I had thought with all of the turmoil at the top of the rankings over the past couple of weeks, there would be a change in the top seven teams for the first time. Since starting the list, Memphis, Kansas, Duke, UCLA, North Carolina, Georgetown and Tennessee have been the only teams in that group.
Even after losses by six of those seven over the past two weeks, though, they remain the top seven teams in the nation by my accounting. It’s not entirely fair to Xavier, winners of 10 straight, including road victories at Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Dayton, but there’s no argument for pushing them up ahead of Georgetown or Duke at the moment. Texas, with four straight wins over RPI top 50 teams, has moved up to #9 but may go no further, although their #7 rank in the Weighted Average (20% RPI, 40% Pomeroy, 40% Sagarin) bodes well.
Memphis remains #1 in the List this week, even after their loss to Tennessee. They remain the only one-loss team in the country, for one, and I’m not married to the idea that a team has to be demoted if they lose a game. They didn’t play well, to be sure, and you could argue that Tennessee should be ranked ahead of them because they won on Memphis’ home floor. On the other hand, the ballyhooed “one versus two” element of this matchup was overstated; that Tennessee was second in the polls was an accident of timing; they’re not the #2 team in the country, and despite where I have them this week, they may not be in the top four. Would you take them over UCLA, Duke, Kansas or a healthy Carolina on a neutral floor?
All records are Division I games only, through Sunday, and the second number in parens is a team’s rank in last week’s poll. The List will probably continue to run on Tuesdays for the rest of the season.
- Memphis (26-1) (1). That was a strange game, with the two teams getting off to 5-for-5 from the three-point line in the first two minutes, scoring 40 points in the first eight minutes, then settling into a defensive struggle thereafter. Obviously, Memphis hadn’t played a team with Tennessee’s athleticism in a very long time, and it showed on the boards: the Vols outrebounded the Tigers on both ends of the floor. Note: Memphis missed nine foul shots and lost by four points. That remains the biggest reason to think they won’t make San Antonio.
- UCLA (23-3) (3). They’ve turned up the defense since the ill-fated trip to Seattle, and only Kansas has a better Efficiency Margin in conference games. This weekend’s trip to the Arizona schools is huge for their shot at a #1 seed, as winning the Pac-10 outright will be a big marker in their favor. They beat the two schools by 55 points combined at Pauley four weeks ago, and they’re healthier now.
- Tennessee (24-2) (5). Squawk all you want, but they were overranked in the polls last week, and they’re overranked in the polls now. Hell, they’re overranked in The List, but there’s no real way around that at the moment. Their offense kept them in the game in the first eight minutes Saturday night, and their defense clamped down over the last 32, allowing just 39 points. If they can continue playing that kind of D, this slot will be warranted. Vanderbilt provides an excellent test tonight.
- Kansas (23-3) (2). It’s one thing to lose at Texas and Kansas State, another to be held to 60 points in Stillwater. Conceding that it was an ugly, ugly game marred by a whistle every six seconds, with just 86 field-goal attempts in toto, the cumulative effect of three losses in seven games knocks the Jayhawks down the list a bit. They remain in the top four in the Weighted Average, and they lead the world in Efficiency Margin in conference games. A soft schedule coming home sets them up for a #1 seed.
- North Carolina (26-2) (6). The Tar Heels have won five straight since the Duke loss, all without Ty Lawson, the last three with ease. Marcus Ginyard and Quentin Thomas are playing a bit better, but it’s as much learning how to play without Lawson as playing with those guys. The soft middle of the ACC—Carolina hasn’t played a tournament team since February 10—has helped. Lawson’s return is imminent, and sets up a battle for the regular-season ACC title March 8 at Cameron; winner probably gets to stay home for the NCAAs.
- Duke (23-3) (4). Their defense has taken a beating lately, as both Wake and Miami torched them in road losses. Throw out the St. John’s game, which was like inviting North Carolina Central in for a scrimmage, and you have a team that continues to play half a game each night out. The closing stretch—at North Carolina State and Virginia before the showdown against UNC—is not a cakewalk, and unless Duke finds a way to defend speedy backcourts, could see them with as many as five losses going into the ACC tournament.
- Georgetown (22-4) (7). Taking advantage of a lull in the schedule, the Hoyas get one more gimme before closing at Marquette and then a week off before Louisville comes to visit. They remain the second-best team in what is looking more and more like the best conference in America this year, with a suffocating defense. Shooting lapses have hurt them, and make them unpredictable enough that it’s hard to say how they’ll do against the Eagles and Cardinals.
- Xavier (24-4) (8). They’ve dominated a conference that doesn’t look nearly as good as it did six weeks ago, as the middle tier of teams eats itself alive. Xavier has a critical skill for a tournament team: they can win at a variety of paces. Any team that wins at Rhode Island and at Dayton in the same week is a serious threat to play into April, not because those teams are so great, but because doing so shows flexibility. They also hit their free throws, so they don’t blow late leads.
- Texas (22-4) (13). Allowing 95 points over consecutive games to decent teams in A&M and Oklahoma signaled that this is one of the best defensive teams in the country. Tacking on a shutdown of Bill Walker Monday night didn’t hurt, either. Texas was an offensive juggernaut in the non-conference schedule, but have become more a shutdown team in Big 12 play, just in time for D.J. Augustin to stop making everything. They should run the table into the Big 12 final, as they won’t play a team better than Baylor until then.
- Stanford (22-4) (11). Their size inside is triggering a defense that’s among the best in the nation, and it’s getting better over time. They run an efficient, patient offense that leverages that size to get very good looks, which makes up for a backcourt that isn’t anything special. They’re kind of the opposite of Tennessee, in that the style they play isn’t entertaining, but the results are actually even more impressive. UT is +.15 per possession in the SEC; Stanford is +.12 in the Pac-10. I know which one I consider better.
- Connecticut (21-6) (9). The two-point loss to Villanova could have been avoided with some better decisionmaking down the stretch. It was the first time in a while that UConn’s youth had bitten them. When I see games like this, I always picture the conference bigwigs cheering their heads up; it’s hard to not see UConn lose to Villanova, Duke lose to Miami, Washington State lose to Arizona, Kansas State lose to Baylor and think how much more important those games are to the conference as a whole than the team losing the game.
- Wisconsin (23-4) (15). I got some good e-mail about Wisconsin last week, including one that made a very good point: why is Basketball Prospectus, and in effect, Joe Sheehan, allowing subjectivity into its rankings? Shouldn’t Prospectus be about the objective measurements?
It’s a fair point, because I’ll be the first to tell you that you cannot use just your eyes to evaluate a hundred basketball teams. However, a glance at the various metrics shows that you can’t use just the numbers in basketball, either. Take a peek at the Weighted Average rankings at the bottom of the page; perhaps Wisconsin isn’t the 12th-best team in the country, but can you possible argue that they’re the sixth-best? Marquette above Louisville? Kansas State at 21? No Butler or Purdue in the top 25? Looking at the individual elements doesn’t clear things up, either; I think the world of Ken Pomeroy, but Wisconsin at #5? Texas A&M at #20? Missouri at #33? Ken himself would never argue that a rating system should be the sole arbiter of quality, and I extend that idea into these rankings.
I sound more defensive than I mean to. I believe there’s room for subjectivity in these evaluations, and more to the point, room for disagreement when it comes to that subjectivity. I’ll take this methodology over the media and coaches’ polls any day, however.
- Louisville (22-6) (16). Two more good wins this week, and they could be higher—their conference stats are terrific—but for a logjam ahead of them. No one is looking at them for a #1 seed, but if they win at Georgetown on March 8 for the Big East title, how can they not be in the mix? If they ever start burying threes, look out.
- Drake (22-3) (10). The loss at home to Bradley is better than it looks—the Braves are playing very well—and the win at Hinkle is obviously quality. The drop here is more about better teams passing them than anything else. The Bulldogs control tempo and shoot well, two things you love to see from tournament teams. Speed is clearly a problem, and their long-term success will depend as much on matchups as anything else.
- Washington State (21-6) (12). Every time it looks like they’re back on track, they do something like lose to Arizona at home. The Cougars are, oddly, 4-4 at home in the Pac-10, 6-2 on the road. If they don’t beat Cal at Haas on Thursday, it might be time to get nervous, because a trip to Maples comes after that, opening the possibility that they’d be 9-8 going into the final game of the year against Washington. It doesn’t seem possible that Wazzu could miss the NCAAs, but do you want to need a rivalry game to get to 10-8 in conference?
- Butler (25-3) (14). Matt Howard is the difference between being a cute little mid-major with a chance to pull off some upsets, and being a legitimate Sweet Sixteen threat with George Mason upside. The guy is a beast, and he complements the great backcourt beautifully. Butler has just four games left before the NCAAs, due to the Horizon’s early tournament and a format that puts the Bulldogs in the semis. Does playing four games in 24 days hurt a team?
- Marquette (19-6) (22). The numbers say they go here or higher, so we’ll put them here. A soft schedule after the Notre Dame game was a boost, so the win over Villanova last night (not reflected here) was their first big test in a while. Their next comes Saturday, as they get Georgetown at home. I don’t see them having an answer for Roy Hibbert, and it seems to me that this game will illustrate the gap between the top two in the Big East and the pack as much as anything else.
- Indiana (23-4) (19). Two wins under trying circumstances deserve notice, even if their conference wins in a baby-soft Big 11, and included an embarrassing 82 points allowed to Northwestern, with the Wildcats having three possessions to tie or take the lead in the last minute. The talent on hand should be ranked higher than this, and the numbers dictate a slightly higher placement. I can’t separate them from a conference with so many bad teams.
- Purdue (21-6) (17). They can’t be slotted above Indiana after last Tuesday night. Increasingly, they look to me like a team that’s a good story right now, destined for a quick exit in March—quite possibly a double-quick exit in both tournaments—because of their youth. Next year, they’ll be a ridiculous force, and they might dominate the league for the next few. Matt Painter has hit the sweet spot: talented young players who aren’t necessarily high-value NBA guys.
- Notre Dame (21-5) (23). A friend of mine thinks they can make a run. They have a better shot than last year’s team because of the development of Luke Harangody, who’s about 85% of Tyler Hansbrough, and who balances their outside attack. Then again, they’re 2-4 when they don’t score 70, and they give up a ton of points because their guards can’t defend. Hey, Kyle McAlarney could go all Jeff Fryer for two weeks and carry them; if he has a 3-for-17 night, though…
- Vanderbilt (23-3) (24). RPI: 10; Pomeroy: 48; Sagarin: 31. You tell me what they are. We’ll know more eight days; they get a crack at Tennessee at home tonight, then go to Arkansas and come back home for Mississippi State. If they go 2-1, they’re way ahead of the game, but I don’t see it happening, not with that defense.
- St. Mary’s (22-4) (20). The loss to Kent State at home is a quality loss, and doesn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme. They need to beat Gonzaga on the road to make a difference in their seeding, and there’s very little they could do to miss the tournament. Problem: they’re not shooting well any longer, and Patrick Mills in particular is slipping, including a 1-for-3 in 31 minutes last night against San Diego.
- Gonzaga (21-6) (NR). Losing a second time to St. Mary’s—Saturday night is the rematch—would bring the possibility of missing the tournament into play. It’s hard to know if the Bulldogs have improved during the season, as they’ve integrated Josh Heytvelt and developed Austin Daye, or if it’s just that the West Coast Conference is terrible this year. Well, actually, we know the latter. We’ll have a handle on the former Saturday.
- Michigan State (22-5) (NR). Here because they have the numbers, and because almost everyone else in this range lost once or twice last week, some of them very bad losses. Like Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue, and unlike teams in the other BCS conferences, Michigan State is simply unthreatened in a large chunk of its games. The Big 11 is just that bad this year. If the bottom of the conference lifts Ohio State to a bid, the way it did Illinois last year, it’s an embarrassment. The Spartans, with a backloaded schedule and a lousy offense, could very well lose their last four.
- Southern California (17-9) (NR). See above about numbers and being the team that didn’t lose last week. USC’s chance at success in March depends on them getting a healthy Daniel Hackett on the floor. Already a thin team, without Hackett the Trojans have become a thin team with no point guard that doesn’t shoot foul shots well. The Trojans can’t afford to get swept in Arizona this weekend, and they’ll be playing teams in Arizona and Arizona State that cannot afford to take a home loss. The LA-versus-Arizona set shapes up as the highlight of the week.