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October 26, 2012
Save Room for Tennessee
Correcting the AP Poll

by John Gasaway

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I love preseason polls. They're the purest expression of how programs, coaches, returning players, and incoming talent are regarded in the abstract. From this point on, the polls will to some degree be simply a measurement of the longest active win streaks, but in the preseason it's all about how good the voters think a team should be.

So when the AP preseason poll came out, I dropped everything to gulp it down. For the most part the voters and I are in agreement. We both think Indiana and Kentucky should be really good, and we both think Cincinnati and Texas should be borderline top-25 teams. Still, there will always be a few instances where I think the voters are out to lunch. (They on the other hand never think that about me. Or shouldn't.)

Mind you, what we're discussing about these teams is merely what we should think about them now. Once the games start, surprises that no one could have seen coming will occur, and we'll all adjust accordingly. But based on the information we have in October, here are six AP rankings that I can envision turning out to be misplaced:

No. 8 Duke: Underrated
Well isn't this just too ironic? The Blue Devils spent the entirety of 2011-12 being overrated, and by that I mean they were very nearly given a No. 1 seed. All season long I was selflessly running around, waving my arms, and telling anyone who'd listen that Mike Krzyzewski's team was clearly going to lose to a No. 15 seed by the score of 75-70 in the round of 64. Fine, I made that last part up, but I really was calling out the Devils as overrated. This season Duke is apparently suffering the opposite problem. There is simply no way Coach K is going to have another defense that's as bad (read: average) as the one we saw in Durham last season. His career tells us so. And I have very few worries about an offense populated by the highly efficient likes of Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. This will be a really good team.

No. 6 North Carolina State: Overrated
Mark Gottfried's team is benefiting from the goodwill we all feel (me too!) when a long-suffering program finally breaks through and achieves success. And, to be sure, the Wolfpack played their way into the Sweet 16, and indeed came within one possession of reaching the Elite Eight. That's a data point, and an important one, but it's not the only one I use. Over the course of 1,080 ACC possessions last season, this was a very good but by no means awe-inspiring team. Clemson, for example, performed at more or less the same level. NC State played acceptable offense and average (I mean the exact statistical ACC average) defense, and on the eve of the ACC tournament the conventional wisdom said Gottfried's team had "work to do" to get an at-large bid. Naturally I expect them to improve on that performance in 2012-13, but the leap from near-bubble team to No. 6 is, well, a leap.

Unranked Tennessee: Underrated
It was easy to lose sight of 11 SEC teams not named "Kentucky" last season. No, make that: It was impossible not to lose sight of 11 SEC teams not named "Kentucky." But it turns out one of those teams was making a convincing case that they'll be tough in 2012-13. Tennessee's defense was very nearly as effective in SEC play as what the Wildcats were doing. And in Trae Golden, Jarnell Stokes, and Jeronne Maymon (assuming he's healthy), Cuonzo Martin has a nucleus that can both score and defend. The Vols' stay outside the top 25 will be a brief one.

No. 5 Michigan: Overrated
I do think the Wolverines are being overrated slightly, but this is actually a trickier case than your run-of-the-mill overrated team. Basically I, like just about everyone else, expect John Beilein's group will be in the mix near the top of a Big Ten that will have some of the best teams in the country. Michigan will win most of their home games against such teams, and lose most of their road games. But I guess what I'm having trouble getting past is my own uncertainty regarding exactly how the Wolverines will excel. I'm second to none in my fandom of Trey Burke, and Beilein sure needed him last season because even with the freshman exploding this was still merely the Big Ten's No. 6 offense. I'm open to persuasion, but for now I'm sliding not only Indiana but also Ohio State and Michigan State above the Wolverines, and putting Wisconsin right alongside them.

No. 22 Notre Dame: Underrated
Here's what I say about the Fighting Irish in the soon to be published College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13: "Think of Notre Dame this way. Their per-possession performance in conference play was better than Louisville's, they lost less from last year's team, and they have an equally good recruiting class coming in. If Jerian Grant had refrained from committing that lane violation with 2.8 seconds left against Xavier in the round of 64, who knows what kind of expectations we'd be seeing placed on this team right now."

No. 20 San Diego State: Overrated
The Aztecs were way better than anyone expected last season after they'd lost four starters (including first-round pick Kawhi Leonard) from the team that made the 2011 Sweet 16. But are people reading a little too much into that surprise? I have to think so. Steve Fisher did a masterful job with what he had, and we should pay him the compliment of specificity. "Masterful" in this case meant somehow coaxing his inexperienced players into functioning as the Mountain West's fifth-best offense and that league's second-best defense. To me, that's the fingerprint of a team that will be good this season, but not top-20 good.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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