Poll Thoughts: Revisiting the preseason

All the way back in 2010, Ken Pomeroy published something that hit every last one of my college hoops knowledge dopamine nodes. At first it was counterintuitive, then it was surprising, and then, once fully processed, it made perfect sense; it was the kind of thing Malcolm Gladwell has been making a living doing for years. (And yes, you hipster, I mean that as a compliment). The only difference? Gladwell usually doesn't write about the efficacy of The Associated Press preseason poll.

The crux of Ken's post was this: "You might be surprised to hear this, but I’m a big fan of the preseason AP poll." Wait ... what? Don't we spend all season talking about how dumb the AP polls are, and doesn't it follow that a preseason ranking -- based off little more than educated guesses -- would be dumbest of them all? Not so much, actually. Ken explained:

While experts naturally try to declare which teams are too high or too low in the polls, I imagine their success is like financial experts trying to pick a winning mutual fund. Some people are going to be right some of the time, but if we tracked such things, I think we’d find that the groupthink found in the polls would be tough to beat by any one person in the long run.

It’s when the games start being played that things fall apart. Then, each voter’s bias becomes the same. You lose, you drop in the poll. You win, and you move up. (I exaggerate slightly. Later in the season at the bottom of the poll, there’s some flexibility. I’m primarily referring to the top ten or so teams here.)

However, in the preseason, voters are free from such restrictions. With every team at 0-0, there is also no conflict in voting a team with a worse record over one with a better record, another thing that mid-season voters try to avoid. With the voters having to use their hoops expertise as opposed to adhering to certain conventions, you end up with an accurate picture of which teams are truly the best.

Think about all the swerves and course corrections -- rinse and repeat -- we go through the course of a college basketball season. Think of the way we underrate teams or overrate them based on nebulous perceptions. Think about the way first impressions cloud our judgement, or the way high-profile mistakes cause us to proclaim we don't "trust" certain players. Think about all of the weekly overreactions to this player or that. Think about all of the narratives that may or may not apply.

Think about the Indiana Hoosiers, now your feted outright Big Ten champion, and think about the difference a few inches of leather atop an orange metal cylinder makes. Think about all the luck.

When you think about it, trusting the preseason poll -- at least among the teams at the top -- actually makes perfect sense.

So for our final Poll Thoughts* of the season, at a time when any and all arguments about the polls somehow feel even less worthwhile than normal (and that's saying a lot), I figured it would be fun to go back and look at that preseason AP poll. After four months, and 30 or so games apiece, how do those October rankings stack up?

2012-13 AP Preseason Poll

  1. Indiana (46)

  2. Louisville (18)

  3. Kentucky (1)

  4. Ohio State

  5. Michigan

  6. North Carolina State

  7. Kansas

  8. Syracuse

  9. Duke

  10. Florida

  11. North Carolina

  12. Arizona

  13. UCLA

  14. Missouri

  15. Creighton

  16. Baylor

  17. Memphis

  18. UNLV

  19. Gonzaga

  20. Notre Dame

  21. Michigan State

  22. Wisconsin

  23. Connecticut

  24. Cincinnati

  25. San Diego State

Others receiving votes: Virginia Commonwealth 75, Murray State 64, Minnesota 58, Pittsburgh 36, Saint Louis 32, Saint Joseph's 30, Butler 22, Texas 20, Tennessee 18, Marquette 18, Kansas State 12, Miami (FL) 9, Saint Mary's 8, West Virginia 7, New Mexico 7, Florida State 7, Ohio 6, Alabama 5, Davidson 4, Northern Iowa 4, Stanford 4, Bucknell 1, Georgetown 1, Maryland 1

That's ... actually pretty darn good.

All right, obviously there are some misses, even in the top 10. NC State was always pretty obviously overranked (I won't give myself credit in hindsight often in this post, but this is one of those times -- that was a bubble team until two wins in March, and all of a sudden they're the ACC favorite?), but few saw Kentucky's total hangover. (Usually, when John Calipari gets talented freshmen, he wins. Every rule has an exception.) Duke was underrated. North Carolina was overrated. Voters seemed uncertain about UCLA, because "national title contender" or "dumpster fire" seemed the only two plausible outcomes. Baylor was a whiff. There are a few others you probably don't even need me to point out -- ACC regular-season champ Miami, for one. Gonzaga, for another. Georgetown, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, New Mexico, Marquette. Yes, there were misses. It's a preseason poll.

But there are also some pretty good picks up there. Ohio State may not be the fourth-best team in the country, but the way the Buckeyes are guarding people right now, the way they shut down the best offense in the country in its own building last week, they're really not far off. The voters were bang-on about Michigan in the face of some convincing statistical projections to the contrary. The voters got Florida, Kansas, Syracuse and Arizona about right (even if the latter two are fading somewhat down the stretch). As long as you're willing to agree that the 15th spot in the poll and the first handful of teams that also received votes are essentially interchangeable, you have to give it up for Michigan State, Wisconsin, VCU, Pitt, Saint Louis, Butler, Creighton, UConn, San Diego State, Notre Dame -- few of these teams have been outright flops.

And then there is the top. Indiana began the season ranked No. 1, the clear (if not overwhelming) favorite to win the national title. Louisville began the season No. 2. Throw Duke into that mix -- and it's not like being ranked No. 9 overall is being slept on -- and you've got three obvious current national title favorites a day after the end of the regular season.

Oh, and this isn't Gonzaga hate, I promise. It's just that the Zags have some not-totally-insignificant statistical history working against them. Because being the best team in the country and being ranked No. 1 before the tournament starts doesn't always go together.

As Pomeroy wrote all the way back in 2010:

Six times the preseason #1 has won the national title compared to three for the top-ranked team at the end of the regular season. The preseason #1 has made it to the title game a total of 10 times compared to just six for the final #1. It’s stunning to me that armed with 25-30 games of additional information, the writers’ ability to identify the nation’s best team (in so much as tournament performance is indicative of which team is best, which we know is not always the case, but over 21 years the final poll should have a leg up on the pre-season poll) gets worse!

We may not like to admit this, but alas, we are human. We love drama. We ascribe qualities to players and teams from the comforts of our couches; we make grandiloquent statements when a team wins and freak out when it loses. We think Illinois is one of the best teams in the country, and then the players are quitting on the coach, and wait, look, they're good again, what heart -- when really it's as simple as a team winning when it makes 3s and losing when it doesn't. But that's not as much fun to talk about. It has to be something deeper.

Sometimes it is, but often it isn't. For as much knowledge as we gain during the course of a 30-game regular season, it's difficult to separate the signal from so much noise. Which is why it's helpful to revisit how we saw things in the preseason, before anyone played anyone, and remember that our first instincts are often right.

* I will probably revisit this after we crown a champion in April, but from here on out it's all tournament, all the time.