Friday, November 17, 2006

Who Does the Rankings Anyway?

So you likely saw that third ranked Kansas, loaded with the annual "best recruit from the state of Illinois" for the past two years, among other high school All-Americans, lost at HOME, to ORAL ROBERTS. Yes, they lost to a school not only founded by a Christian fundamentalist, but named after him. And it wasn't a last second shot. They lost by 7 points.
And perhaps you saw that North Carolina, the second ranked team in our fair but overcast nation, nearly lost to Winthrop University. Was this in some tiny gym in Rock Hill, South Carolina? No! It was in Charlotte where the vast majority of the crowd was there to support the sweatered rams with tarred feet.
A normal person might look at the make-up of these teams, notice that nearly everyone getting minutes is a freshman or sophmore, and think "that's probably about right, performance-wise." But then why are these teams ranked so highly?
Perhaps it's their previous accomplishments.
Last season, UNC finished with a fine conference record (12-4), and a solid record overall (23-8), winning eight straight conference games at one point. But there were only two other ranked teams in the ACC last season-- BC and the Dukies-- making the power conference to end all power conferences into actually not that much of a power conference. UNC was rewarded for their conference success with a 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, only to lay an egg, giving birth to the George Mason, feel-good-but-crappy-basketball-cinderella-story-myth, by losing in the second round to the Colonials. Now, I was under the impression that all of UNC's important players last season, like that Hansbrough kid, were freshman. But looking into it further, that was just wrong. In fact, UNC started a senior and two juniors against George Mason. So the whole "well they were all freshman and they should be dramatically improved after a year under their belt" theory may not actually be true, because they weren't all freshman, and UNC depended in large part on developed upperclassmen last season. Interesting.
Kansas seemed to follow the pattern. Last season, they started out 10-6, played very well in conference, and won the Big 12 tournament. Then they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Bradley University, located in lovely Peoria, Illinois. (I'm not joking; it's a nice town, especially for Illinois). Skaank. Ah, well. In comparison to UNC, they actually were led by younger players, starting no seniors last season, and having no seniors on the team this year. (Note to Self, Bill--where they hell are all your upperclassmen? Has Kansas started giving associate's degrees? Doesn't the NCAA step in and reduce your scholarships if you don't even get close to graduating anyone?). But once again, skeptics can point to a uncharacteristically weak conference (only one other ranked team-- Tejas), and the upset loss early in the tournament-- the 4th seed losing to the 13th seed.
So why are Kansas and UNC so highly ranked this year, despite their embarassing and early exits in the tournmanet? They both have the "full of young players who got their act together" CW, although that's far more true with Kansas than with North Carolina. I also think the "getting the act together" conference runs of last season, while certainly impressive, are overinflated given the suprising mediocrity of their leagues.
So what else has propelled these two teams to the top 3?
Unfortunately, I think it comes down to 2 culprits, both of which are suspect predictors of success--traditional names, and recruiting rankings.
Kansas and North Carolina are obviously two of the most hyped, and best, men's college basketball teams over the past 50 years or so. Producing lots of talented NBA stars, near the top of their league every year, yada yada. With Roy Williams, the UNC coach, there's actually a record of solid success both in the tournament (thanks for beating the FIBs in the final, Roy!), and in the regular season. Bill Self has a solid career record (68% with Oral Roberts(possible collusion?), Tulsa, the dancing feather headed frat boys, and Kansas), but hasn't gotten his team as far in the tournament. So they are both legendary programs, led by very and quite solid coaches.
But what really drives this season's rankings, I believe, is the increasing tumult surrounding recruiting, and equating a class's success in terms of wins far before they've even done anything.
The past two seasons, Kansas' incoming recruiting class have been ranked 1st and 8th.
UNC's have been ranked 4th and 1st. (This is based on The hoopla over Kansas' freshman last year was especially loud, and if UNC's only seems muted this year, that's because it's been drowned out by the OSU-Oden-athon.
The idea seems to be as follows--talented players attend famous basketball institution where coached by famous coach equals instant success. This is a fallacy. High school basketball is dramatically different (read, easier) than college basketball, especially in legitimate leagues. In the vast majority of cases, it takes lots of time to transmorgify a good high school basketball player into a fine college player. Even exceptionally talented people, like Dwyane Wade for example, often need several years in college to develop. The freshmen who do make big impacts, and by this I mean making their team one of the best in the country, are serious rarities. Off the top of my head, I can think of Carmelo and the Fab Five. Anyone else come to mind?
For the last several years, most of the best teams in college have been dominated by upperclassmen. Think of Illinois and UNC in the championship game two years ago, Villanova the past two years, Duke with give it to me Sheldon and JJ Red-dick. More often than not, it's players who are talented, but have at least a few years' experience who push their teams upward and onward.
Now, the new NBA rules may change things. Because of the league's one-year-out-of-high-school rule, a lot of guys who would have jumped directly will probably head to college. So we should see more impact freshman. LeBron and Dwight Howard clearly would have been Carmelo Anthony-type college players. But if the new rule is driving the ridiculous rankings for Kansas or UNC or Ohio State for that matter (Oden doesn't play until January, guys, and the Bucks lost four starters including the Big Ten MVP), I think people will be disappointed. That's because there's one or two of those special, special guys a year, at the most. This year, people think Oden might be that guy. Next year, it looks like O.J. Mayonaisse will be the man.
But I don't see anybody on Kansas or UNC this year or last, being that guy. Both schools have athletic, talented players. But they need some seasoning--Lawry's seasoning salt is delicious, incidentally. UNC has 6 freshmen. Six! Can they even run an organized practice? Roy Williams will need a masters in ego deflation. Maybe, maybe, Kansas' class from last year or UNC's current class will develope into a group of guys like the starters for UNC's NCAA title winning team of two years ago. Four guys from that class were taken in the first round. Does anyone remember that three of them were upperclassmen?
Yes, that's right-- good recruiting class with good coaching does equals top-level success: three years later.

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