Back to
Southern College Sports Home
 January 16 Toby's Time
"What Do the Rankings Mean Anyway?"

By: Toby Hyde Columnist
Contact Toby

Toby's Time Coming up a with vote for's Fab 15 out of 326 Division I teams isn't an easy task. Plus, the NCAA takes a step in the right direction, the PAC 10 is top-heavy this year, and St. Joe's isn't the only one with a weak schedule....

[ Updated January 23 ]

Last week for the first time I submitted my list of the top 20 teams in the country for this website. I can't speak for any of the others around here, and certainly not for those around the country, but ranking the teams is hard. I watch as much college basketball as I can, while still maintaining a functioning social life. Even so, there is simply no way that I could possibly see every game, the highlights from every game, or even those from every game germane to ranking the top teams in the country. Therefore, while relying heavily on what I see with my own eyes, I realized that I was going to need to draw on other types of information as well.

First there are the obvious sources of information: a team's won loss record, which combined with a strength of schedule ranking gives a picture of how well a team has done and against what level of competition. This information is refined and turned into a single numeric in the RPI. However, the RPI, while very useful, is imperfect. Jeff Sagarin's rankings, which the tournament selection committee has used for the last twenty years, give a more nuanced picture of a team's performance by incorporating the location (home/road) of a game and the margin of victory/defeat. Armed with the data, I realized I would need a coherent process to keep everything straight.

I decided that first, I would rank teams by where they stood in their conferences. To do this I used conference standings. However, since it's still relatively early in the conference season, a loss or two could distort a team's results. Is UCLA better than Arizona? Didn't think so. If a team's overall results were more impressive than their conference brethren's cupcake diet, the team who had performed well against better competition was rewarded.

Once I had a rough list top to bottom for each conference, I needed to make meaningful inter-conference comparisons. Big head to head matchups were crucial. For example, Louisville won at Kentucky, so to my way of thinking, they absolutely deserved a higher ranking. This brings up an absolutely crucial point: location matters. A road victory is much more impressive than a home victory. If a team like Louisville can win on the road at UK, they are the better team. However, the fact that the 'Ville ran all over Cincinnati in the second half in Freedom Hall doesn't necessarily indicate that Louisville deserves a higher ranking; their total profile, plus the decisive head to head result, does.

At the end, the rankings are a prediction. I believe that the more highly ranked team would beat the lower ranked team on a neutral court, more often than not. Mix home and away and it all gets more complicated.

You know what the best part is? It doesn't matter at all come March.


Kudos to the NCAA.

NCAAI rolled my eyes earlier this week when I read comments by Miles Brand, the president of the NCAA who claimed that "college sports must not be allowed to be drawn to the professional model." No, I thought, the colleges just want pro type dollars. Brand went on to encourage his members to focus on three areas: 1) academic achievement, 2) the idea that the student athlete is of primary importance, and 3) fostering closer ties between the athletic department and other areas of the school.

Surely, I thought, the only way that schools will emphasize academics at the expense of athletics is to tie scholarships to scholastic success. Guess what? The NCAA agreed. At the April 29 Board of Director's meeting, the NCAA will vote on rules that punish programs where athletes are not on a path towards graduation with penalties as severe as the loss of scholarships or bans from post season play. The problem? Since the rules were designed by the NCAA, they are coherent only to lawyers. As every coach will say, KISS-Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I would be surprised if the legislation passes, but it's a very large step in the right direction.


Most analysts, myself included, think the PAC-10 is having a down year. However, the PAC's two best teams, Stanford and Arizona, could play with, and generally beat, the top two in any other conference in America. Try it. Kentucky and Mississippi State. UConn and Pitt. Louisvill and Cincy. Kansas (Stanford won, on a neutral court amid a partisan KU crowd) and Texas ('Zona lost by one). Basically, the middle of the conference, Oregon, Cal, ASU and USC, has underperformed horribly.


St. Joseph'sOne of the benefits of posting late each week is that I get to respond to what others write. Timo, I like the profile of St. Joe's, and their relatively weak schedule, compared to a "power" conference. However, I don't think you're giving the Hawks enough credit. This is a "weak" A-10 whose last place team, Richmond, just picked off Kansas, in Lawrence. The moral: every conference is a tough one. Also, one other small nit: who's overrating Gonzaga? They're 15 in both the AP and the Coaches' poll. Their RPI is 16. Their Sagarin ranking is 7. The Bulldogs only two losses have been to the two undefeated teams in the nation.

Man, Timo, that's two weeks in a row I had a comment about your column...I'm sorry.

I think that the same accusation Timo levels against St. Joe's - that they have few impressive wins - could be leveled with equal merit against UConn. The Huskies have lost to the cream of the ACC: Georgia Tech and an inconsistent UNC. Their most impressive win has to be Pitt at home, but Pitt was a team of question marks for their soft schedule, validated by their close loss to UConn. How's that for circular logic?