I’ve been writing about college hoops now since the Harding Administration, but this season I’ve been asked to do something that I’ve never done before. This season I’m filling out a top 25 each week.
If you’ve ever wanted to yell at a writer about how incomprehensibly stupid their top 25 so obviously is (guilty), I would ask that you do one thing. Create your own top 25. You’ll find that it’s an intrinsically unsatisfactory exercise. What is plain and indeed obvious to the naked eye can’t be captured by a listing of teams from No. 1 to No. 25. Invariably there’s a top tier of elite teams that everyone rightly recognizes as Final Four material, and then there’s a big drop-off in quality before you get to the next set of programs. But of course in rankings there’s no such thing as a “big drop-off,” you just go from No. 8 to No. 9. Yell at your own rankings all you want, but someone has to be the No. 9 team in the country.
My main objection to top 25’s as they’re traditionally crafted, however, has less to do with their innate nature and more to do with how pollsters rank teams. The problem with any top 25 is that it’s little more than a list of the longest current winning streaks, combined with teams that are losing and which were likely overrated to begin with. (Did you know that Louisville is ranked No. 25 in this week’s Coaches’ Poll? That’s astounding to me. The Cardinals have recorded the Big East’s tenth-best per-possession performance to date.)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with winning streaks. Kansas, to take one example, has a pretty good one going, and I believe the Jayhawks really are one of the best teams in Division I. But once we surrender to the notion that a team stays where they are in the rankings until they lose, we’ve forfeited about 75 percent of our discretionary freedom of movement right there.
Which is why I’m going to employ a different method for ranking teams. I figure if I’m going to the trouble of tracking thousands of possessions played by 157 different teams I might as well use what I have, right? And every year starting right now, in late January, I feel like a critical mass has been reached in terms of possessions played. I feel like I now have enough information to dissent from the conventional wisdom on a given team with some degree of confidence. The dissent may well turn out to be wrong, of course, but at least my erroneous dissents will be less boring than parroting what everyone else says. Anyway that’s the hope.
So much for the white paper, let’s look at some actual instances where the world will think I’m nuts.
The Wildcats will not be No. 1 in my top 25 that comes out tomorrow. Shocking, I know. UK is plainly one of the best teams in the country, but you don’t need John Gasaway to tell you that the Cats haven’t lost since December 10. You know that already. The question that needs answering is: among these best teams in the country, who’s been performing at a level better than anyone else? That’s a close question, but my answer there is not to be found in Lexington.
I think the proper reward for the Racers is my hearty congratulations, offered here, on an amazing 20-0 season. I do not think, however, that people truly believe MSU could go .500 on a neutral floor against, say, the six teams currently ranked right below them in the polls (UNLV, San Diego State, Florida, Creighton, Indiana, and Marquette). I think it’s simply the “0” in “20-0” that’s driving this ranking, which is more of a reward and a pat on the back than a true estimation of the team’s heft. Well, I’m going to offer my true estimation: It’s close and I’m open to persuasion but right now the Racers are not a top-25 team.
The Bulldogs have been far more impressive to humans than they are to laptops all season long. Fortunately my business card reads “Mediating human-laptop disputes since the Harding Administration,” so I’m qualified to tell you the truth here is somewhere in the middle. Winning at Vanderbilt is nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but then again struggling to beat a struggling Tennessee team on your home floor or losing on the road to Ole Miss are data points as well. MSU’s been outscored by their SEC opponents thus far, and in fact they’re just 12 points away from an 0-5 record in-conference. Rick Stansbury‘s team may well be better than laptops think, but their defense has been frighteningly bad and they are not yet top-25 caliber.
That wacky Missouri Valley
If I feel like I now have enough tracked possessions in the bank to dissent from the conventional wisdom, I really feel that way when it comes to the Valley, where teams are already at the halfway mark in their conference schedules. Creighton is tied for the league lead at 8-1 with Wichita State, but the Bluejays own the bragging-rights tiebreaker there, having recorded a 68-61 win over the Shockers in Wichita on December 31. Now the weird part: Wichita State, even taking that loss into account, is recording perhaps the most dominant performance by a Valley team in the past five years. Nationally the Shockers will of course be filed cognitively under what we’ve seen from the Valley’s best or second-best team in the past, but in truth we haven’t seen a team outscore the MVC by very nearly a quarter of a point per trip, at least not recently. In other words there’s a chance that Creighton and Wichita State are the two best teams the Valley has produced in a long while, and, coincidentally, they both came down the pike the same year.
Keep all of the above in mind when my top 25 drops tomorrow. Also keep in mind this isn’t college football, thank goodness, so none of this matters anyway.