Thursday, February 9, 2012

Irregular Season

People used to talk about the NHL season as a waste of time -- simply a 6-month exercise to determine seeding for the playoffs. The same could be said about the expanded NBA, although the teams with the best records tend to maintain their lofty seeds. But I've rarely seen or read anyone talking about what has become the most meaningless (least meaningful?) regular season in all of sports: NCAA college basketball. You wanna talk about jockeying for position that doesn't even count?

I was reminded of this phenomenon when the following headline struck me: "No. 10 Duke stuns No. 5 North Carolina 85-84". I suppose there was an element of surprise, as Duke snapped Carolina's school-record 31-game home winning streak. But stunning? Either way, a closer look at the season-long AP Poll rankings makes you wonder if they even need to rank the teams at all.

In the pre-season AP Poll (yes, that's ranking teams before they've even played a game), North Carolina was ranked #1 and Duke #6... that is, until Week 4 when UNC lost to Kentucky, the new #1, fell to 5th, and Duke rose to #3 on a 7-0 record. Naturally, Duke lost the following week and fell to #7 in the Poll while UNC rose to #4 to fill the void.

Fast forward to Week 11 where previous #3 North Carolina drops a game and falls all the way to #8. Meanwhile, Duke jumps up to #4, creating the biggest disparity on the season for Duke vs. their arch-rival. You can guess what happens next.

Yep, Duke loses another game and falls back to #8, while UNC rises to #7 to again fill the void. Skip ahead to Week 14, the aforementioned #5 vs. #10 upset, which of course will look completely different when next poll comes out.

So how much better is Carolina than Duke? UNC has been ranked at nearly every position in the Top 10 this season. The same nearly goes for Duke, though they were never higher than #4. So beyond the home-court streak, does Duke's win really rise to a "stunner"? And even if it's mildly surprising, does it mean anything come March?

Keep in mind that this is the story of only two teams. Over the past 14 weeks, there have been three teams ranked #1 (though Kentucky fell out of the top spot and got it back once Syracuse lost it). Yet there have also been four different #2's (Kentucky, Ohio State, Missouri and Syracuse) and six #3's while eight different schools have spent time as the 4th-ranked team.

So come Selection Sunday, what will any of this mean? Probably not a lot. In fact, these teams will have played 30-odd games for the honor of being scientifically and/or arbitrarily seeded and placed in a regional bracket by an NCAA committee... which will then be subject to great debate until the tournament begins. At which point, finally, the games will count.

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