Wide world of rankings has volleyball sitting pretty

Rankings are like the Sudoku puzzles of the sports world. Fans, coaches and players all use rankings to try and make sense of a bunch of numbers that constantly change and supposedly have some magical endgame.

It’s true several things go in to picking those numbers. It’s a science, they say. But it’s so complicated that, sometimes, I don’t think the “experts” know what they’re doing — cough, Joe Lunardi. It’s a guessing game.

But most of the time, those seemingly arbitrary numbers predict the future.

Sometimes national rankings rely on a vote from the people involved, like the coaches poll in NCAA football. The USA Today Sports Board of Coaches — which runs the poll — is made up of 62 head coaches in BCS schools, all of whom belong to the American Football Coaches Association. The 2013 panel includes Illinois’ own Tim Beckman.

But football is different from other collegiate sports. A team loses one football game and plummets down the rankings, even if it’s to another top-25 team. Sure, they can make up the ground, but it would take a lot more than winning games to get back to the top. In the BCS, luck has a lot to do with it.

Teams bond when hoping this or that team will lose, evening the playing field. A team goes undefeated in the BCS, and they’re golden, except when they’re overmatched and out of their league in the championship, right Notre Dame?

Other sports aren’t as do-or-die.

Take the No. 16-ranked Illinois volleyball team, for example. When the last AVCA coaches rankings were last released, Illinois was sitting at 4-4 and is now 4-6 after dropping consecutive matches to North Carolina and Duke this past weekend.

It’s likely they’ll remain a fixture of the top 25. Is this a case where rankings really do reflect things more nuanced than merely the number of wins and losses?

Maybe the coaches who participate in this poll realize that of Illinois’ 10 opponents so far, seven are also members of the AVCA top 25. That’s a majority. That’s money.

Volleyball rankings seem more comprehensive, more willing to include important aspects of teams that lay just under the surface.

It’s like evaluating a team’s RPI in men’s basketball. The Rating Percentage Index is designed to measure strength of schedule and is leaned upon heavily when selecting the field of 68 teams for the NCAA tournament in March.

Who a team plays is important. Obviously being competitive with top programs is better than skating through the season by demolishing conference bottom-feeders.

But the only other team with a similar record to the Illini in the AVCA rankings is Iowa State, which is 6-4 after a win this weekend. Illinois beat the Cyclones handily earlier in the season.

How long can Illinois last in the top 25 by continuing to lose to good teams? When is being competitive no longer enough?

There’s an important distinction to make. At what point does a team that constantly plays top programs lose that respect? Maybe the schedule is strong, but does that matter if you’re losing three sets to zero, like Illinois did to No. 15 North Carolina? There is a difference between competitive and just plain bad.

The Illini don’t seem to be suffering. They may be sitting under .500 right now, but it’s still early in the season, and they obviously have the respect of other programs and the coaches who make up the AVCA poll. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to maintain their top-25 status.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.