Why preseason rankings don't really matter

Although the Blue Devils are ranked No. 4 in the country heading into the season, columnist Danielle Lazarus urges readers to take preseason rankings with a grain of salt.
Although the Blue Devils are ranked No. 4 in the country heading into the season, columnist Danielle Lazarus urges readers to take preseason rankings with a grain of salt.

Yesterday, the NBA released its weekly power rankings, and the Philadelphia 76ers were No. 1.


It gets better—CBS, Yahoo, and SB Nation all ranked the Sixers No. 1 too, and ESPN, NBC and USA Today each have them in their top 10.

I truly don’t know what to think of the Sixers’ ranking. They seemed to be headed towards the basement of the Eastern Conference again for the 2013-14 season. In the offseason, the Sixers traded Jrue Holiday, their best player, to the New Orleans Pelicans for the sixth overall pick in the draft. They later announced that Nerlens Noel, their selection, was out for the entire season with a torn ACL.

So this year was the Sixers’ chance to earn a key rebuilding piece in the 2014 draft, as the “Winless for [Andrew] Wiggins” campaign swept Philadelphia. The city began salivating over the thought of the 0-82 Sixers drafting the Kansas freshman phenom, and him propelling the Sixers to first place in the future.

Yet it’s happening already.

Every single one of these media outlets had the 3-0 Sixers in last place just a week ago. They cite rookie Michael-Carter Williams’ explosive play and new head coach Brett Brown's fresh outlook as their rationale for putting the Sixers on top, but CBS’s explanation for advancing the Sixers 29 spots most accurately mirrors my own:

CBS writer Matt Moore simply wrote, “I have ABSOLUTELY no idea.”

In my opinion, this sentiment holds true for college basketball rankings in general—especially when the season has yet to start (or, in the Sixers’ case, when they’re just three games in). What exactly are the criteria that determine each team’s ranking in the AP and Coaches' polls?

Preseason rankings are nearly impossible to determine: aside from the fact that college basketball hasn’t been played since March, it's an exceptionally volatile sport. Any player can leave his team for the NBA draft at the end of any season, and a team’s success is heavily dependent on replacing those players with a strong recruiting class.

However, the reputation of a team is probably the greatest determining factor. Preseason rankings are more so predictions than evaluations, yet voters are quick to identify the teams that have amassed a bounty of wins in the past. Quite simply, if a well-known team has been historically successful, it will most likely appear high in the top 25.

The best example is No. 1 Kentucky. Although it ended its 2013 season with a first-round loss in the NIT, the Wildcats have eight national championships. Two Kentucky players declared for the NBA draft—Noel and leading scorer Archie Goodwin, who went 29th—yet the Wildcats enter 2013 with the top recruiting class in the nation. Four Kentucky freshmen were named to the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award Watch List. In fact, since 2009, Kentucky has had the top recruiting class in the nation every year except 2012, when they were No. 2.

But do those things even matter? Kentucky was No. 3 in the preseason rankings last year, and they didn’t exactly end up in a good spot at the end of the season. All nine members of their incoming freshman class were spectacular in high school, yet even Julius Randle hasn't stepped on the floor in college. And voters may rank the Wildcats highly because of their past success—yet that isn't even a constant, because (I can’t say this enough) they lost in the first round of the NIT last year.

In fact, even head coach John Calipari is skeptical of his team’s No. 1 ranking.

“It’s a nice honor, but it’s way too early to figure out who’s the best team in the country,” he said to “We may be very talented, but I can’t imagine us being the best team in the country at this point.”

Just like it’s hard to imagine the Sixers being the best team in the country, too.

So is Duke deserving of its ranking? I don’t know, and neither do the poll voters. It’s impossible to tell. Yet, like Kentucky, the Blue Devils more than fit the criteria voters use to make preseason rankings.

Loyal Cameron Crazies know the drill: Duke is one of the most well-known programs nationally, helmed by head coach Mike Krzyzewski—the winningest coach in NCAA Division I basketball history. With more success, the public—and poll voters—have had more exposure to the Blue Devils, and this year is no different. Duke will play on an ESPN network 26 times this season, which is more than any other college or NBA team.

Last season, the Blue Devils lost their three seniors, Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly—meaning their two leading scorers in Plumlee and Curry, and tallest player in Kelly. Kelly's and Plumlee’s height is the most significant loss for Duke, since this year 6-foot-9 sophomore Amile Jefferson is the leading candidate to replace Plumlee at center.

But Duke boasts one of the most athletic lineups in the NCAA, led by the No. 2 recruit in the nation––Jabari Parker. The forward, who scored a combined 29 points over his first two exhibition games, is one of four new faces for the Blue Devils, joined by freshmen Semi Ojeleye and Matt Jones and redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood. Hood has also been lighting up Cameron for Duke, leading the team in both points and minutes in both exhibition games.

Duke’s reputation and incoming players are good predictors for how they’ll fare coming into the season, yet it’s important to realize that absolutely nobody knows anything. It was cool to see the new-look Blue Devils during the exhibition games, yet beating two Division II teams says nothing about how the team will fare against Kansas in next week's Champions Classic. Neither does having a top recruiting class or the fact that they've won four national championships.

The rankings race is certainly fun to follow—last December, campus was euphoric when an undefeated Duke finally became No. 1 in the country. The banners in Cameron Indoor Stadium marking the years that Duke finished No. 1 in the AP and Coaches' Polls certainly indicate their importance, too.

But the first chance we’ll get to see how good any NCAA Division I team will play will be on Friday, and rankings don’t matter.

Case in point: the Sixers lost by 20 last night.


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