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Column: A theory of relativity

Senior Staff Writer

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08


There can be a big difference between having one and two.

Think chances, exams, kids or mortgages. Even speaking strictly within sports, give yourself a second to ponder championships, or technical fouls and what they might mean to the NBA's greats and bad asses.

But when you discussing spots between you and another team in college basketball polls, the disparity isn’t much at all. Nor for that matter, is the difference between one and four. In fact, mid-year top 25 lists might be one of the bottom 25 most useless “exact” measures we have in sports, because it’s all relative.

Here’s why:

The purpose of any poll or ranking is to serve as a word-picture: a carefully structured look at the current landscape of a season. It shows who’s on top, which teams are below and how we should understand the competition in a big picture sense. This is how things look, and that’s that.

And therein lies the problem, because the sports scene, no matter what league or level you want to talk about, is constantly moving. You see, on its smallest scale, every participating player works to improve his/her game on a regular basis. Thus, they change themselves and their current performance.

Then, each team engages in its own continual fight against inertia and complacency through collective workouts, video study, practices and games. Therefore, (also taking into account injuries, chemistry development and randomness) each team changes almost every day too.

Finally, when those teams are brought together into a league, they play one another over a series of weeks and months, revealing more about their abilities and adjusting accordingly, it introduces even more change.

So, no matter how you slice it, big or small, sports are constantly on the go.

And no matter how nice of a 1x25 frame you want to put around the college basketball scene, it’s not going to fit because that scene already changed and is more of a movie anyways. The idea of a poll is inherently flawed.

Second, the listing of teams from best to worst is sillyfrom best to worst is silly because when it comes to separating the top 20 or 30, you’re truly splitting hairs. And due to the constant change detailed above, any team that receives a ranking is generally just as good or bad as the few clubs both above and below them. Thus explaining what we hear often so simply, “In the world of (insert sport league here), anybody can beat anybody.”

Staying just with college basketball, the proof for this lies in the structure of the post-season: In the tournament, the four best teams are given “No. 1 seeds,” the next four are given “No. 2 seeds” and so on down until 65 schools are selected. This, in my mind, is how teams should be separated almost all season.

Some years there are, of course, exceptions, as recent UConn women’s basketball history will tell us. From the winter of 2008 until the spring 2010, Geno Auriemma and company essentially played keep away with the No. 1 spot over back-to-back undefeated seasons. This left even the most impassioned Notre Dame, Tennessee and Stanford fans with no doubt as to who the best team indeed was.

But most years, there’s zero reason to believe that say the labeled No. 4 team defeating the so-called No. 1 being a tremendous deal, because it’s not. Rankings are relative. In this season alone, Indiana, Duke and others have more or less played hot potato with the title of “top dog,” dropping from the No. 1 ranking every week.

Especially early on, these top 25 lists carry little meaning because no one on the planet has any evidence to gauge how good anyone will be. The only measuring stick we have of a team’s quality is its performance in live competition, and until games have been won and lost, everyone starts unranked (which in my opinion is why perhaps polls for all college sports should be suspended for the first few weeks of every season. But, let’s just stick with one contrarian idea per day, shall we?).

Now, while flawed on multiple levels, these polls are significant in that they give us a rough picture of where things stand. After all, even a blurry picture can tell you whether you’re staring at an elephant or an iPod. Though they are by no means absolute.

They’re relative. Think of it like a grading system, where you don’t receive a singular grade, but rather a rating of “A/A", “B+/B”, “B-/C+” and so on. They’re close enough, so they carry the same meaning at the end of the day — just like a seed does in the tournament. There’s also insufficient reason to delineate any true difference, so why bother?

Now, diminishing the generally accepted value of the weekly polls doesn’t lessen the excitement or greatness of college basketball. The fervor around big games isn’t ever about the numbers that precede each team’s name on TV or in the newspaper. Your heart races before tip-off just like mine because we’re assured of the rare opportunity to see two great teams battle in a really high quality display of basketball.

And the value for the teams playing isn't in notching another "top-10 team" on the ole belt. It's the fact that should they come out with a win, they'll have played at an extraordinary level and belong amongst the best themselves.

Think about the hype surrounding any championship in any sport—national title, the Super Bowl, World Series, World Cup, anything.

No one ever cares about the seeds or previous rankings the two teams have or had before then— mid-season, post-season or otherwise. All those tools to paint the season’s scenes are thrown out the window because now it’s only about that final game and the two stellar teams who fought to get there. The information your eyes have given from watching them play beforehand is the reason you get up for that final, ultimate clash. The voting done by coaches or media members has nothing to do with that.

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