Trietley: Top 25 polls are insignificant

By Greg Trietley

We follow college basketball’s Top 25 polls religiously. We argue over them. We view them as a… We follow college basketball’s Top 25 polls religiously. We argue over them. We view them as a reflection of not just how good or bad our favorite teams are, but also of what others think about them.

But someone once told me that the polls don’t matter, and that person was correct. No members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee participate in the weekly routine. Instead, the committee weighs each team’s strength of schedule and RPI — Ratings Percentage Index — to determine its March Madness field.

The disparity between the polls and tournament seeds is surprising at times. Last season, UTEP finished No. 25 yet received a No. 12 seed. Unranked Notre Dame earned a No. 6 seed.

Coaches don’t pay the polls much attention either. A reporter asked Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon at a press conference Monday about updated polls that placed his team No. 4.

“I haven’t even looked at it,” Dixon said. “I don’t spend much time looking at that.”

In the past, Dixon has pointed to the RPI to gauge teams. The index measures each team’s winning percentage, its opponents’ winning percentages, and its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentages with a weighted formula. As of Monday, Kansas was first. Pitt was ninth.

If for no other reason, the RPI trounces the polls because the polls can’t agree with each other. Analysts vacillate between two separate Top 25 rankings: the AP Poll and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. ESPN uses the Coaches Poll because, well, the network co-sponsors it. Most other publications use the AP Poll, though — which is why ESPN said Pitt lost to No. 14 Notre Dame, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported it lost to No. 15 Notre Dame.

The difference between No. 14 and No. 15 might be splitting hairs, but when Pitt defeated Texas in November, the Coaches Poll had the Longhorns No. 22 and the AP Poll had them unranked. Before December’s game against No. 11/13 Tennessee, some sources wrote that the Panthers had yet to play a ranked opponent, while others spoke of their tough schedule.

Every Monday, the AP Poll tallies the ballots of 64 broadcasters and sportswriters for its Top 25. It awards a team 25 points for each first-place vote, 24 points for each second-place vote and so on, all the way down to one earned point for a single 25th-place vote.

Belmont, UCLA and Harvard were this week’s one-pointers.

Currently Duke is No. 1 and Ohio State is No. 2, but the Blue Devils received just 12 more points than the Buckeyes. They might as well be No. 1a and No. 1b.

Sixty-one of the AP Poll’s 64 voters are regional sports reporters. The only three national media personalities involved this season are Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated, John Feinstein of NPR and Dick Vitale of ESPN. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, just about every television personality doesn’t contribute — even ones that you assumed did.

The AP makes its ballots public. The Internet can tell you where Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Dave Mackall ranked Pitt (No. 3) or where Vitale ranked Duke (No. 1).

Texas’ lone first-place vote this week came from Jeffrey Martin of the, ahem, Houston Chronicle, but regional pessimism rings truer on the ballots. John Werner of the Waco Tribune-Herald had Texas No. 5. Neither Ohio writer placed Ohio State No. 1.

The Coaches Poll, on the other hand, traditionally doesn’t make its ballots public. Thirty-one Division I coaches vote in it.

Most are from so-called “mid-major” schools, although the notable exceptions in this season’s group are Jim Boeheim [Syracuse], Scott Drew [Baylor], Matt Painter [Purdue] and Gary Williams [Maryland].

This week, 11 teams have a different rank across polls. Fans often refer to the higher one, but then it becomes a Top 30 or so and not a Top 25.

You’re supposed to squabble over Duke at No. 1, Pitt at No. 4/6 or Texas at No. 5. That’s the point. Just remember: Come March, nobody remembers who finished No. 1 in the polls. People remember who finished No. 1 at the tournament.