Poll numbers mean little in the long run

Staff WriterJanuary 20, 2009 

  • 1. Wake Forest

    2. Duke

    3. Connecticut

    4. Pittsburgh

    5. North Carolina

In the long run, weekly poll rankings don't mean a heck of a lot these days in college basketball.

No one ever sized up that situation better than the late Norm Sloan, N.C. State's coach from 1967 through 1980.

A few days before his Wolfpack faced UCLA in the 1974 NCAA national semifinals in Greensboro, Sloan was asked to comment on the fact that State was ranked No. 1 in the nation by The Associated Press, while the mighty Bruins were ranked No. 2 and favored in the approaching game.

"We may be ranked No. 1, but they're UCLA," Sloan said. "Which team do you think has more to prove?"

That statement is worth keeping in mind today as Wake Forest moved to No. 1 in the AP weekly ratings for only the second time since the formation of the ACC in 1953. They were ranked No. 1 for two weeks in November 2004.

Other than perhaps having some vague influence on the NCAA seedings and selection committee, high national rankings in basketball more or less still exist simply because they have existed for years.

The top-ranked AP team at the end of the 2007-08 regular season was North Carolina, which lost in the NCAA semifinals to Kansas. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, were never ranked No. 1 during the season.

In 2006-07, the final No. 1-ranked team was Ohio State, which failed to win the title. In fact, the last No. 1 team in the final AP poll to win the title was Duke in 2001 and before that, UCLA in 1995.

The Deacons last were ranked No. 1 for a couple of weeks early in the 2004-05 season. That team, with Chris Paul, finished 27-6 but was ousted from the NCAA in the second round by West Virginia.

"It's nice to be ranked first, and its says something positive about your program," then-Wake coach Skip Prosser said. "But at the end of the season, you don't want to look back and say, 'We were No. 1.' You want to be able to say, 'We are No. 1.' "

This Wake team, although young and just now venturing into the most difficult part of its schedule, has a chance to make both claims. So do Duke and North Carolina.

Some regional fans today are even dreaming the almost unimaginable -- all three teams in the Final Four in Detroit this April. The ACC has placed two teams in the Final Four a few times, most recently in 2004, but never three. Nor has there ever been an all-ACC national championship game. Wake hasn't even been to a Final Four since 1962 -- the days of Len Chappell and Billy Packer.

But the Big East pulled off in 1985 what the North Carolina schools would like to do in '09. Three Big East teams -- No. 1 Georgetown, No. 3 St. John's and unranked Villanova -- reached that Final Four in Lexington, Ky. The rankings wound up meaning little when Villanova left with the trophy.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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