Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell often speaks of his 1974 team, which lost perhaps the most exciting college game ever played, 103-100 to North Carolina State in the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and failed to get into the NCAA tournament. What Driesell remembers the most about that season is that the Terps finished No. 4 in both polls. "My highest-ranked team here," says Lefty. "I've had seven Top 10 teams and two that finished 11th. Once we won the NIT and finished 11th. Damn. I have my managers looking it up to see who has coached the most teams in the Top 10. I'm proud of it. I don't like anybody telling me I ain't good."
Recognition is the universal attraction. For players, the Top 20 can act as a rejuvenating force, even in reverse, as it did last season when the infant UCLA Bruins dropped out of the polls for the first time since Balboa discovered the singles bar in Marina del Rey. Hurt and embarrassed, UCLA used the slight as a tool of psychological warfare and regrouped. Who's No. 1? Who cares? As No. 48, the Bruins roared all the way to the finals of the NCAA tournament. For coaches, the rankings are an ego massage. When his little-known Iona team turned up ninth in a preseason poll a few years back, Coach Jim Valvano's reaction was to "run around the baseball field for an hour, screaming." Valvano, now at N.C. State, says, "I'm all set to have my own poll, the Valvano Poll. Coaches would send me postcards four or five times a year."
Finally there are the fans—short for fanatics, remember?—at whom the polls were directed in the first place. One shudders to consider the bankruptcy rate among local taverns if fans had no Top 20 to toast or engage in fisticuffs about.
After winning the NCAA titles in 1965 and 1968, UCLA's John Wooden wasn't surprised to receive nasty letters from the folks in Michigan ('65) and Houston ('68) who believed their teams were better. After all, they'd been voted No. 1 in the polls. When it was revealed last season that Michigan Coach Johnny Orr (now at Iowa State) had voted Indiana No. 1, an aroused DePaul student body selected Orr as the winner of the "Mr. Whipple" look-alike contest.
Indiana's Bobby Knight scoffs at the polls. "It's like a nameplate on your desk," he says. "If you're good, you know what you're doing. You don't need a nameplate." But if he has to choose, he prefers the coaches' rankings. St. John's Lou Carnesecca disagrees. "Coaches shouldn't vote," he says. "It's like doctors taking care of their own kids. They're gonna pad the cake." What?
Texas' Abe Lemons believes both sets of rankings might be absurd. "Coaches vote for people, not schools," he says. "The schools just happen to be where they are. Of course, the writers can vote for schools on probation [coaches cannot], which aren't even eligible for the NCAA tournament. You might as well vote for the 76ers. They're not eligible either."
Al McGuire, who used to have his then-assistant, Hank Raymonds, send in the Marquette vote—"Sunday morning was no time for me to call in scores," McGuire says—used the polls as a stiletto. "I like to psych people, and the Top 10 is the best psych," McGuire says. "People overprepare for you, beat themselves. You're in the Camelot of basketball."
Strange things can happen there. In the 1977 preseason AP poll North Carolina was ranked No. 1—Smith's only appearance at the top—then defeated Oregon State by 31 points in its opening game and dropped to No. 2. In 1976 Michigan was No. 1 in both polls but lost on Dec. 29 at Providence in double overtime and fell to third and fifth, not to return to the top spot until the final game of the regular season. In 1965 an undefeated Iowa team was ranked sixth, lost a Christmas tournament game to a nobody and dropped to seventh. The nobody turned out to be Texas Western (now UTEP), which leaped from nowhere to ninth with that victory and eventually won the NCAA title.
Another unfamiliar crew, the Indiana State Syca-Birds, achieved recognition when they became No. 1 in the 12th week of the 1978-79 season despite a vacuous Billy Packer-led TV campaign against them. Larry Bird and his mates proved they belonged by winning 33 straight games before losing in the NCAA final.
Interestingly, in each of the last four years only Louisville and North Carolina have been named in both final Top 20 polls, which are tabulated before the NCAA tournament begins. A third team, Notre Dame, made seven of a possible eight final poll appearances. The irony for two of these schools is that while the media often mock Phelps' posturing at South Bend and while the coaches often question the publicity accorded Smith at Chapel Hill, the two voting blocs line up solidly behind the men they seem more critical of. In the four final polls, the coaches have voted Smith's Tar Heels 14 total places higher than the writers/ broadcasters, while ranking Phelps' Irish a combined 18 places lower than the media guys do.