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College Basketball Rankings: What They Mean and Why They Don't Matter

Fans of college basketball have come to understand that the struggle for greatness is not fought on the hardwood, alone.  Basketball fans know all too well that their team must make a strong showing in the college basketball rankings, if they have any chance of making the NCAA tournament.  But is too much focus placed on the rankings?

To understand the impact the college basketball rankings have on the fortunes of college athletics, we need to discuss the history of the rankings.  

The first Associated Press Collegiate Basketball Poll was released in January 1949.  

Associated Press polled sportswriters and broadcasters and compiled the results to create the rankings.  Broadcast technology was limited to regional radio broadcasts at the time, so many sportswriters had to rely on the reporting of game results by their peers in other markets.  Major schools, particularly ones near major media markets tended to dominate the rankings for much of the early decades.

A sports fan checking into the college basketball ranking of yesteryear is likely to see some very familiar names.  Kentucky, Illinois, Villanova and Stanford are among the regulars listed as far back as the very first basketball poll published by the Associated Press.  But what about schools that we would consider “mid-majors” today? 

Today’s mid-majors were often affiliated with conferences that are now considered the “Power 5.”  

Tulane University, for example, was a founding member of the Southern Conference—the predecessor to the Southeast Conference.  Residing in New Orleans and a member of a major conference, Tulane was able to catch the eyes of sportswriters, despite being a small, private university.  The school found itself on the college basketball rankings often but, by the mid-1960’s, little Tulane realized they could not keep pace athletically with the larger, state-supported members of the conference they helped create.

Those first AP basketball polls were incredibly important.  At the time, there were only eight teams in the NCAA tournament and the National Invitation Tournament was actually considered more prestigious.  Many top-ranking colleges chose to forgo the NCAA tournament to play in the NIT throughout the years.  The two-tournament system meant the final AP college basketball ranking of a given season was often the final word on what team was considered the “National Champion.”

But as television burst on the scene, college basketball became more popular. 

The NCAA recognized the value of the tournament and doubled the field size to sixteen teams in 1951.  At the same time, some of the smaller conferences merged or faded away and the sixteen-team field relied on the AP college basketball rankings to help choose who was invited to the championship tourney.  It wasn’t enough to finish your conference schedule in first-place, teams needed to make a splash.

In 1975, the tournament expanded again, this time to 32 teams.  Television coverage continued to grow and so did the AP college basketball rankings.  Now, a list of the top 25 teams was shared in every Associated Press-affiliated newspaper in the United States on a weekly basis.  Teams were no longer just regionally supported; top programs could attract fans from anywhere.  But a huge shift was on the horizon.

The 1980’s saw exponential growth in college basketball.  Cable television brought nationally televised college basketball games into millions of homes.  ESPN was a new all-sports network, and college basketball offered an inexpensive product to help fill their broadcast schedule.  The NCAA men’s basketball tournament doubled in size again, and with the field of 64, new importance was placed on college basketball rankings.  The NCAA tournament now had more slots to fill than conference champions.  The at-large bid was born.  Getting your team on the Top 25 rankings became a necessity.

But is that fair?  How can a mid-major basketball program get seen?  Or does the ranking system favor the Power 5 colleges?  The truth is, it is extremely difficult to crack the Top 25, especially if you play in the MEAC, Southland, Patriot League or Big West.  While the ACC can get a 17-6 Virginia team in the Top 25, 23-1 Winthrop is on the outside looking in. 

 

The growing audience for college basketball has meant a new crop of ranking systems in recent years.  

From coaches’ polls to computer calculated indices, it seems that there are new systems that try to be more equitable in the rankings—even  as streaming services and sports networks bring an unprecedented number of college basketball games into the hands of the fans, the “eye” test seems to be losing importance.

And what will happen to traditional college basketball rankings like the Associated Press Top 25?  Does a top 25 ranking actually carry any weight in the current system?  The answer might just be, “No.”  While fans still like to see that number next to their school’s name, the truth is that the NCAA is moving away from the traditional college ranking systems that relied on polling sportswriters and is putting more weight on the Joe Lunardi-type matrix to calculate a team’s potential tournament performance.

The NCAA hasn’t completely gone mathematical, there is still a selection committee that chooses how teams are seeded in the tournament and where they will play.  To a fair degree, the basketball rankings are still influencing basketball who might be named champion, but no longer to the same extent.  College basketball continues to evolve and so does the system that determines the top teams each season.

Will March Madness, with its conference tournaments and crowning of champions continue to grow?  

Even in recent years, the NCAA has managed to incrementally add more teams to the tournament field.  The field of 64 is now 68, with a “First Four” opening set of games; space for more unranked teams to play for the overall NCAA championship.  An indication that college basketball rankings are losing their importance and fans are clamoring for more diversity in the tournament.

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