of time, like injuries, which have plagued former No. 1 North Carolina.
When the 2008-09 college basketball season began, the surest bet in America was North Carolina as the best team in the country. The Tar Heels reached the Final Four last season and returned their entire starting line up, including speedy point guard Ty Lawson and the reigning National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough. And sure enough, North Carolina was ranked No. 1 for the first month and a half of the season.
But as the victories piled up, injuries set in. The Tar Heels' best defender, Marcus Ginyard, injured his foot and was slow to recover. Then, in mid-November, talented freshmen center Tyler Zeller, a 7-footer who showed great promise and allowed coach Roy Williams to rest Hansbrough, fractured his wrist and was done for the year. As the games piled up, the once invincible Tar Heels sorely missed their injured players. Eventually, they couldn't even keep up with Boston College and fell from the top spot.
And when North Carolina fell, Pittsburgh took over, revealing another reason to not put too much faith in the ranking system. While undefeated at the time, everyone knew that the Panthers were not going to survive a brutal conference schedule. And sure enough, after two weeks at No. 1, the Panthers lost a close game at Louisville.
The AP Poll is a good general indicator of a basketball team's prowess, but when it comes to deciding the top team in the nation, the No. 1 ranking actually sabotages itself. Opponents of top-ranked teams use the fact that they are playing the "best team in the country" to motivate themselves. That's how Virginia Tech could manhandle then-No. 1 Wake Forest in Winston Salem. The downside of being the top-ranked team in the nation is that you take every opponent's best shot.
So it's ridiculous for fans to celebrate their team being ranked No. 1 mid-season, considering it makes the upcoming games all the more difficult. Coaches certainly understand that, which is why they are constantly downplaying the significance of being top dog. As Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said on Monday, "I look at it like winning a good in-season tournament like Maui, it's an accomplishment for a minute, a day, an hour, a week or whatever, but you want to be there in April."
And that's the point here. Being ranked No. 1 in February is like winning half a game. It's nice, but ultimately it doesn't mean much. College basketball is about peaking in late March and early April. Just ask Kansas, the defending national champions, a team that wasn't ranked No. 1 all of last season.
Which is why every basketball fan in America can't wait until March, when the true season begins.
Got a myth you'd like to see busted? E-mail Jacob E. Osterhout Jacob.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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