John Feinstein is an excellent writer. He lifted the veil with Season on the Brink, a book I read at the start of every basketball season. His idea to follow the Indiana basketball team for an entire season changed the course of long-form sports journalism. Feinstein has also written numerous books about golf, the Final Four, the Army/Navy game, and the Patriot League.
I have always liked John Feinstein the writer and have 12 of his books on my shelves. I followed his work in Golf Digest, the Washington Post, and back on Sunday morning’s Sports Reporters on ESPN.
But that’s not the John Feinstein that Cougar fans discovered this week. They found a thin-skinned pollster that does not like to be questioned. It all started Monday after the AP released their preseason poll. I went looking for where individual voters placed the Coogs, as I do every week during the season, only to find a writer that I like hadn’t ranked Houston.
Noted basketball 'expert' John Feinstein had back-to-back AAC champions Houston unranked and Texas (9-9 in Big 12) ranked 13th.
— GoCoogs.com (@gocoogs1) November 9, 2020
The point I was trying to make was about ranking Texas so high, which many media members do, and not ranking a deserving program like Houston. I emphasized ‘expert’ because I have noticed something about Feinstein the pollster going back a couple of years: it doesn’t seem like he actually pays attention to the college basketball landscape anymore.
The problem with reaching a certain level is that fame can reveal that person’s worst instincts. Feinstein is known for doing copious amounts of research and for going in-depth on the people he writes about. But now approaching 65, John is starting to mail it in.
Feinstein loves big brands and his buddies
The Coogs and the Horns weren’t his only issue in this poll. Feinstein was the only pollster to rank Auburn. And he didn’t have the Tigers 24 or 25 but at 18th (KenPom has Auburn at 66 in his preseason ratings).
In the first in-season poll last year, Feinstein ranked Texas 15th while 36 other voters didn’t list them at all. And he had Auburn 13th despite their actual ranking of 22; no one rated the War Eagles higher than Feinstein. By not paying attention to the game outside of his own bubble, John Feinstein has to default to certain brands.
John has a soft spot for Virginia, often voting the Hoos well ahead of other pollsters. Most weeks last year, he was UVA’s “highest voter” – boosting the Cavs and his friend Tony Bennett (“Bennett’s a GREAT coach–better person,” Feinstein wrote on Twitter in 2018).
In the last five polls of 2019-20, Feinstein had Virginia, on average, 12 spots higher than where they appeared in the AP Poll. In the final two polls, he ranked Virginia 6th when the AP had them 17th and 16th, respectively and he was UVA’s highest vote in four of the final five polls last season. Despite all the advantages of being in the ACC, Virginia was 44th in the NCAA NET when John last ranked them 6th in the country.
In this year’s preseason poll, he was again UVA’s highest vote, voting the Cavaliers #1 in the country. No one else thought to rank Virginia first or second.
About the Houston Cougars
But none of that accounts for Houston. It’s true that Feinstein did not rank the Cougars in the last five polls of the 19-20 season, two of which were voted on after UH won the regular-season AAC title. But the evidence points to a guy being reactionary to a single game because he was not really paying attention to the big picture. On January 20th of this year, he moved the Cougars from unranked to 18th following the win at Wichita State. Two weeks later, he completely dropped the Cougars after the two-point loss to Cincinnati. UH never snuck back on his ballot, even after a 33-point win over the same Shocker program that got him to rank the Cougars in the first place.
But Feinstein ranked UH 10th in his final 2018-2019 poll while the majority of voters had the Coogs at 11 or 12. And at the end of the 2017 season, he had UH 16th when they finished 21st. For me, those two final votes carry more weight than the 20-21 preseason vote. Given that, I don’t think there is animosity directed at the Cougars in his preseason ballot. Leaving out the Cougars seems to be the mistake of a voter that doesn’t pay particular attention to the sport he covers.
Feinstein now suggests many UH fans called him names after his ballot was brought to light. That’s unfortunate, if true, but it doesn’t seem like he is blameless, either.