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February 4, 2008
The List
Week of February 4, 2008

by Joe Sheehan

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When I sat down to pick the teams for the Top 25 last week, I created a spreadsheet that averaged a team’s rating in the RPI and the Pomeroy Ratings. This score was created merely to make sure I didn’t miss any obvious candidates, and as a sanity check for me. Whereas Jay Jaffe uses his Hit List Factor to rank teams on the baseball side with no adjustments, I made a number of subjective determinations along the way in coming up with The List.

The most notable differences between using straight average are some middling major-conference teams with very low RPIs at one end (Illinois, Missouri, California and West Virginia), and the Atlantic 10 (Dayton, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) plus Vanderbilt at the other. I don’t think it makes a massive difference, and I don’t use this figure as a dictate anyway, but I think integrating Sagarin and lowering the input of the RPI will make for a better tool. It’s also something you can do yourself, if you want to see where the numbers and my own rankings differ.

Hey, a nod to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who had the three of us down for the game Saturday afternoon, and to Joe Tierney, who served as tour guide of St. Joe’s campus before the game and great company during in what is a terrific atmosphere for college basketball. Too bad we beat him to Larry’s Steaks.

Here are this week’s rankings, covering games through February 3. All records are Division I games only, and all rankings are mine, not any kind of official Basketball Prospectus opinion. Figure in parentheses is last week’s rank.

  1. Memphis (21-0) (2). In about 17 conferences, a game like Memphis had on Saturday would have ended their winning streak. They shot 1-for-17 from three and 21-for-41 from the line, and led by just one, playing defense, with a minute to go. UTEP missed nine foul shots themselves, contributing to a 70-64 loss. The Tigers survived, and they move to the #1 slot because of the “-0.” However, this isn’t a championship team, not making 52% from the line.
  2. Kansas (20-1) (1). It was an upset, which isn’t always the case when the higher-ranked team loses, and certainly not when it loses on the road to a conference opponent. With that said, even the loss doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not better than Memphis—they’re #1 in the Pomeroy Rankings—or that the next teams are close to them. Two tuneups this week set up a big game with Texas next Monday.
  3. North Carolina (21-1) (3). That’s two overtime wins and a one-point regulation escape in four road conference games, making their position here a day-to-day proposition. Not having Ty Lawson for Wednesday’s game against Duke would probably seal things, as it’s not likely that Quentin Thomas can handle Duke’s backcourt on either end of the floor. Their frontcourt edge over Duke is huge, so if Lawson can even play 20 minutes, they’ll win.
  4. UCLA (19-2) (4). Two complete obliterations of the Arizona schools make it clear that UCLA is the favorite for the fourth #1 seed, ahead of the SEC and Big East champions. They’re finally healthy, they play incredible defense and no one can stop Big Love. It’s possible that they won’t lose, or even be threatened, until their Elite Eight matchup, and I write that as somoene who remains a big fan of Washington State.
  5. Duke (19-1) (5). Duke hasn’t put together two good halves since January 13 against the Cavaliers. That they haven’t lost a conference game yet says more about the baby-soft middle of the ACC than it does about the Blue Devils. They get a real test Wednesday night in Chapel Hill against a big, physical front line. Win then, and it’s hard to find the next loss on the schedule.
  6. Georgetown (18-2) (6). Their season begins Saturday, as a trip to Freedom Hall kicks off three road games in 10 days, a stretch that could determine their chance at a #1 seed. The schedule is very kind to them this year: their three repeat games are Louisville, Syracuse and St. John’s, with three games total against Connecticut, Marquette and Notre Dame. In-conference RPI matters.
  7. Tennessee (18-2) (8). Usually, two road wins in conference get you more bounce than this. There’s nowhere for the Volunteers to go, however, and in fairness, despite their #1 ranking in the RPI, this seems like the right spot for them. They don’t play great half-court defense or shoot foul shots, and they’d be a neutral-court underdog to any of the six teams ahead of them.
  8. Wisconsin (18-3) (10). In terms of evaluation, the road destruction of the Gophers Sunday may have meant more than the home win over the Hoosiers Thursday night. In any case, I may still have them underrated: Pomeroy has them #5 and Sagarin right here. They can look lost on offense at times. The other problem is that they have one good road win—on a last-second shot—and just four top-100 RPI wins in total. The Big 11 has become a pretty lousy hoops conference.
  9. Xavier (18-4) (11). The win over Massachusetts kept them atop a conference that is gaining separation and losing NCAA contenders. The next two weeks will be stiffer tests than many realize, because while the records aren’t great, road trips to St. Louis, Charlotte and Rhode Island are tough ones. Throw in a home game against surging St. Joseph’s, and the Musketeers next two weeks will determine whether they run away with the A-10—and a possible protected seed—or just make the tournament.
  10. Drake (18-1) (14). The Bulldogs’ resume gets a little bit better every week. This time, it was a home win over a Creighton team that is probably second-best in the Valley, followed by a road win over Indiana State in a conference where all road games are tough. Speaking of which…three of their next four will be away from home, including Illinois State Tuesday and a death march to Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa next week. With no nonconference pop, they have to keep grinding out wins.
  11. Washington State (17-4) (7). This is a generous spot, defensible based on the Pomeroy and Sagarin numbers (#11 in both) and the fact that most teams in this part of the list lost last week, some brutally. Getting swept at home in the Pac-10 is a no-no, especially when one of the teams is coming off of three straight home losses and not going to the Dance. Cal beat them with nine threes, while Stanford picked up 16 offensive boards, so it wasn’t any one thing, save perhaps mediocre shooting, that did them in. This is a bad time to see UCLA on the dance card; Wazzu desperately needs a split this weekend with the L.A. schools at home.
  12. Michigan State (19-3) (9). You can’t spin a loss to Penn State, no matter where the game is played. Teams that turn the ball over more than they force turnovers fight an uphill battle, and that’s the 2008 Spartans. They scrimmage against a I-AA team this Saturday before a road trip to Purdue—which smells an NCAA berth and picked off Wisconsin at home—and Indiana. They could be unranked by Presidents’ Day.
  13. Stanford (18-3) (25). You will almost never see a leap like this in my rankings. This one is a combination of three things: the Cardinal’s road sweep of the Washington schools, the integration of Sagarin into my system (they’re #9), and their being underranked last week. The Cardinal is 10-2 with Brook Lopez, 5-1 on the road.
  14. Connecticut (17-5) (17). A number of people thought I had them too high last week, which made their 2-0 against Louisville and Pittsburgh fortuitous. The things they can do on the defensive end make up for some struggles shooting the ball and the occasional bad decisions that come when you have such a young team. Tuesday night’s game with Syracuse will be one of the most entertaining matchups in the Big East this year.
  15. Butler (19-2) (15). They didn’t play at all last week in advance of a three-games-in-seven-days road swing that starts tomorrow night in Valparaiso and continues through Wisconsin. By the end of it, they’ll know their Bracket Buster opponent—almost certainly Drake—and whether they still have a chance at a top-four seed in the NCAAs. They could use a good RPI win; despite an attempt to schedule well, their wins aside from Ohio State (Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, @ Southern Illnois, Florida State) just don’t look very impressive
  16. Texas (16-4) (12). The drop is more than they deserve after a road loss to Texas A&M, although it is fair to say that Texas hasn’t looked impressive since they beat St. Mary’s a month ago. The schedule gets ugly now: three road games in their next four, with the home game Kansas, then two more home games against A&M and Oklahoma. That’s a brutal couple of weeks…and also a lot of opportunity.
  17. Marquette (15-4) (22). I wanted to see a road win, and the Golden Eagles provided one, owning the second half against Cincinnati. Pomeroy and Sagarin both consider them a top-ten team; Marquette can back that evaluation this week by beating Louisville at home and PittNotre Dame on the road. Getting David Cubillan more touches would help the offense, which stalls at times.
  18. Arizona (14-7) (16). The win over USC was a terrific one, the kind that goes to the top of a team’s NCAA resume. Whether they let down on the heels of a four-game winning streak or just got beaten by a great team, though, the 82-60 loss to UCLA—it wasn’t that close—kills the weekend. With three straight at McKale coming up, they can get healthy again in a hurry.
  19. Kansas State (14-5) (19). It’s the same thing: one great win, one terrible loss. To lose a conference road game is normally not that bad a loss, but K-State lost to a Missouri squad still missing a number of rotation guys. They had a 10-point lead deep into the second half. You can’t lose a game like that. You can’t shoot 10-for-20 from the foul line and win on the road, either.
  20. Indiana (18-3) (13). It’s one thing to lose at Wisconsin, another to get blown out. While they fought back on the scoreboard, the Hoosiers were never really in that game. Throw in a mediocre effort at home against the worst team in the top 10 conferences, and you start to wonder what all the fuss was about. It is possible, if not probable, for Indiana to lose its next four games (at Illinois, at Ohio State, home against Wisconsin and Michigan State). Put it this way: Thursday’s tilt against the Illini is bigger than it looks.
  21. Texas A&M (17-4) (NR). Just like that, the Aggies are back, putting together three good wins after a three-game losing streak capped by the five-OT game against Baylor. They’ve allowed 40% shooting on twos (36-91) during the run. Just 1-3 on the road, they need a sweep of Iowa State and Missouri this week away from College Station to gain credibility.
  22. Oklahoma (15-6) (20). The Sooners’ inability to put away an unimpressive Oklahoma State team last Monday is a concern. Poor free-throw shooting allowed the Cowboys to stay in a game that should have been iced with five minutes to go. That win, rather than the A&M loss, is what drops them in the rankings. Picking up a quality win against Texas Wednesday would give them some breathing room; the difference between 8-8 and 9-7 in this conference could matter a lot.
  23. Gonzaga (17-5) (NR). For this week, at least, the West Coast Conference spot at #23 is held by the Zags, who survived double-OT at Santa Clara Saturday night. Tonight’s matchup with St. Mary’s—which lost at San Diego last Monday—will determine who holds the spot next week. The Bulldogs are 8-3 with Josh Heytvelt, and may yet make this conference a two-bid league. Someone has to use the spots the Big 11 doesn’t deserve.
  24. Arkansas (16-5) (NR). It’s a bit of a mess down here, hard to find teams that didn’t lose bad games or get hammered by 25 points last week. The Razorbacks leveled two marginal teams in Mississippi State and Florida, and move into the rankings despite a 2-2 road record and a couple of bad losses. John Pelphrey definitely has something here. They’ll be ranked next week, too, as all they have this week is a home game against Ole Miss.
  25. Notre Dame (16-4) (NR). See above. Notre Dame squeezed out two wins this week on the heels of the road win at Villanova. They have a very good offense that’s a bit more balanced in terms of inside and outside play than they have in past seasons. Luke Harangody is a beast, if an occasionally awkward one. They’re passive defensively and will struggle against athletic teams. On cue, they have Marquette and UConn coming up over the next 10 days.

Writing Nasty Letters: Rhode Island, Pittsburgh, Clemson, UNLV, Syracuse

Leaving: Florida (18), West Virginia (21), St. Mary’s (23), Vanderbilt (24)

In Conclusion…

From Kurt W., sent last Monday:

Not ranking Mississippi State—who has one of the best defenses in the nation and had a predicted record (per the Pomeroy Ratings) of 13-3 in the conference—is ludicrous after they destroyed Ole Miss by 20. You're just as bad as the media. Wait, at least they ranked us 26th. Nice try, come again.

Two losses last week—one by 20 on the road, one by five at home—confirmed my conclusion that Mississippi State’s standing in the SEC was built on a soft early schedule. For all the early-season talk about the balance returning to the conference, I still see the top two teams, four of the top five in the East, with three of the bottom four in the West. I don’t think either Mississippi school is NCAA-worthy, although the bottom of the conference is coughing up enough wins to put one of them in.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Joe by clicking here or click here to see Joe's other articles.

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