November 14, 2007

What Do Preseason Rankings Mean? Anything?

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Just a week ago, Gardner-Webb’s men’s basketball team slaughtered Kentucky in Rupp Arena.’s preseason rankings had Kentucky at No. 27 to the No. 300 Bulldogs. Now I’m as far away from a math person as you could possibly get, but even I can tell that there’s a big difference there (or at least there’s supposed to be).
In the shock and surprise after the upset, however, I think people have been ignoring an important question. Think a second. What do those numbers actually mean?
Cornell sports teams have seen a lot of traffic in preseason polls recently. As senior Assistant Sports Editor Lance Williams wrote in yesterday’s Sun, winter sports should be amazing this year. The men’s basketball team was picked to finish first in the Ivy League by numerous preseason polls and ranked No. 107 out of 340 Division 1 schools by The women’s basketball team was just picked to finish second in the Ancient Eight, and W.I.N. Magazine put the wrestling team at No. 4 in its NCAA Division 1 preseason rankings., the AP, USA Today, SI, the coaches — they all release polls before teams have even played a game. March Madness was barely over last year when ESPN posted its first 2007-08 bracket prediction in April, with the men’s basketball team picked to lead the Ivies.
I talked to a few Cornell coaches and athletes, and the belief that they all held in common was that preseason rankings don’t mean much of anything.
“It’s funny, because we’re the first team in 20 years even to be picked to win it besides Penn or Princeton, and Penn or Princeton’s always won it, so it’s pretty accurate in that sense,” said men’s basketball head coach Steve Donohue. “In all honesty, I think it’s a year that many are not sure. We have no right to feel that we’re the team [to beat or that] anybody can think right now that we’re the team to beat. We haven’t done anything in the past that says, ‘Hey, they know how to win a championship.’ … And I think that’s the danger of all this. You haven’t accomplished anything yet and people are congratulating you.”
“That’s what these rankings do,” he continued. “They put expectations [on the team] from people outside the program. I don’t think it should affect you, but in the same sense I’m not going to put my head in the sand and ignore it. I’ve got to address it with my team and make sure we all realize that we haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
An exception to the rule that rankings don’t mean anything might be the added incentive for lower-ranked teams to work harder, as it was with Gardner-Webb. Since the women’s basketball team has traditionally been underestimated in the preseason polls, the Red does use rankings as motivation to prove them wrong, according to junior forward Shannan Scarselletta, a Sun columnist.
“For our team, [rankings have given us motivation] in the past,” she said. “We were ranked seventh when I first got here and then we got fifth. And then [the next year they said], ‘You’re going to get fifth,’ and we got third. So we take it like, ‘Oh that’s a challenge. You’re telling us what we’re going to do. Well … we’re going to show you that we can be better than that.’ … For teams that get ranked lower than they should be ranked I think it’s a challenge. It makes you work harder in preseason and during the season.”
But even Scarselletta couldn’t think of a good reason for the rankings.
“I have no idea [why preseason rankings exists],” she said. “It’s something you talk about, but I know at any time, any team can beat any team. The only people [the rankings] would help would be people who bet on games. … You need to play your game and try not to be distracted by statistics or by what other people think.”
That brings me to another question: who are preseason rankings for? Maybe gambling isn’t exactly what the pollmakers had in mind, but Scarselletta may have been on the right track. Wrestling team head coach Rob Koll compared the preseason rankings to the widespread general interest in the college rankings issue of U.S. News and World Report.
“Everybody loves a ranking,” Koll said. “Why do they have U.S. News and World Report? They’re not this philanthropic organization. They don’t [rank colleges] to help people figure out where to go. They do it to sell magazines, and it’s the same way they do it with these internet sites and magazines that put rankings up.”
Sports are a business, and we all know it. Image is everything, and the people involved in athletics at every level consider marketing strategies to be as important as the game plan, if not more so. But just because something is a moneymaker, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing, or even a helpful thing.
Koll and his team, by the way, are actually much more motivated by philanthropy than the preseason pollsters in the vein of US News and World Report. Friday night in Newman Arena, the wrestling team will host traditional Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin, No. 13 according to W.I.N. Magazine, in the first dual meet of the Red’s season. For every person in attendance, the wrestling program has solicited pledges from local businesses and individuals. The money from these pledges and other general donations will be given to Hospice of Ithaca. The fundraiser, the Hospicare Challenge, is an annual event that has raised thousands of dollars over the years for local non-profit organizations. So everyone should go to the meet and help out with a good cause. (Ok, I’ll take my charity-publicizing-hat off and return to the rankings rant now.)
It comes back to the eternal question: do the ends justify the means? Raising money for a worthwhile charity seems like a good reason to me. In the case of preseason rankings, however, I just don’t see the point. They are essentially meaningless means with no real ends besides unneeded publicity and filling space in media outlets.
It’s one thing to give detailed summaries of all the teams’ coaching and personnel for the benefit of fans. This is, in my opinion, one of the principle mandates of sports journalism — to give an unbiased accounting of teams’ strengths and weaknesses so that a spectator can fully appreciate what goes on on the court, field or mat. Though SI ranked NBA teams two weeks ago, for example, the focus was on in-depth breakdowns of the teams. It’s a very different thing, however, to place the emphasis on the rankings so that the hype surrounding them overshadows the teams and the sports themselves.