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Poll Thoughts: It's Kansas, but why?

2/14/2011

College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make them any less fun to argue about. In that spirit, I present the creatively named "Poll Thoughts," which you can expect every Monday until the season is over, or until the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll (and, occasionally, the Associated Press) voters stop being so dumb. (In other words, expect it until the season is over.)

Don't say you weren't warned. I led off this morning's five observations with a look at the oncoming Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll intrigue. How would the voters react to Ohio State's first loss? Would Kansas move up a spot to No. 1, if only by default? Would Texas leapfrog the Jayhawks thanks to its impressive Big 12 play (including a Jan. 22 win at Kansas)? Would Ohio State automatically and thoughtlessly fall? How far? And what about Pitt?

The polls are out. We have the answers. And they're every bit as confusing as you'd imagine.

  • OK. So Kansas is No. 1. Let's start there. It's not that the Jayhawks aren't deserving. They've lost one game all season, and that game was to one of the nation's best teams (Texas). They just finished steamrolling Missouri and Iowa State to the tune of 103 and 89 points respectively, and they did so without star freshman guard Josh Selby, who is recovering from a stress reaction. Kansas is a very, very good team. But it's a pretty tough to argue that Kansas is better than Texas right now. Texas has been steamrolling everyone in the Big 12. Second, that steamrolling includes a Jan. 22 win at Allen Fieldhouse in which the Horns outscored the home team 71-45 in the game's final 34 minutes. If you're looking to rank, in order, the best teams in the nation right now, it's hard for me to say that team is anyone but the Texas Longhorns. Clearly, plenty of coaches agreed, as Kansas earned its No. 1 spot by the slimmest of possible margins: one vote.

  • But maybe you're not looking to rank the best team right now. Maybe you, the coaches poll participant, think you should take the entire measure of a team's season into account when casting your vote. I'm not sure I necessarily agree, but there's certainly nothing wrong with your view. So you think KU's 24-1 performance is more impressive than UT's 22-3 record, even though Texas hasn't lost a game since Jan. 8 and won in Lawrence in that stretch. Fine. But then I just have to ask: Is KU's 24-1 record any more impressive than Ohio State's? The Buckeyes' loss Saturday -- to a very good ranked team in arguably the most difficult road environment in the country -- is in my view a "better" loss than Kansas' home defeat to Texas. Would Kansas have won at Madison? Doubtful. What's more, the Jayhawks don't have anything as remotely impressive on its record as, say, Ohio State's win at Florida Nov. 16. Or the Buckeyes' dominant home win against Purdue. KU's "best" win probably came this week, at home, over a defensively bereft Missouri team. Or maybe in Las Vegas against Arizona back in November. But because the polls are dumb, and coaches poll voters seem to intuitively punish the team that lost most recently, Ohio State got three first-place votes today. Kansas got 14.

  • In other words, voters desperately need to decide which principle they're going to follow. Are they looking at the whole body of work? If so, then Ohio State is still a very worthy No. 1. If they're looking at who is currently playing the best basketball, then Texas appears to be the pick. Either way, it's not Kansas. But the Jayhawks were No. 2, and they didn't lose this week, and so they move up. If you needed a perfect example of why college basketball polls are a profoundly illogical enterprise, well, here you go.

  • And that doesn't even bring us to Pittsburgh. Let's check out the Panthers, shall we? Do you prefer short-term trends? Jamie Dixon's team, without its best player, just put the bow on two impressive road wins against West Virginia and Villanova. More interesting in the whole package? The Panthers have six RPI top-25 wins to date. Texas and Ohio State have two apiece. Kansas has one. Pitt has six. Pittsburgh is 23-2 and 11-1 in the Big East, essentially establishing it as the best team in the best conference in the country. And Pitt has a neutral-court win against Texas, probably the best win of any potential No. 1 besides Texas itself. How many first-place coaches votes did this thorough, comprehensive resume net Dixon and company? One. Seriously: one. That's baffling, too.

  • And, yes, the Associated Press poll is just as confusing as the coaches rankings. Kansas is No. 1 with 22 first-place votes. Ohio State is No. 2 with 14. Texas is No. 3 with a big "(23)" next to its name. Pittsburgh is No. 4 "(6)". Way to go, AP voters! You still screwed up the top spot, and the math is all hazy, and I'm not sure what logical thread led you to put Ohio State at No. 2 and Texas at No. 3 -- refer to the bullets above for explanation -- but hey, at least Pittsburgh got six votes! That's something!

  • In case you're wondering how these teams rank statistically -- in other words, how they rank in the real world, which is governed by facts instead of "impressions" and "tradition" and "well-that-team-was-No. 2-and-they-didn't-lose-so-I-guess-they're-No. 1-now" nonsense -- let's refer to Mr. Ken Pomeroy. How do these teams rank on an adjusted tempo-free basis? Ohio State is still No. 1. Kansas is No. 2. Duke and Texas follow from there, and Pittsburgh comes in at No. 5. In other words, Ohio State didn't suddenly become a worse team because it lost at Wisconsin on Saturday. The Buckeyes are still the best team in the nation -- just barely, but they are -- according to, you know, how they've played on the basketball court. Three votes? Come on.

  • How does the rest of the coaches poll hold up? Meh. It's fine. I'm not sure that Utah State's loss to Idaho shouldn't have knocked it out of the top 25 this week, especially with a deserving fellow mid-major like George Mason waiting in the wings. But outside the intrigue at the No. 1 spot, this poll, along with the AP version, doesn't have many obvious omissions or confusing sequences. If it wasn't for the massive Ohio State-Kansas-Texas-Pittsburgh confusion, this poll is actually pretty good. Huzzah?

As always, add your own poll thoughts in the comments. (You can also e-mail me and hit me up on Twitter and Facebook.)