We have explored just how awry the Associated Press Top 25 football poll is these days, and the disease has spread to the AP Top 25 basketball poll, too, begging the question: Are sports journalists more interested in telling the readers what they want to hear? What happened to 20th-century journalistic integrity of “telling it like it is“?
First, let’s recap the football poll issues by looking at its final regular-season rankings:
- The SEC Bias: The placing of LSU above Ohio State and Clemson has been discussed elsewhere, but it just cascades down from there. Georgia has no business being ranked ahead of several teams it is in the poll, based on the most-advanced sabermetrics out there. The same for Auburn and Florida is true. This whole SEC garbage is getting out of hand, but it is what sells to the region that spends the most fan money on the sport. Go figure.
- The Best Coast Bias: The corollary here is the shunting of Pacific-12 teams in reverse. Utah suffers the most right now (sixth in sabermetrics, 12th in the AP poll), but this has been an ongoing issue in the era of the BCS and now the CFP, too.
- The Little-School Bias: We looked at this, too, with Boise State, but it’s also about schools like Central Florida (11th in sabermetrics, not ranked at all). Advanced analysis states UCF is better than Auburn or Florida, but both those teams get Top 10 votes. How is that even possible?
Now, let’s peek at the basketball poll and delineate its problems. The three leading sabermetric sources here are BPI, KenPom.com, and Jeff Sagarin (again). Here is where the hoops votes are going awry:
- Straight-Record Flaw: Perhaps preseason favorite Michigan State is the best example here. The Spartans are 8-3 and ranked 4th, 5th, and 8th, respectively in the above sabermetric systems. The AP Poll, however, has buried MSU at No. 15 right now, which makes no sense at all—unless you just rank by record, which is never created equal in this sport. This was demythologized decades ago.
- More Little-School Bias: While college basketball is definitely more equitable than college football when it comes to letting the small schools have a chance, the polls still reflect that human bias against the little guys. Butler, Dayton, Memphis, and San Diego State are teams worth watching for this bias throughout the season.
- The Blue Blood Issue: There always be favoritism toward schools like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina. It’s somewhat sad, really, that even if those teams struggle, they will get the benefit of the doubt from the voters over all other schools with comparable records, under the assumption that past performance dictates current quality. Ohio State is the most visible victim of this right now.
In a modern Moneyball era of advanced metrics, it is getting sillier and sillier to rely on flawed human evaluation for ranking sports teams. Despite the awesomeness of March Madness, college basketball’s use of the AP poll is still flawed and ready for the dustbin of history.
Stay tuned for more college basketball coverage starting next month!