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Computers and polls: Who is #1?

February 17, 2012


On 2/17/12, Kentucky is ranked #1 in both the AP and Coaches/ESPN Polls.   I’m thrilled that biased human pollsters think my Cats are #1. However, as a stat guy, I realize that human pollsters are often biased and often wrong. Every season, we see teams that are ranked highly due to complete human bias without any actual merit. It’s amazing how certain teams can lose and lose again, but only drop 1 to 2 spots in the polls. We also see teams who are ranked highly only due to the law of inertia. When ranked #4, Louisville was a prime example of the law of inertia. I don’t think any rational sports fan actually thought Louisville was really the 4th best team in the NCAA based on the way they had been playing. Sure, Louisville was winning, but they did not appear to be the #4 team. Louisville didn’t look impressive, but they managed to keep winning as teams ahead of them lost.   Murray State was another example of the law of inertia. Did anyone ever truly think that Murray State was actually the 7th best team in the NCAA? Not likely.

Human polls clearly have their place, but we need to be honest in realizing that they are biased and flawed.   I’m sure you’re aware, but there are multitudes of much more cold and unbiased rankings available. Stat-based rankings certainly have their flaws, but when combined with the human polls, you gain a much clearer picture of where teams actually belong in the rankings.

Most people are family with the RPI. RPI is a good tool, but it has some major flaws. The biggest flaw is that RPI does not make concessions for margin of victory or defeat. A win is treated the same way whether it is by 1 or 100. RPI also does not care about road, home, or neutral site games. Kentucky is currently #3 in RPI.

Jeff Sagarin’s rankings play off of RPI, but try to fill in some of the holes. Sagarin mathematically accounts for site location and scoring margin. Kentucky is currently #1 in Sagarin. However, Kentucky has not been #1 for about half of the season and just recently moved back into #1. The mid-season slump of not covering the spread for a long string of games hurt UK’ Sagarin ranking due to the scoring margin. Not covering the spread hurts a team’s Sagarin ranking.

Ken Pomeroy’s ranking look at much more than win-loss records. Pomeroy actually tries to rank teams according to offensive and defensive production. Pomeroy also accounts for the tempo of play of a team. Pomeroy’s system allows us to put teams on a pretty even playing field. We all know that teams like Wisconsin play a slow tempo basketball. Because of that fact, scoring 55 points against Wisconsin could be relatively equal to scoring 70 against Florida. Simply looking at a stat sheet would suggest that offenses scoring 55 and 70 are very different. However, Pomeroy allows us to possibly see them as equal. If Wisconsin slows the ball down and has a great defense, scoring 55 is relatively the same as scoring 70 on Florida who does not have a good defense. As of 2/16/12, Kentucky is back to being ranked #1 by Pomeroy, but that could easily change based on production by Kentucky or another team by tomorrow.

ESPN has also just released its vast improvement of RPI, called BPI. BPI is a lot like RPI except that it manages to account to site location, scoring margin, and missing players. Kentucky is currently #1 in BPI.

I’ve just thrown 4 of the most popular computerized statistical rankings on to the table. I can’t stand RPI, but the other 3 are my favorites. However, it’s worth noting that there are a at least 33 ranking services available between stat services and human poll services. The Massey Comparative Ranking puts a combination of 31 total rankings in front of you. Among those 31, you will find the AP, Coach, RPI, Sagarin, Pomeroy, and many others. The Massey Comparative will allow you to see all of the high and low rankings for every team all in one place. Most importantly, the Massey Comparative averages each teams’ ranking from all 31 sources. Kentucky’s ranking ranges from 1 to 3, but the composite average is 1.39, good for the best average in the NCAA. Syracuse is #2 at 2.44.

Human polls have flaws. Computer polls have flaws. However, combining the best of both worlds helps eliminate the flaws of both. As of today, we can say that Kentucky is the undisputed #1 team in the NCAA based off of the human polls and computer polls coming into agreement.

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