Last year at this time, both Oklahoma State and Wichita State were unbeaten and getting consideration from respected analysts as potential Final Four teams. As it turned out, neither team made the NCAA Tournament. Neither was even under consideration when Selection Sunday rolled around. Was it a crazy fluke?
Actually, stories like these unfold fairly regularly in this game. Teams with nice records and a well-timed close win or two over overrated teams become highly overrated themselves. College hoops, more than any other popular sport than I can think of, can feature a huge disparity in schedule strength among teams vying for postseason berths. Only a month into the season, we don't really have a grasp on how big that disparity is for some teams. Right now, a team's record is often as much about whom they've played than how they've played.
Therefore, considering a team's record too heavily can lead one down the wrong road. However, it never fails; this time of year, there are always a couple of teams that become perceived powers for doing nothing more than beating up (or in some cases barely beating up) on a weak schedule while winning a couple of close games against teams that were expected to be good.
In addition, the way in which close games can hinge on so many factors that a team has little control of also plays into a team's record. At this early stage, when teams are playing widely varying degrees of schedule strength, repeated close wins against lesser competition mean that a team's future is likely not as bright as their record indicates.
Miami FL: The Hurricanes were picked to finish last in the ACC in the preseason media poll. However, Miami now finds itself in the latest AP top 25 at #22. Their record is a shiny 10-0, sure to impress any voter when you reside in the ACC. The 'Canes will likely be 14-0 heading into the second weekend of January, and despite that fact they won't be adding to their portfolio of quality wins between now and then, they'll find themselves rising in the polls. Among their nine victories so far, the Hurricanes have had single-digit wins over Mississippi State, Providence, VCU, Morgan State and Alabama State. Close wins over the first three are nothing to be ashamed of, though none of them provide the kind of evidence you look for in identifying an elite team. Struggling to put away both a MEAC and SWAC team does not bode well for Miami truly being one of the 25 best teams in the land. The Hurricanes are a pleasant surprise and should compete for an at-large bid, but they don't have any victories that jump out as quality thus far, and they may not have the firepower to get them in conference play either. Compare the Hurricanes to Florida State, which lost at Butler (no shame in that) and lost a couple other games on the final possessions, to go with a double-digit win at (admittedly struggling) Florida. There really isn't much difference to how the 'Canes and 'Noles have performed on the floor so far this season. In a couple months, they may both be competing for the same at-large bid.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores have already survived close calls against South Alabama (double overtime), DePaul (overtime) and Wake Forest (three-point win). None of these may end up being quality wins when we look back in March, but nonetheless Vanderbilt is ranked 17th in the latest AP poll. With five home games coming up, and only one of them a potential loss (UMass), Vandy should be 15-0 and on the doorstep of the top 10 heading into SEC play. This is another team where perception will far outweigh performance. Consider that if they had lost two of those three close calls, Vandy wouldn't be much different as a team...and they also wouldn't be ranked. The point here is that the Commodores schedule has been incredibly weak. There are quite a few other teams with blemishes on their record that could have rolled through Vandy's slate given the same amount of late-game fortune. On the bright side, no team from the SEC is stepping forward to dominate the league. Don't be fooled by the record to this point--neither is Vanderbilt.
Oregon: The Ducks suffered a loss to Nebraska on Saturday that was widely viewed as some sort of shocker. Should we have really been surprised, especially considering it was effectively a home game for the Huskers? The best team Oregon faced thus far was Saint Mary's, who posted a 12-point win in Moraga. Elsewhere, the Ducks needed overtime to win at Kansas State. Oregon will almost surely win its next two games against Oakland and Mount Saint Mary's and go to 11-2, still nationally ranked, beginning Pac-10 play. Based on the data points we have so far, they are basically equal to a mid-level Big 12 team. With teams in Pac-10 like Arizona State and Cal appearing willing to move towards the top half of the conference, Oregon will have to play much better in calendar year 2008 to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the bleak picture I'm painting, this doesn't mean that Miami, Oregon and Vanderbilt are doomed to finishing in the middle of the pack (or worse) in their respective conferences. They could improve their play during the conference season. After all, that's what this time of year is for and that's partially why there is so much disparity in schedule strength among major conference teams. Some coaches schedule easy, allowing them to experiment with lineups and build their team's confidence with a bunch of easy wins. Others prefer to test their team early so that they are prepared for the kind of competition their team will face in conference play.
However, it's also possible the teams mentioned could play worse during conference play. This was the fate that befell Oklahoma State last season after they lost freshman Obi Muonelo to a season-ending injury at this time in '06. I'm not predicting a collapse for these three teams the likes of what Oklahoma State experienced last season. However, a drop to the bottom half of their leagues is about as likely as each team maintaining its current reputation heading into March.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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