Duke-Maryland poll numbers show voting along parity lines

March 07, 2007|By RICK MAESE

For just the fourth time in 23 seasons, Maryland will enter the Atlantic Coast Conference men's tournament with a higher seeding than Duke. The Terps posted a better road record, better home record, better conference record and better overall record than their conference rival this season.

With that in mind, it seems clear to me that entering tomorrow's opening-round games, Maryland is a better team playing better basketball. But not everyone is as convinced.

When the latest Associated Press men's poll was released Monday, the Terps were ranked No. 17, just four spots ahead of the No. 21 Blue Devils. But there was nothing about the last week of the regular season that felt like these two teams were really this similar.

So I reviewed the 72 ballots in the most recent AP poll - the final one of the regular season - and was a bit surprised to learn that there were six voters who still thought Duke was better than Maryland.

Even more surprising, while four AP voters tabbed Maryland as a top 10 team, two didn't even include the Terps on their ballots.

It didn't make sense, so I left messages all over the country in search of an explanation. Was there a major blackout on the West Coast that I didn't hear about? Was my TV stuck on replays of the 2001-02 season and I didn't notice? Or do these dissenting voters have a point or two that Maryland fans might not have considered?

Parity seemed to be a buzzword.

"Just because someone might have Duke ahead doesn't mean that much," says Felix Chavez, of the Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News, who voted Duke three spots higher than Maryland - Nos. 18 and 21, respectively. "Maryland could be higher in my next poll with a big run this week and if Duke stumbles. In my opinion, teams from 10 to 25 are interchangeable.`

No voter had Duke higher than Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News. (Even Dick Vitale had Maryland No. 14 and Duke No. 17.) Harrington voted the Blue Devils No. 14 and Maryland No. 20. He has been voting in the poll for the past 10 years and says slotting the teams from week to week this season has been particularly tough.

"It's easily been the most brutal one with all the parity," he wrote in an e-mail. "Two weeks ago, the teams ranked Nos. 18-25 went 3-13 for the week!!! Especially in a year like this one, you're splitting hairs once you get past about Nos. 8 or 9."

And certainly the Rating Percentage Index would reflect that. Maryland is only two spots better than Duke - No. 12 and No. 14 - and the Blue Devils have played a slightly tougher schedule, so maybe it's not so egregious to rank the two schools similarly? At least until you remember that the Terps beat Duke twice this season, and that the Terps ride a seven-game winning streak into the ACC tournament, while Duke has lost its past two and six of its past 10.

And yet two AP voters - one from the Los Angeles Daily News and one from the San Antonio Express-News - didn't even think Maryland was a Top 25 team.

"Looking back, I think my opinion is tinged a lot on what Maryland wasn't able to do back in January," Tim Griffin, the San Antonio voter, wrote in an e-mail. "They have obviously improved a lot, and I had them right there at the bottom of my poll. I know they have a seven-game winning streak, but I kind of think that the ACC might not be as good this season as in other years. That has been reinforced to me over the last couple of weeks."

The subjectivity of these polls has always intrigued me. Every voter watches a different set of games, spends different amounts of time making up his weekly ballot, places more weight on some areas, less on others. Some don't judge solely on head-to-head play, but the best way I can tell someone that Maryland is a much better team than Duke right now is to point out that the Terps swept the Blue Devils in the regular season.

"Who's playing better now?" asks Buffalo's Harrington. "Maryland. But it's a snapshot of the whole season. We'll see how the committee plays it. Today, Maryland is probably a 3 or 4 [NCAA seed] and Duke is probably a 4 or 5, but that can change. ... The poll is so subjective and changes so much that I never feel comfortable how it shakes out until after tournament season."

I don't expect every voter to see it the exact same way every week. And in the end, it doesn't really matter. Unlike college football, the midseason Top 25 polls in basketball are good for fodder and not much else. It's not exactly science here; more like poking your head out the window to check the weather because there's no thermometer nearby.

Maryland opens the ACC tournament against Miami tomorrow, and Duke plays North Carolina State. I have a feeling that a few hours of basketball will reveal the differences between the Terps and Blue Devils better than any poll. While that might point out the inherent futility of the Top 25 polls, it also reveals their true worth and the sport's real beauty.

"It's just a conversation piece," Harrington says. "It promotes interest and passion but doesn't impact the tournament. They just need to win on the court, the polls be damned."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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