LEARY: Zags will have to prove themselves in NCAA’s

The nation held its collective breath last Tuesday as No. 1 Indiana fell on the road to Minnesota. Poll voters, on the other hand, had a different reaction.

It was something along the lines of: “Do we have to rank Gonzaga No. 1?”

Let me preface this by saying that Gonzaga is an elite college basketball team this season. It has quite possibly the best big man in the nation, Kelly Olynyk, elite shooter Kevin Pangos and a powerful, dynamic switchable in Elias Harris. Even with the West Coast Conference worse than in years past, going 16-0 in any Division I conference merits recognition.

But trying to compare Gonzaga to teams like Duke, Indiana and Florida is like ranking teams in different European soccer leagues against each other. They rarely play each other (or even mutual opponents), so comparison becomes subjective.

Since Gonzaga doesn’t play a rigorous January and February schedule like the Big Ten teams do, it naturally ascends the rankings as teams in front of it lose to tough opponents.

But should anyone really care? Sure, the Zags get a shiny little “1” next to their name on the scoreboard next time they play on television, but why does that matter in the grand scheme of things?

Forget the rankings. Gonzaga’s players will have to prove themselves in two weeks when they match up against an eight or a nine seed in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The team will inevitably dispatch its 16th-seeded foe, but imagine if it ran into a current bubble team that ran through its conference tournament in the next round. Would you trust a team that hasn’t knocked off a high-caliber opponent since December to beat a team that just ran through four in a row?

Ultimately, rankings are stupid. They are subjective, arbitrary and immensely flawed. Most college basketball fans don’t need a silly little chart to tell them which few teams stand out among the rest. No kidding, Indiana is a top team. It has two of the best players in the country (Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller) on the floor together for 35 minutes a game. That’s what makes it elite, not a single-digit number next to its name.

Getting rid of the rankings wouldn’t help either, since they undoubtedly help fans connect to the game and assess their team’s performance. Rankings also help promote matchups as “a showdown of ranked teams,” which ESPN loves to plug. They provide valuable context for the quality of the game about to unfold.

But putting too much stock in rankings is a slippery slope.

Enjoy No. 1 while it lasts, Gonzaga. You deserve it. Just come ready to back it up come tournament time.

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