ESPN’s recent look at college basketball’s top programs over the last 50 years, using the tried-and-true nomenclature of “blank-in-blank”, placed Kentucky third on the list. The 50 in 50 Rankings caused a stir among the Big Blue Nation, with thousands proclaiming that their beloved Wildcats should be number one instead of number three. Those spurned fans are probably right, but few have taken the time to explain why ESPN’s system is flawed to the core. Until now.
The first major flaw in ESPN’s methodology is that they totally ignored strength of schedule and conference. The only regular season point contributions factored into ESPN’s system are conference titles, conference tournament titles, and overall season win percentage. In other words, Western Kentucky gets as many points for winning the Sun Belt as Kentucky does the SEC. Conference titles and conference tournament titles can’t be fairly compared across conferences, but ESPN seems to think the entire process exists on a context-free vacuum.
Although Kentucky may not have substantially gained over North Carolina in this factor over the years, they certainly would have blown any UCLA weak conference wins out of the water in the last 30 years. The same goes for win percentages. Schools playing cupcake non-conference schedules are rewarded identically to those playing top tier opponents all year. Win percentage point values are also inherently flawed, as teams winning 80% of their games are given double the points of teams winning 79% of their games, a completely arbitrary and contrived system. Why not offer more breakdowns and ranges worth 5, 4, 3, and more points respectively?
The next major flaw is a problem with imbalanced point values. For instance, winning one game in the final four to advance to the championship is worth just as many points (5 additional) as winning an entire conference regular season title. Call me old-fashioned, but the difference between 2nd and 3rd in the NCAA Tournament is practically meaningless, much less so than a conference title in the SEC, anyway. And on that note, a national championship is worth only 5 points more than a national title runner up. A title should significantly trump all other accomplishments, including second place.
If that wasn’t enough, ESPN’s process rewards disappointment. In their system, a 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament making it to the Sweet Sixteen would receive 5 points. A 1-seed making it to the round of 32 would also receive, you guessed it, 5 points. Expectations are rewarded as much, or often more, than outcomes. It’s not surprising that the largest sports media entity in the world rewards media-driven poll and seeding numbers instead of actual on-court performance, but it’s still wrong.
There’s also an overly-weighted focus on players instead of programs. All of the facets of success a program obtains are a function of the players on the team. Good players and coaches win games and championships. When players are counted separately from team success, they’re being counted twice. ESPN awards 3 points for First-team All-Americans, 2 points for Second-team All-Americans, and 2 points for Players taken in NBA’s top 10. All of which are unnecessary measures of recognition and not outright success.
Even ESPN claims this is a measure of the “most successful college basketball programs”, not the most prestigious or recognized as they’ve done in the past. But their actual measures focus on prestige more than winning. To put this in perspective, a team that goes 13-22 (winning 37% of games) on the year but has two First-team All Americans is awarded 4 points. A team of walk-ons that goes 27-8 (winning 77% of games) on the season is awarded 2 points. Once again, expectations and disappoint are as heavily rewarded as actual successful outcomes.
There’s not an easy way to scientifically calculate the top programs in the history of college basketball, but there are a lot of blatantly incorrect ways of doing it. ESPN’s 50 in 50 rankings are one such terrible way. Whether Kentucky, UCLA, or North Carolina is the most successful program of all time could be debated for ages, and each fan likely has their own well-substantiated answer. But there’s really only one right answer. Kentucky. Just because.
Filed Under: Basketball
About the Author: Corey Tincher is a lifelong Kentucky fan and professional writer who couldn't keep the two worlds apart. He is the lead contributor for StraitCats.com and literally wrote the book on the 2012 NCAA Tournament Championship run, Big Blue Articles: Kentucky Basketball in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Follow @Corey_Tincher on Twitter for more Kentucky news and discussion.