The Failings of Rankings: Marquette is better than people think

The Failings of RankingsMarquette is better than people think, particularly those not watching

If you were part of the sellout crowd at Fiserv Forum Friday to see Marquette disassemble Buffalo like someone reading Ikea instructions backwards, you had to feel like they’re the kind of team that could beat any team on the country on the right night, assuming Markus Howard is as his 40-point, second-half performance against the Bulls — or his game against Kansas State earlier this year, or last year’s Providence game — proved he can be.

Buffalo’s defensive backcourt is nothing to sneeze at, and neither was K-State’s. Howard has proven, when he flips the switch, he’s darn near impossible to stop. Even against Wisconsin, when he wasn’t hitting consistently, he was still the most reliable clutch option for MU.

Don’t believe, however, Marquette is just Howard and four other guys. Joey Hauser is finding his game in fits and spurts, like his three-straight three pointers to give MU its first lead against Buffalo. Joey’s brother, Sam, has stretches where he’s forgotten about, but has come back strong in Marquette’s last few games, and is a reliable second option to Howard when healthy. And, oh by the way, Theo John had seven blocks against Buffalo, all of the “outta my face” variety, and has taken big strides forward in giving Marquette its best inside presence since Robert Jackson.

We’ve spent the last three years bemoaning the inconsistency of Marquette in this blog. Now, however, with the team doing the most consistent thing possible — winning all its non-conference home games, including three over top-15 ranked opponents — it feels like a corner is being turned. The unpredictability of the past will make us hesitant to say the corner’s been turned until these results last longer, maybe even the rest of the season. But for now, the results make me believe in Marquette.

As MU was in the process of sending Buffalo home with its first loss, I theorized where such a win might land them in the polls this week. Yes, that tweet came in the moment, with 17,000 gleeful Marquette fans surrounding me. But hey, Wisconsin shot from 22 to 12 in one week. Why couldn’t Marquette do something similar after a statement win, albeit at home and against the travel-weary Bulls?

I forgot about writers not paying attention.

Credit to the always-awesome folks at Anonymous Eagle for doing a breakdown of how this week’s rankings fell as they did, as well as using the resources of College Poll Tracker to figure out who voted how. Marquette did go up in the rankings — a whopping two spots to No. 18. While they did pass Buffalo with the victory, and Kansas State may have been overhyped, Marquette still sits three spots behind the Badger team it beat, and didn’t get much of a boost from its dominant win Friday.

As Eagle points out, three writers, almost mind-bogglingly, didn’t even have Marquette in their top 25, while one, Damien Sordelett of the Lynchburg (Va.) News-Advance, has Marquette out, but has Wisconsin in at 21 and Buffalo not only above Marquette, but also the Badgers at 17. Huh?

At no point during the year has Sordelett had Marquette in his Top 25. His Twitter bio points out he covers Liberty Basketball, which, for those unaware, plays in a state that also has plenty of fans of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Richmond and even VCU. His most-recent tweets are football-focused.

I want to stop here and make something clear: This is not an attack on Sordelett. Sports journalists do not have it as easy as many think, and they are often at the whims of assignment editors, regular editors and whatnot as to what they’re covering, when and how. Also, college basketball is a sprawling landscape of over 350 Division I schools. There’s no way you can pick up on everything that happens.

However, when you’re a poll voter, you do have a responsibility. Poll results influence a lot in terms of coverage and perception, not just of teams but of players and coaches. I’m not going to say Sordelett has shirked or is shirking his responsibility, though his results definitely seem amiss.

Again, though, this isn’t meant to single him out as much as it’s meant to show college basketball is a difficult thing to measure. We discussed this on an individual level when Andy Katz named Henry Ellenson his national player of the week on ESPN a few years ago. Ellenson was coming off a fantastic game against Butler, but also an abysmal one the same week against lowly Stetson. Clearly, Katz only checked one game’s results to make his choice then, and, in the present, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sordelett just hasn’t seen Marquette play yet. BIG EAST fans sometimes complain that finding FS1 on their dial is difficult, with FS2 being darn near impossible. Now imagine what it’s like if you don’t necessarily have an active interest beyond filling out a poll ballot each week.

When trying to measure 350-plus distinct things against each other, no metric will be perfect. Even game results can fail you. Consider the team that is very good at something like three-point shooting or defense and can beat any other team with those strengths, yet has an Achilles’ heel for inside play or getting in foul trouble and is quite fallible when playing a squad which can exploit that weakness. A theoretical bracket could fall in a way that said team would win it all, or said team would be out in the first round, all depending on the draw. There is no perfect way to decide how good such a team is.

This is why Steve Wojciechowski has the philosophy of “Win Every Day:” All you can do is rise to the challenge of what’s in front of you in any given moment. You can’t control whether a writer in Virginia is watching you, or the selection committee, or whoever. You just have to conquer the task at hand, whatever that may be. Those guys can’t, and shouldn’t, concern themselves with rankings.

For fans, meanwhile, polls can be frustrating. While there’s no stopping us from feeling like they’re important, we have to remember they’re not perfect. Even computer metrics like KenPom have their faults. As the Chris Berman’s cliché goes, “That’s why they play the games.”

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS:

EMPTY SPACES: If you need a reason to remember to treat Sordelett with a light hand, check out this graph of who-voted-for-whom on College Poll Tracker and note the blank line for Terry Hutchens, the Indiana beat writer who left behind a wife and two sons when he didn’t survive a car accident on Dec. 17. The media consists of human beings. Treat them as people, not faceless collections of words.

COURTSIDE BANDSTAND: We didn’t get to do a blog last week, but if we did, it would have been about music in the Marquette/Wisconsin game. Here’s the Splinters version: “Roundball Rock” is great when used ironically or paired with 90’s NBA highlights. It’s out of place otherwise. And sorry, but if you use “Jump Around” after beating a team known for using “Jump Around,” you’re saying they’re a bigger deal than you are, even with the win. The new DJ at Fiserv Forum still seems to be figuring some things out operationally. I’m hoping that was his idea, and that he’ll figure out it wasn’t a good one.

SOUTHERN, THEN EASTERN: Marquette finishes its non-conference schedule against lowly Southern, with a record of 1-11, Friday before traveling to St. John’s to start BIG EAST play on New Year’s Night.

Photo: Getty Images

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