My ESPN RISE Interview on high school team rankings

Last week I had the chance to ask Mark Tennis of ESPN RISE some questions about their process and logic behind doing high school team rankings during the season.  I also had a chance to ask about Johnson (#33) and Hopkins (#36) and how they achieved their rankings nationally and compared to each other.   After the interview questions, I'll have some commentary on the answers and process.

Twin Cities Hoops Czar: Describe the process of putting together the rankings.  How long does it take, who gets contacted to provide input, what kind of background do those people have, do you do region rankings and then national?  What factors such as program tradition, number of likely division I players, strength of schedule, etc. go into the rankings and what weight do they have in ranking the teams?

Mark Tennis: All of those factors are considered in our system.  Once the season starts and teams win or lose, head-to-head results and common opponents become even more important.

Czar: What do you feel is the most common misperception about the rankings?

Mark Tennis: That rankings are a prediction of what is going to happen when two teams play.  They are more an evaluation of where teams stand during various points of the season.

Czar: What's the best feedback you've received to help you improve the rankings?

Mark Tennis: Talking to the kids themselves can be revealing.  We attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of the kids in some cases and respond accordingly.  You don't want kids to be celebrating at the end of a season thinking they are going to be No. 1 or top five and then drop them afterward.

Czar: If you have a team much higher or lower than other competing rankings, how much does that make you reconsider your own ranking and potentially move it?

Mark Tennis: This depends on the state and region.  With ESPN Rise, we have a lot more people seeing games in California, for example, than any of our competitors.  We also have more history in covering games in California than anyone so if a competing ranking has the California teams in a much different order we could care less if it's from other parts of the country, like if Rivals (based in Tennessee) had a team in Tennessee ranked much higher than we did, then we would pay attention and consider switching.  We wouldn't switch, though, just to match.  If one team is winning, it doesn't make sense to drop them until they do.

Czar: Is there any scenario that you could envision where a team loses a game, but doesn't move down in the rankings?

Mark Tennis:  This happens a lot.  We have often moved up teams for playing the very top teams in the rankings right down to the wire.

Czar: The ESPN RISE ranking has St. Paul Johnson ahead of Hopkins.  That's the only national or regional ranking that I've seen with that choice.  What specifically brought you to that decision?

Mark Tennis:  Johnson simply beat Hopkins head-to-head last season.  We know that Hopkins has the state's highest regarded player.

Czar: What is it about Johnson and Hopkins that put them behind the 30+ teams in front of them in the national ranking and in front of everybody else?

Mark Tennis: Hopkins has one of the best programs in all of the midwest and has been ranked many times in recent years.  Johnson happened to beat them last season and go undefeated.  Both teams could be higher if they played in more high profile national events.

Czar: Are there any other teams in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa or the Dakotas that you're keeping an eye on for the Midwest region rankings?

Mark Tennis: Personally I am not.  But Doug Huff primarily covers the midwest states for the Fab 50.  He's been doing this for 35 years and we depend on him to make sure the pecking orders in the various states and metro areas are considered.  Please note that when we do preseason rankings we have early deadlines and don't know what many of the local rankings will be.  When we start doing the regular season rankings, we sometimes change to reflect the local consensus.

Czar's Commentary
Some interesting answers from Mark. I particularly liked the responses about misperception of the rankings (Team A would beat Team B) and the talking to the kids and making sure you have them in proper position at the end of their season.

As to the response about moving a team up with a quality loss, I don't have the data to call shenanigans on that, but I'm still skeptical based on my experience following polls.

On the answer for Johnson ahead of Hopkins, basing it simply on Johnson winning last season is pretty disappointing. Last year was last year. The teams are different now so evaluate them on their current merits. If it were a end of season ranking then it would make perfect sense.

As to using the local "consensus" polls, that's disappointing too. The "official" polls are often regarded as very wrong because they're often done by media types who don't get out of their area and are writers, not basketball people. Most of them have some bias (e.g Wisconsin's poll is very tilted to Milwaukee, La Crosse schools get shafted). Locally, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press metro top 10s are clearly biased to the Minneapolis and St. Paul sides of the metro that those papers cover and they have very limited viewing of the teams they rank. QED, a national poll based on flawed local polls is flawed.

That said, at such a regional level, its not possible to see the necessary teams enough to rank them properly. So you have to go on something but I would like to see more true basketball folks like a Ryan James or Chris Monter who truly follow this involved in the process.

Finally, its needs to be mentioned that Mark just had an interview along similar lines posted in Chicago regarding the Chicago teams and a public relations group contacted me to do this interview so there's certainly a significant ESPN RISE PR element to this as well. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it does give a different spin to the answers and therefore I feel obligated to mention it.

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