Oh no. Another Sunday and time for the Top 20 poll again. Pin the typewriter on the donkeys. Where's the mother-in-law? She was a big help last year. Saw Larry Brown on TV with those raccoon eyes and those two-tone saddle shoes and figured out the Bruins immediately. Said "that boy's stylin'." She was way ahead of everybody. Picked UCLA seventh.
Looks like I'm on my own this season, though. Let's see. Brigham Young. The Cougs lost a heartbreaker at Utah by 42 but nipped the Utes at their place by 46. If Jesse Jackson ever hits the area with an affirmative-action program, BYU will be murder. For now, No. 15. How about North Carolina? I see where Dean Smith went to the four corners with a 38-point lead against Mercer, then had to pull it out at the buzzer. What's going on? Another Tar Heel must have secretly married another cheerleader. Drop them to eighth.
Now it becomes difficult. Let's go to the map. In the East, Petey Carril's Princeton defense held up again, 33-12 over Colgate. Petey's pulling out all the stops this season. Out West, Shecky Greene skipped the dinner show to see the Runnin' Rebels at Vegas, so Jerry Tarkanian turned 'em loose: 142-97 was the final over California-Irvine. Guess that leaves Princeton at No. 18 and Vegas at No. 6.
So who's No. 1? I give up. Digger Phelps wore his Notre Dame sweatshirt to so many games they gave him the football job, too. Kentucky's entire starting lineup just transferred to Bethune-Cookman, blaming their dissatisfaction on a lack of playing time and a shortage of Betamax wet-bar consoles in the dorm rooms.
I think I'll just write in Gonzaga.
If this isn't exactly what passes through the chaotic mind of a Top 20 voter every week, it may be closer to it than anybody cares to know. The polls conducted by the two major wire services—the Associated Press and United Press International—were originally established to measure teams' relative abilities based on objective technological evidence such as points, rebounds, fouls and game scores. But in reality they have become, on the one hand, a political popularity contest and, on the other, a huge guessing game.
This is not to say the endeavor is totally worthless. We do choose other things in this same fashion—recently, for instance, a President. The polls produce a national champion in college football, however unsatisfactory that method of anointment may be. But in basketball, where the champ is determined by a tournament rather than the whim of the ballot box, those preseason, midseason, postseason, virtually minute-by-minute polls become meaningless on the night of the NCAA final game.
There are 62 writers and broadcasters on the AP voting panel and 42 college coaches on the UPI board. Which are the more honest, sincere, knowledgeable, conscientous and accurate? Take the media guys and give the 20. In truth, both sets of voters are unable to see most of the teams they are voting for and against—occasionally a valuable criterion for judgment. Moreover, both are subject to prejudices engendered by region, personality and vested interests.
If Toledo's Bobby Nichols, for example, once ran up a brutal score on Rutgers Coach Tom Young and then proceeded to compete for the same 6'10" high school center in Wheeling, W. Va., Young wouldn't be about to rank Toledo No. 9 on his UPI ballot. When a hypothetical Chicago journalist's trip to the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu depends on whether the DePaul Blue Demons are high or low in the rankings, look for kindly, sentimental old Ray Meyer to be portrayed as being a lot more kindly in the papers, not to mention a sentimental old No. 1 in the AP poll.
Despite all the cliques and tricks and subconscious skulduggery enveloping the system, the polls remain vibrant, fascinating, important to those involved, even though 48—not 20—is the magic number these days. That's how many teams get berths in the NCAA tournament.
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell often speaks of his 1974 team, which lost perhaps the most exciting college game ever played, 103-100 to North Carolina State in the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and failed to get into the NCAA tournament. What Driesell remembers the most about that season is that the Terps finished No. 4 in both polls. "My highest-ranked team here," says Lefty. "I've had seven Top 10 teams and two that finished 11th. Once we won the NIT and finished 11th. Damn. I have my managers looking it up to see who has coached the most teams in the Top 10. I'm proud of it. I don't like anybody telling me I ain't good."
Recognition is the universal attraction. For players, the Top 20 can act as a rejuvenating force, even in reverse, as it did last season when the infant UCLA Bruins dropped out of the polls for the first time since Balboa discovered the singles bar in Marina del Rey. Hurt and embarrassed, UCLA used the slight as a tool of psychological warfare and regrouped. Who's No. 1? Who cares? As No. 48, the Bruins roared all the way to the finals of the NCAA tournament. For coaches, the rankings are an ego massage. When his little-known Iona team turned up ninth in a preseason poll a few years back, Coach Jim Valvano's reaction was to "run around the baseball field for an hour, screaming." Valvano, now at N.C. State, says, "I'm all set to have my own poll, the Valvano Poll. Coaches would send me postcards four or five times a year."
Finally there are the fans—short for fanatics, remember?—at whom the polls were directed in the first place. One shudders to consider the bankruptcy rate among local taverns if fans had no Top 20 to toast or engage in fisticuffs about.
After winning the NCAA titles in 1965 and 1968, UCLA's John Wooden wasn't surprised to receive nasty letters from the folks in Michigan ('65) and Houston ('68) who believed their teams were better. After all, they'd been voted No. 1 in the polls. When it was revealed last season that Michigan Coach Johnny Orr (now at Iowa State) had voted Indiana No. 1, an aroused DePaul student body selected Orr as the winner of the "Mr. Whipple" look-alike contest.
Indiana's Bobby Knight scoffs at the polls. "It's like a nameplate on your desk," he says. "If you're good, you know what you're doing. You don't need a nameplate." But if he has to choose, he prefers the coaches' rankings. St. John's Lou Carnesecca disagrees. "Coaches shouldn't vote," he says. "It's like doctors taking care of their own kids. They're gonna pad the cake." What?
Texas' Abe Lemons believes both sets of rankings might be absurd. "Coaches vote for people, not schools," he says. "The schools just happen to be where they are. Of course, the writers can vote for schools on probation [coaches cannot], which aren't even eligible for the NCAA tournament. You might as well vote for the 76ers. They're not eligible either."
Al McGuire, who used to have his then-assistant, Hank Raymonds, send in the Marquette vote—"Sunday morning was no time for me to call in scores," McGuire says—used the polls as a stiletto. "I like to psych people, and the Top 10 is the best psych," McGuire says. "People overprepare for you, beat themselves. You're in the Camelot of basketball."
Strange things can happen there. In the 1977 preseason AP poll North Carolina was ranked No. 1—Smith's only appearance at the top—then defeated Oregon State by 31 points in its opening game and dropped to No. 2. In 1976 Michigan was No. 1 in both polls but lost on Dec. 29 at Providence in double overtime and fell to third and fifth, not to return to the top spot until the final game of the regular season. In 1965 an undefeated Iowa team was ranked sixth, lost a Christmas tournament game to a nobody and dropped to seventh. The nobody turned out to be Texas Western (now UTEP), which leaped from nowhere to ninth with that victory and eventually won the NCAA title.
Another unfamiliar crew, the Indiana State Syca-Birds, achieved recognition when they became No. 1 in the 12th week of the 1978-79 season despite a vacuous Billy Packer-led TV campaign against them. Larry Bird and his mates proved they belonged by winning 33 straight games before losing in the NCAA final.
Interestingly, in each of the last four years only Louisville and North Carolina have been named in both final Top 20 polls, which are tabulated before the NCAA tournament begins. A third team, Notre Dame, made seven of a possible eight final poll appearances. The irony for two of these schools is that while the media often mock Phelps' posturing at South Bend and while the coaches often question the publicity accorded Smith at Chapel Hill, the two voting blocs line up solidly behind the men they seem more critical of. In the four final polls, the coaches have voted Smith's Tar Heels 14 total places higher than the writers/ broadcasters, while ranking Phelps' Irish a combined 18 places lower than the media guys do.
This ultimately proves something, although only George Gallup may know what. Do the basketball pollsters know their business? Yes: National champion Louisville was ranked two (AP) and four (UPI) in the final 1980 polls. No: Of the other final four participants, UCLA and Iowa were left out of both final polls while Purdue made No. 20 on the AP list.
In the interest of accuracy and fair play and with the understanding that it really doesn't matter anyway, here's still another poll—call it the Stick-It-in-the-Hole, Whole Soul Poll.
1. HAWAII. Former Coach Red (Aloha) Rocha is long gone, undoubtedly working some Waikiki hotel lobby, but Ah Chew Goo of the hospitality committee can still pass those pineapples. The 'Bows play Elon on Super Bowl eve.
2. MASSACHUSETTS. Julius Erving, who left the premises following his junior season, is said to be contemplating a return to help reverse consecutive 5-22 and 2-24 seasons. The Minutemen don't need Dr. J. They need Dr. Caligari.
3. INDIANA (Pa.). The real Indiana. The Indiana Indians, for goodness sakes. Colors: maroon and slate. Schedule: Daemen, Mercyhurst, Dyke, etc. Holiday tournament: the Christmas Tree Tournament, for goodness sakes. Deck the halls.
4. THE SAINTS. St. Andrew's, St. Anselm's, St. Augustine's, St. Bonaventure, St. Cloud St., St. Francis (N.Y.), St. Francis (Pa.), St. Francis (Assisi), St. John's (Minn.), St. John's (N.Y.), St. John Fisher, St. Joseph's (Ind.), St. Joseph's (Maine), St. Joseph's (Pa.), St. Lawrence, St. Leo, St. Mary's (Calif.), St. Mary's (Md.), St. Michael's, St. Norbert, St. Olaf, St. Paul's and St. Thomas (mainland).
5. NEW MEXICO.
6. ALL-QUIT-KENTUCKY-QUINTET. Dwight Anderson at Southern Cal, Clarence Tillman at Rutgers, Chuck Aleksinas at Connecticut; two players to be named later.
7. SYRACUSE. Siena is gone from the schedule, Hal Cohen is gone from the roster—no more Cohen (Marty) Headd backcourt jokes. Snow is already falling. The Orangemen should turn everyone blue in their chilly new Carrier Dome, a tribute to air conditioning and alumni.
8. FABER COLLEGE. John Blutarsky and Kent Dorfman at the guards. Doug Neidermeyer and Greg Marmalard at the forwards. Eric (Otter) Stratton at center. Mandy Pepperidge in the sweater. The Mongols are tough on road trips.
9. YUGOSLAVIA. Though nearly 105 years old, Kresimir Cosic continues to be a force in the middle as well as an inspiration to the biddy Slovaks, 17 of whom plan to join the Yugos' farm team in Provo, Utah.
10. ATHLETES IN ACTION. Amen.
Curry Kirkpatrick predicts the final four in Philadelphia March 28 will be Maryland, DePaul, Indiana and UCLA. He likes DePaul over Maryland for the title.
But seriously, folks...turn the page for a words and pictures celebration of three players who would make any team worthy of national ranking. SI's Top 20 follows, with reports by Anthony Cotton, Kent Hannon, Roger Jackson, Jim Kaplan, Bruce Newman and William F. Reed. Special coverage continues with rundowns on the Best of the Rest and top small-college and women's teams.