I HAVE BEEN to games at Duke and North Carolina, and to Charlotte to see Virginia Commonwealth play. I have had email exchanges and telephone conversations with coaches and voters from Kansas to the Carolinas. I have watched more than 100 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams on TV.
I take voting weekly in The Associated Press poll seriously.
That said, I have no idea this season how to vote from week to week. The average fan pulling names out of a hat might have a better idea of how to slot the top 25 teams in the country. The college basketball season has been that crazy.
To many, the upsets galore and merry-go-round at the top of the poll show that college basketball has become too marginalized, that the talent is so watered down that any team can beat another — regardless of ranking — on any night.
To me, this season has shown the beauty of the college game. It is all about competition, and never has a basketball season been more balanced, more up for grabs, more competitive.
I like underdogs. It is OK with me that TCU, a team with one win in Big 12 play this season, claimed it against a Kansas team that has lost three league games and is considered a contender for the national crown.
It shows the competitive balance of the sport when Duquesne’s lone Atlantic-10 Conference win came against Temple, which is 10-5 in the league and destined for the NCAA tournament. How else to explain that Mississippi, an NCAA tournament contender, lost a game to Mississippi State, which rightfully will own the SEC basement? Then, this past Wednesday, the ACC’s regular-season champion (Miami) inexplicably lost a home game to a middle-of-the-pack Georgia Tech team.
As a result of all this madness, storming the court has become epidemic in college basketball. When home crowds can no longer hold back their emotions, students rush the court to celebrate with their team.
It used to be that storming the court signaled a significant win for the home team. With parity as it is in college basketball, the line has been blurred between celebrating a big win and just having fun for a national TV audience.
Butler students stormed the court after defeating Gonzaga. Miami did the same after beating Duke. Notre Dame celebrated on the court after going five overtimes to defeat Louisville.
The No-fun Police (NCAA) want to put an end to this behavior in the name of player and fan safety. The NCAA has it all wrong. All it needs are rules for determining when a court can be rushed. The most egregious violation came a few weeks ago when Virginia students stormed the court after defeating Duke, despite the fact that Virginia was the Las Vegas betting line favorite to win the game.
Of course, it is up to AP voters like me to sort it all out, to determine what outcomes truly are upsets and what outcomes are telling of a team’s worth. For the first time in my years of voting, I came up with a couple of self-imposed guidelines to help in the balloting process.
Early in the season, I determined that I would no longer drop a team in my rankings after that team lost a conference road game. My thinking is that if a team wins a conference road game, it should be rewarded. But it should not be penalized for losing on the road.
Also, for the first time, I determined at mid-season that there are about a dozen teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the national championship. In my mind — having watched all of them play numerous times — those 12 are the best teams in the country.
So, I decided to mostly just shuffle those top 12 from week to week. Those 12 include Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the Big Ten, Georgetown and Louisville from the Big East, Miami and Duke from the ACC, Kansas and Kansas State from the Big 12, Florida from the SEC and Gonzaga from the West Coast.
Determining which club is the best of that bunch has been a crapshoot. I have believed in Indiana, Duke, Louisville, Florida and Miami at one point or another. This week, I likely will put Gonzaga atop my poll, and the Zags are no fluke.
The tricky part in the weekly poll has been determining the 13 through 25 slots. There is not much difference between the 13th-best team and the 50th-best team these days. There is every reason to believe New Mexico has as strong a chance of reaching the Final Four as Missouri or Creighton or Saint Louis.
As a matter of policy, I have been looking after the underdogs — the mid-majors, as we know them — for the final two or three slots in my top 25. I had Belmont at No. 24 and Middle Tennessee at No. 25 this past week.
Do I really believe those two teams are among the 25 best in the country? Maybe. Maybe not. That brings me to another beauty of college basketball: The AP poll, like the USA Today coaches’ poll, is for fun. Where I rank the teams each week does not mean a thing, no matter how seriously I take it.