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Art of Picking a Top 25

December 5, 2002 Columns No Comments

Who’s Your Number 1?

by Adam Shandler

Presenting The Art and Science of Picking a Top 25

My editor-in-chief, Andrew Flynn, is a good guy who runs a tight ship, and every Monday I get a call from him asking for my Top 25 list, which will be compiled with other Hoopville staff writers’ lists into one official, mondo Hoopville poll.

Now picture this exchange with Andrew playing the role of the truant officer and me as a delinquent grade schooler playing hooky. I don’t like sending in a Top 25 poll. I find these polls to be sometimes arbitrary, meaningless and just no darn fun. Yeah, the top 10 or so teams are easy to pick. The most ballyhooed teams, with their tradition, strength of sked and funny mascots, will always sway us easily manipulated writers into giving them the choice slots. After that, you may as well just pick teams out of a hat.

Still, writing up a Top 25 poll is an assignment I must honor and, admit it, you know you want it. (I got that line from Maxim.) You love polls. They’re a way to keep the season interesting till that big hoops lovefest in March. You want to see if your school is up there and where it stacks up against its in-conference rivals. You also want to see if we’ve lost our marbles. How could we rank that team? How could we not rank the other? How could you give this team a 4 ranking when they beat number 2 and 2 lost to 10? Yeah, yeah, yeah, we got our reasons.

Or do we?

How does one compile a Top 25 poll? Does he use a magic 8-ball? Does he toss eye of newt and frog’s feet into a bubbling black cauldron (cue smoke!)? Or does he lean over and look at someone else’s poll like the kid who didn’t study for the final?

Some of my fellow Hoopville writers were kind enough to divulge their secrets and tell me how and why they “give love” to the teams on their lists. Take Billy Thayer for instance. This guy watches more college hoops than legally allowed, but the guy knows the game…and at least he has a system.

“I work from my first poll and go from there,” says Bill. “My preseason top 25 are who I think the best 25 teams are. Then I work off of that, dropping teams for
poor performances, raising teams for good ones. Wins and losses matter, but
how they look in doing so has an influence.”

Columnist Jed Tai has a method, too, and it contains nothing as spooky as eye of newt.

“Typically I reward teams that do well,” Jed said. “One of my main methods is actually looking at some of the existing polls (AP, USA Today, Sagarin) and basing some of my picks off of those.”

There’s nothing wrong with going with the flow. Say you pick a team like Arizona, Texas or Duke as your number one. If they get upset, you’re no worse for the wear. You think, well, everybody had ’em at number one so I don’t feel like such a fool. It’s like picking the higher seed in your NCAA Tourney bracket. Your number 2 lost? Well, everybody had ’em winning, right?

Hmmm…there is something to be said about taking your chances, though.

Our Big East man on the street, Kevin Reilly, likes to roll high. Hey, we hoops writers get our jollies from picking a penny stock that shoots through the roof.

Kevin says, “I think you have go out on a limb, especially early. For example, Notre Dame at 6-1, coming off a rout of No. 10 Marquette, should be a Top 20 pick. Also over the years, I have always liked to plug in a Ball State or a Charleston in as a 23 or 24”, referring, of course, to teams that have pulled off unfathomable early season tournament wins.

In this last poll, I was trying to find a way to keep Gonzaga in the Top 25, with their two losses (albeit to Indiana and Kentucky) last week and soft showings against struggling Hofstra and Washington. Just couldn’t see a way to do it. Then I have to think about North Carolina, which captured the NIT championship (with wins against Kansas and Stanford) and a 5-0 mark before losing to Illinois. The Heels should be in the poll, but how high? Oh, and over my shoulder is Creighton, it’s skinny, pointy-headed BlueJay begging for some love this week. Okay, bird, you got number 25, but only because you beat Notre Dame, which beat Marquette, yada, yada. Just show up against Xavier on New Year’s Eve if you want to keep it.

See what I have to go through?

I feel for Andrew Flynn, who has the backbreaking task of collecting all our data and compiling one — just one — master Top 25 list for all of Hoopville (and its surrounding suburbs for that matter.)

“It’s excruciating,” he tells me, then hangs up to finish the job.

We can bark and moan about it all we want, but let’s face it, as strenuous as they are to compile, polls do offer some use. In a lot of ways, the Top 25 poll is the unofficial assignment editor for college hoops writers. It helps us determine which games get more ink, which games we need to lead with in our Morning Dish, and which games will get us juiced when it comes time to write about them. There’s something scintillating about a game that features two teams with little numbers next to their names.

“It’s nice to know how people think of teams,” says our own Bill Thayer. “But at the same time I don’t take them too seriously. The great part of basketball is that the polls don’t decide the national championship, the players get to.”

Prophetically stated.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m working on next week’s poll. I still have numbers 11, 14 and 21 to fill in, and Marquette, Carolina and Southern Illinois to fill them.

Eenie, meenie, miney mo…


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