Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Nova XC: Criminally Underrated or Criminally Overrated?
USTFCCCA Voters Need to Assess, not React

The 2012 NCAA cross country ranking system is in serious need of a steady hand. The United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coach's Association (USTFCCCA) rates the men's and women's cross country teams virtually each week of the cross country season. This year's rankings, looked at over the entire season to date, reveal either a very fickel set of voters, on the one hand, or some terribly erratic cross country teams, on the other. That is, either a large number of cross country teams are terribly inconsistent in their performances, or the people voting in these polls are casting ballots on a "what have you done for me lately" basis. The Villanova men's team is just one example of this phenomenon.

Entering this 2012 campaign with a pre-season ranking of #16, the team saw its ranking drop to #19 and then to #20, without having yet competed. When it performed well at the Main Line Invitational at Haverford, it dropped again, to #22. Admittedly, one of its key runners, freshman Jordy Williamsz, had not yet cleared the NCAA certification process and was forced to run unattached at the Main Line Invitational. Yet, cries were heard that the Villanova men were "criminally underrated." When Williamsz was cleared by the NCAA and ran attached at the Paul Short Run the next week, and when Villanova's men won the team competition there, the team's national ranking shot up precipitously, from #22 all the way to #12. Order, seemingly, had been restored.

Two weeks later, Villanova brought it #12 ranking to Pre-Nationals in Louisville. There, the team's #1 runner Sam McEntee got ill on the course and was forced to DNF. As a result, Villanova's team score ballooned by approximately 100 points, as the team's #6 finisher had to be counted in lieu of its usual #1 finisher. As a result, the men finished 8th, instead of the likely 4th they would have finished were it not for a simple case of nausea. The team's 338/8th place finish could easily have been a 238/4th place finish and the reason that it finished 8th was obvious to anyone who examined the results. However, the USTFCCCA voters failed to understand the reasons for the team's performance and downgraded their assessment of the team, dropping it from #12 all the way to #25. So, one case of nausea on one day in October meant that the Villanova men were not the twelfth best team in the country, but were actually only the 25th best team in the country. All because of a knee-jerk reaction to a superficial reading of the meet results. Now, it seemed, the men were, again, "criminally inderrated."

This #25 ranking was further undermined rather quickly, however, when the Villanova men under-performed at the Big East conference championship. True, the men ran in a nice tight clump (finishing 1-5 within 21 seconds), but that clump was too far back in the competition to ensure a top finish. The 5th place conference finish seemed to justify the USTFCCCA voters' previous downgrade, and Villanova's men dropped out the back of the pack, coming in at #35 in yesterday's national poll. If the Villanova men were "criminally underrated at #25, then what can be said of #35? Are the men now underrated, or were they "criminally overrated" after Paul Short? And why the tremendous fluctuation of the USTFCCA vote?

Here is a list of some wild fluctuations in the USTFCCCA's "assessment" of team quality:
Team                 High Rank        Low Rank
Wisconsin               1               20
Texas                   5               22 
Portland                5               17
Arkansas                9               23
Oregon                  8               25
Tulsa                   9               20
Columbia               10               29
Indiana                11               26
NC State               11               33
Villanova              12               35
New Mexico             12               28
E. Kentucky            13               29
Notre Dame             13               28
Georgetown             14               27
UCLA                   15               30

Lest one think that the up-again, down-again story of Villanova's ranking is atypical, reflecting only the schizophrenic performance of this year's team, a quick look at the fluctuations of other major teams' rankings seems to imply that the USTFCCCA voters are "reacting" rather than "assessing." How can Wisconsin be ranked #1 in the country for 5 consecutive polls, then, on the basis of one performance, be ranked #20? This happened when the October 16 poll was released. So, they were the best team and then suddenly they were #20? Then, one performance later, back up to #6? Which is it? More short-term, knee-jerk voting by the USTFCCCA pollsters. These fluctuations are not uni-directional, but reflect a yo-yo phenomenon: Up-down-up, down-up-down. Texas went from 6 to 22 and back to 5. Wisconson, from 1 to 20 and back to 6. Portland, from 5 to 17 to 9. Tulsa, from 20 to 9 and back to 19. Princeton from 21 to 11 to 23 to 13. Sheesh.

The Villanova men may indeed deserve their current ranking -- only time will tell. But these polls have displayed a set of standard deviations that combine to suggest that the pollsters voting in this ranking need to do more homework.

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