The nice thing about having two major polls is that we can compare the thinking of college basketball writers (AP poll) to what Division I coaches (ESPN/USA Today) are seeing. So what do we find when we put these two preseason polls side by side?
We find that the two groups of observers have remarkably similar opinions when it comes to ranking the nation's top teams. Whether you're parked behind a laptop along press row or pacing the floor in the coach's box, you're very likely to think that Duke is the best team in the nation. In fact as we saw in last week's edition of "Poll Position," the writers and the coaches are in more or less complete agreement when it comes to identifying the top seven teams in the country.
And yet just outside that top seven there's a team that the coaches and the writers clearly can't agree on. That team is the Purdue Boilermakers, ranked a lofty No. 8 by the coaches but a much more down-to-earth No. 14 by the writers. No other team in either poll's top 25 is the source of so much disagreement in terms of ranking. Who's right?
Sorry, coaches, but I have to side with my fellow writers on this one.
The first thing to understand here is the source of the disagreement: Robbie Hummel. Before Hummel suffered a season-ending knee injury on October 16, Purdue was widely held to be one of the top five teams in the nation. It's safe to say the Boilermakers wouldn't be the cause of this kind of polling divergence if head coach Matt Painter had a healthy Hummel in uniform.
In other words the disagreement between the polls really comes down to a simple question: How important is Hummel to the Boilers? Unfortunately for Hummel and for fans of Purdue, we have some prior evidence close at hand for answering just this question. Last season Hummel tore the same ACL on February 24 and in effect the Boilermakers played their last four conference games without him. (He played 12 minutes in the Minnesota game before his injury occurred.) You may remember Purdue then went on to play one of the ugliest games in recent college basketball history, a 69-42 loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. In that game Painter's team scored just 11 points in the first half.
To their credit, the Boilers recovered from that loss, went on to make the Sweet 16, and even took eventual national champion Duke to the 30th minute of a closely played contest before losing by 13. So I'm going to do Purdue an analytic favor. I'm going to ignore that Big Ten tournament game, which fairly screams "outlier," and instead look at the 250 regular-season possessions they played without Hummel after he injured his knee.
There's something about Robbie (or was)
Purdue offense and defense, with and without Hummel
Points per possession and opponent PPP
Conference games only, 2010
With Hummel 1.08 0.97
Without Hummel 0.97 0.91
By the way this table comes to us courtesy of an excellent new book that I highly recommend, one that has this to say about these after-Hummel figures:
You could just as well conclude from these numbers that Hummel's the only thing standing between Purdue and true defensive greatness, but for better or worse that's not my read. As I said at the time, I think Painter responded to Hummel's injury last February by more or less declaring the coaching equivalent of martial law. Offensive rebounds, to pick one example, were clearly banned outright by Painter post-Hummel. In effect Purdue curled up into a tight defensive ball and did their level best to bleach offense out of each succeeding contest entirely.
In terms of our present question--who's right, the coaches or the writers?--the conclusion I draw is that Painter, even though he's a coach, actually agrees with us writers. He thinks Hummel is really important, so much so that when Hummel's not there Painter changes his team's whole approach. Who knows, maybe if JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore went down with an injury Painter would react the same way. But what we do know is that in the past Hummel's absence has had a specific and measurable impact.
Besides, any discussion of how important a player is to his team is incomplete without asking the obvious question: Well, who's going to be getting those minutes instead? In the case of Purdue, the names that Painter brings up as candidates to inherit Hummel's possessions don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. Now, maybe that will change. Maybe one of the young Boilers will seize the moment and become a third scoring threat alongside Johnson and Moore. We are after all talking about a conference where a once unheralded recruit like Northwestern's John Shurna emerged as a legitimate scoring threat after Kevin Coble suffered a season-ending injury last November. Stranger things have happened.
But that's kind of my point. A strange thing like that does need to happen for the coaches to be correct and for Purdue to be considered a top-10 team without Robbie Hummel. Until that strange day comes, this writer's completely unbiased advice is to believe what writers are telling you about the Boilermakers.
John's never come anywhere near this close to agreeing with Andy Katz and disagreeing with Ken on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available as a PDF.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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