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An Amateur's Guide to Lacrosse Poll Voting

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The Dos and Don'ts of making your top 20 rankings.

The Journal News-USA TODAY Sports

I do not vote on the Inside Lacrosse media poll. The only lacrosse poll I vote on is the one for this site, which is mostly just ammo for Twitter fights. But as a bona fide, Twitter verified, media member and a Fan of the Game (TM), I feel qualified to discuss lacrosse media polls. And I have some thoughts I'd like to share.

It isn't easy to put together a good top 20 ranking every week. That's true of any sport, but lacrosse especially, as it's impossible to watch all the games that you need to. And, sometimes, even highlights are hard to come by.

Lacrosse rankings are doubly tough because there's no concrete criteria with which to compose them. The NCAA doesn't tell you what to do. Everyone's philosophies are different. What matters, then—and I'll repeat this later—is that you stay consistent to your own logic when evaluating teams. Pick a method and stick with it.

Choosing your philosophy isn't always easy, either. While there are no "right" ways to make your rankings, there are several wrong ways. Here are a few:

Last year doesn't matter

Do not use last year's results as a baseline for where you rank teams during the following season. Do not rank teams based on where you think they "should" be relative to how they finished the season before. (That obviously doesn't apply to preseason polls before any games are played.) Once actual games have been played, the prior season's results mean about as much as the Oscar for best original score—which is nothing. They mean nothing. It was a travesty that Arrival's score was disqualified.

Don't be predictive. You're not a prophet.

The only thing worse than overvaluing bygone seasons is trying to predict what's going to happen next. You know, "I think X team is going to beat Y team next week, so I'll just keep them in my top 10, because I'm just going to have to move them up again anyway." No. Bad. Don't be that guy.

I've looked around at some polls this week and I've seen a lot of them still ranking Brown in the top 20. A few still have them in the top 15. I won't pretend to know why people ranked Brown where they did, I just hope it wasn't because A) people still think Brown is a top 20 team because they were really good last year or B) people think Brown is going to be really good by season's end.

Both of those things can be true, and they still shouldn't affect your ranking of Brown or any other team. But, for me, they gave up 25 goals to an unranked team at home. That tells me one important thing about this Brown team and how they are playing, right now, at this very moment in time: They don't have a defense. Giving up 25 goals in lacrosse is like allowing, I don't know, 150 points in basketball? 60 points in football? Someone do the math for me.

Look, maybe some think Brown really is, currently, one of top 20 teams in the country. Maybe they've used consistent logic and that's where it's placed Brown in their rankings. Fine. I would disagree with that ranking, but I'm not going to hate if someone can explain why they ranked a team where they did as long as they applied the same exact philosophy to every other team. But if your Brown ranking has literally anything to do with their Final Four run last season, or stuff like "potential," then get out of my face. Yes, they have potential. In fact, my gut tells me they figure things out on the defensive end and play much better for the rest of the season. But what my gut's telling me about where I predict Brown will ultimately end up should have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on where I rank them on February 27th.

Scores do matter, in context

The final score of a game rarely tells the whole story of that game, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all. They do. That said, you can't only look at the final score of a game and make a judgment about it. You've got to put it in its proper context: How did we get there? Was it tied for 3 quarters and then one team just made a massive run at the end? Was it a blowout and only became a closer game after the winning team put in all their scrubs? If you can't watch the game, do some digging to see how the final score came to be what it was. (And, of course, does it match up with other stats like time of possession, faceoffs, groundballs, turnovers, etc.?)

My evidence for this rests in the Yale-Maryland and Hop-UNC games. I ranked Yale ahead of UNC, even though I had UNC ahead of Yale last week and both teams lost. They should both drop equally in the polls, right? No. Wrong. Very wrong.

Carolina was demolished on their home turf. Yale lost by one goal in a weird weather delay game, on the road against the #1 or #2 team in the country, without their best player. Those results tell me things. They tell me that Carolina was overmatched by a top 5 team and thus are not top 5 material. They also tell me that Yale, meanwhile, is very much on par with Maryland and should to be ranked in the vicinity. With Reeves on a neutral field, Yale probably wins that game. You could take away Hop's three best players and they still probably would have beaten the Heels.

Your rankings shouldn't be an adjustment of your preseason rankings

There is no reason for this. Your preseason rankings were made when you didn't know anything. Those were total shots in the dark based on losses to graduation, returning players, incoming recruits, injuries, schedule and coaching changes, etc. Once we've actually played games, why would you continue to use your preseason guesses as a benchmark? Toss them in the trash and light it on fire. Your preseason rankings were probably a trashfire. Mine certainly were. I haven't even looked at them since the season started.

Which philosophy should I use?

The following two methods are acceptable ways to craft your rankings, so long as you stick to them and apply them evenly to every team. This is not an exhaustive list. There are myriad ways to rank teams. Just remember to stay consistent.

Tournament selection criteria. Pretend you're on the NCAA selection committee. Use a combination of quality wins, bad losses, strength of schedule, RPI, etc. etc. This, of course, is an inexact science and has its own set of problems, but if you stick to this method, you'll probably end up with a pretty good poll. I personally don't use this method, as I think it it overvalues past results at the expense of who's playing the best right now. Tourney selection is supposed to evaluate a team's entire body of work over the course of a season, weighing results in February and in late April equally. That, to me, would be a silly way to make a top 20.

If president Trump decided to make an executive order ending the lacrosse regular season today, after just four weeks of play, then the tournament seeds wouldn't necessarily reflect the top 8 teams. I think Hopkins would have an excellent shot at the #1 seed, based on quality wins over Loyola and North Carolina. Those two wins are better than Maryland's win over Yale and Denver's wins over Duke and Air Force. So I'd rank those teams 1) Hopkins 2) Maryland 3) Denver if this were tourney seeding. But those aren't my current in-season rankings. I think Maryland is the best team in the country right now. I think they'd beat Hopkins on a neutral field if they played tomorrow. Hopkins still has issues at the faceoff X, while Maryland, to me, looks pretty complete right now.

Who's playing the best right now? That isn't a great phrase to sum up this philosophy with, but it's the best I could think of. Consider this method to be, essentially, a modified version of the tournament selection criteria that weighs recent results more than long forgotten ones. With this method, you have to ask yourself a series of questions about each team:

1) Who have they beaten, and how have they beaten them?

2) Who have they lost to, and how have they lost to them?

And in answering those questions, results from yesterday should matter more than results from a month ago. Results from a month ago still matter—you certainly can't just ignore them—but weigh them properly. Imagine team X and team Y play twice in a season. Team X wins in a blowout the first time. When they meet later on three months later, they have the same record, and similar strength of schedules. They're pretty even. But this time, team Y wins in a 1-goal squeaker. Assuming that they came into the game both playing about equally, then you should rank team Y higher than team X even though they were blown out by the same team months ago.

Is a 1-1 Brown team that just gave up a quarter-century goals to Stony Brook better than a 4-0 BU team with a stifling defense and solid wins on the road over Navy and Providence? No, they aren't, and yet they're ranked in the top 20 while BU is not. Sad!

Figuring out how exactly to value recent games over old ones is a tricky business, and, again, it's not an exact science. You might make some mistakes. But if you implement the same thinking across the board, then at least your rankings will hold up to their own logic. They might not hold up to someone else's, but you'll be able to defend them.

Now, if you've actually read this far, I have one last message for you: Polls don't matter. They are a meaningless construct of our collective imagination. The NCAA committee doesn't take them into account when deciding the tournament field (or, at least, they're not supposed to). So basically none of what I just said matters either. Do what you want. Rank the teams however you feel like it. We're all living in a purposeless vortex in which there is no escape.