Most college basketball fans accept that name schools like Duke, North Carolina, and UCLA will always get a boost from pollsters and the NCAA selection committee. But sometimes, we have to wonder if they are actually watching the games and paying attention to the standings.
Flash back to December 29, 2008: Ohio State is ranked in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls. West Virginia is outside the top 25, in the "Others Receiving Votes" category.
It's an early season poll. The Buckeyes have a recent Final Four on their resume, while West Virginia lacks pedigree. It seems reasonable, except the Buckeyes two days earlier received a 76-48 thrashing at home at the hands of WVU.
Another program with similar complaints is Florida State. They have played the top ten very well, losing to Duke and Pitt by single digits, to UNC on a buzzer beater, and beating Clemson on the road.
At 21-6 with a No. 18 RPI they are, amazingly, in sole possession of second place in the ACC, ahead of Duke, Wake Forest and Clemson. Yet, they are unranked.
Let me repeat for emphasis: in late February, the second place team in the ACC, a 21-6 team, is unranked. The pollsters should be embarrassed.
The ACC has four top 15 teams, three with records similar to FSU: Clemson (21-4), Wake Forest (20-4) and Duke (21-5). No one is arguing FSU should be ranked ahead of them, but it's difficult to argue they're 20-25 slots behind them either.
And it gets worse once we take a look outside the ACC. How about Illinois at No. 18 with the same record as FSU and a lower RPI?
How about UCLA at No. 13 with a worse record and lower RPI? There is no argument that UCLA is 20 slots better than Florida State this year—except perhaps for the ghost of John Wooden. It's inexcusable.
The polls are a symptom, not the problem
We all know that polls thankfully do not "matter" in college basketball. But the mentality bleeds into Selection Sunday.
Even with (a.) great computer numbers (No. 13 RPI, No. 5 strength of schedule), (b.) an 18-8 record with three victories against the top 25, and (c.) playing in the toughest conference in the country, West Virginia was until this past week considered a shaky bubble team. This is puzzling considering their recent history.
In the past four years, WVU has two Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight appearance, and all losses were respectable. They seemed headed to the Final Four in 2005 with a 20 point lead over Louisville, but couldn't hang on.
In 2006 the Mountaineers lost a heartbreaker to Texas on a buzzer beater. In 2008, they beat Duke before losing to Xavier in overtime.
In 2007, the one year they were snubbed by the committee (an inexcusable snub to many), the Mountaineers won the NIT.
It's hard to argue that WVU hasn't been a top 15 program over the past four years, but they have not sniffed an appropriate level of respect in the national media or among the NCAA selectors.
WVU has unarguably outperformed Duke in the NCAA tournament over the past four years. But if we were to take the Mountaineers' resume and replace the "WVU" label with "Duke", the experts would likely list them as a "lock" with a high seed rather than "on the bubble."
Florida State hasn't even been able to make it to the tournament in recent history, though they have almost lived on the bubble since the 2003-2004 season.
In 2007, FSU beat Duke in February at Cameron Indoor Stadium—their only meeting of the year. They finished one game behind Duke in the ACC standings with 20 wins.
FSU was left out of the tournament. Incredibly, Duke was a No. 6 seed on selection Sunday—the high seeding was roundly criticized by the media—and they were promptly ousted by Virginia Commonwealth in the first round.
The Seminoles being left out of the Big Dance in 2007 was defensible, but a side by side contrast against the treatment of Duke that year reveals a disturbing double standard.
Too many teams are given free passes—lifetime achievement awards—due only to names and reputations. This is something all college sports fans have to make peace with at some point.
Reasonable fans understand the no-names need to prove themselves, but we also need to feel the pollsters and the NCAA selection committee are paying attention.
The evidence, unfortunately, points to a country club mentality where existing powers are welcomed in, while newcomers are shunned. This goes deeper than fans crying "overrated" or "underrated." This is an ugly flaw deeply ingrained into the culture of college sports. Hopefully this year, the NCAA selectors will pay attention.
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