Fear and Loathing in The JW Top 25

Fear and Loathing in The JW Top 25
Jan 15, 2007, 07:20 pm
This week was nothing short of a struggle, with my ability to balance "what have they done?", "what are they doing?" and "what will they do?" tested like never before. To be honest, I really don't like the result.

Seven days ago, the first fifteen were relatively easy to rank and appeared to be establishing themselves as a cut above the rest. But conference play always holds surprises, with home court advantage and in-state rivalries throwing curveballs at the pollsters on a nightly basis. This week things got hairy after number 10 – and that includes Ohio State, Arizona, and Alabama all on shaky ground. As uncomfortable as I am with putting a team like Oregon at number 13, this is the time of the season where “what have they accomplished?” really starts to mean a lot. (And in the case of the Ducks’ 9-place rise, nobody else outside the Top 10 appears interested in holding down a spot at this point).

1. Florida (16-2; wins over Arkansas, @South Carolina, NC) – This team is very capable of losing, as the too-close-for-comfort visit from the Razorbacks will attest. But that is the Gators on a bad day, when they aren’t playing defense as a group. The massacre at South Carolina is yet another example of what happens when they come ready to play. Florida doesn’t play another ranked team until February. (1/20 Ole Miss)

2. Kansas (15-2; wins over Oklahoma State, @Iowa State, +2) – It is really baffling to me why the Jayhawks can’t get more respect for the way they are playing. They absolutely humiliated a very good Oklahoma State team early in the week, adding to a resume that was already top-5 caliber. And I don’t care how “down” you think Iowa State is. Gregg McDermott is a great coach, the Cyclones are playing much, much better than they did earlier in the year, and a packed out Hilton Coliseum is never an easy place to play. And the Jayhawks actually pulled one out in the clutch… (1/15 Missouri, 1/20 @Texas Tech)

3. North Carolina (15-2, 2-1, win over Virginia, loss @Virginia Tech, -1) – A let-down was nearly inevitable, considering all the inexperience and all the cooks in the kitchen. The near-comeback showed why this team should get the benefit of the doubt for now. If they go 2-0 this week they will have earned this spot, though winning both games is far from a given. (1/17 @Clemson, 1/20 Georgia Tech)

4. UCLA (15-1, 4-1; win @USC, -1) – The Bruins survived in the top five by little more than a hair, but a win over USC is significant nonetheless. I just don’t see many more Oregon-style letdowns for Ben Howland’s group. Huge game this weekend when Arizona comes to Westwood. (1/18 Arizona State, 1/20 Arizona)

5. Wisconsin (17-1, 3-0; wins over Ohio State, @Northwestern, +1) – I’ll take the Buckeyes in the late-February rematch, but the Badgers are the type of team that does well in March. Winning @Northwestern is never easy, but road games never are in the Big Ten. (1/17 Purdue, 1/20 @Illinois)

6. Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-0; wins @DePaul, over Georgetown, +2) – The Panthers are back in business after losing a pair of road games they probably should have lost in mid-December. This is the best team in the Big East at the moment, as wins over Syracuse, @DePaul and Georgetown proves. Another team probably steps up and challenges Pitt for the conference crown at some point along the way, but I’m not expecting a home loss this week (1/16 UConn, 1/21 Marquette)

7. Texas A&M (15-2, 3-0; wins @Baylor, @Colorado -2) – It might be a little early to be pulling nuggets out from Ken Pomeroy’s treasure trove of information, but I’ll risk jumping the gun a little bit. Everybody expects the Aggies to be ranked 4th in Defensive Efficiency, but this team also checks in at 13th on the offensive end. This and the fact that every single one of the things I look for in a Final Four sleeper can be found on this team allows me to overlook the fact that a Top 10 team shouldn’t have to work this hard to beat a Bill Walker-less Kansas State and Baylor. Anybody else pumped for Saturday’s showdown against Oklahoma State? (1/20 Oklahoma St)

8. Ohio State (14-3, 3-1; loss @Wisconsin, win over Tennessee, -3) – Yeah, yeah, yeah. Needing a last second shot to beat Tennessee at home doesn’t exactly scream “top ten team”. They completely collapsed in the second half against Wisconsin and really should have lost on Saturday as well. But the other side of the coin is that this is a team made up largely of freshmen that appeared to be on the verge of taking over in the second half @Florida, hung right with Wisconsin except for a five minute stretch midway through the second half and still almost pulled out a shocker, and finally got a marquee win over the weekend. Oden looks better every time out, and all the signs point to the Buckeyes being really good but really young. Don’t bet against Thad Matta in March – we know that Matta-coached teams always play up to their potential and are always are capable of beating anybody when it counts. I would also point out the lack of quality teams below the Buckeyes in the polls, and the fact this team could now win eleven straight without breaking a sweat. (1/17 Northwestern, 1/20 Iowa)

9. Arizona (13-3, 4-2; win over Oregon State, loss to Oregon, -2) – Why do teams keep letting Aaron Brooks single-handedly beat them? This isn’t a guy who should be able to hold the ball for the length of the shot clock and drive all the way to the rim when everybody in the building knows what is going to happen. Lute Olson’s Wildcats get docked even further because they couldn’t learn from UCLA’s mistake, a mistake that was inexcusable without being handed a blueprint of what not to do against Oregon with the clock ticking down. Once again, I head to and issue this warning to those who think Arizona is a legit title contender: teams with good offenses and good defenses are the ones that advance in the tourney, and the Wildcats currently rank a concerning 95th in the defensive efficiency. All this goes away if the Wildcats can take down the LA schools this week, but I’m not exactly expecting it. I would have dropped Arizona further if not for teams behind them also going down.(@USC, @UCLA)

10. Alabama(14-2, 1-1; win over LSU, +4) – The home win against LSU is by far the Crimson Tide’s most impressive of the season, and the Tiger homers out there would definitely label me an “LSU hater”. Still, I like this team and they haven’t done enough to lose their spot. This week provides a couple of telling games. Going 2-0 probably isn’t going to bump Alabama too much higher, but it would allow them to solidify a spot in the Top 10. Richard Hendrix is the unsung hero for this team at the moment. (1/17 @Vanderbilt, 1/20 Georgia)

11. Nevada(16-1, 4-0; wins over Boise State, @San Jose State, @Hawaii, +1) -No matter how you want to slice the cake, winning @Hawaii without your All-American is impressive. What scares me about ranking the Wolfpack this high is the premise of Fazekas being out for an extended period of time. I don’t see Mark Fox being able to sneak out of Las Cruces with a win if the big man is sitting on the bench. (1/17 Fresno State, 1/20 @New Mexico State)

12. Duke (14-3, 1-2; loss @Georgia Tech, win @Miami, -2) – Now is the time to make use of that handy Billy Packer insult you’ve had rumbling around in your head for the past ten months, but I really do think the Blue Devils bounce back from here. Georgia Tech nearly won @Clemson a week ago, and appears to be pulling things together quickly. Duke reminded everybody of their place in the ACC hierarchy by blowing out Miami on the road, and shouldn’t be test this week. (1/18 Wake Forest, 1/20 @NC State)

13. Oregon (16-1; wins @Arizona State, @Arizona, +10) – I like the Ducks, I really do. But I like them for what they are – a 10-win Pac-10 team, good on the offensive end but very vulnerable in the paint and on defense, completely deserving of a mid-level Tourney seed. What Oregon isn’t is a Top 10 team, though people might not realize this until after this week’s homestand. If Aaron Brooks would actually involved Malik Hairston in the offense, Oregon wouldn’t have needed more last-minute heroics to secure the win last night (1/18 Stanford, 1/20 California)

14. Oklahoma State (15-2, 1-1; loss @Kansas, -3) – My goodness the Cowboys got smoked. It wasn’t that they lost to Kansas on the road, because there is no shame in that. But losing by 30 and basically giving up two minutes in? This one was bad, folks. After getting snowed out on Saturday, tomorrow’s visit from Texas is even more important. The prospect of heading to College Station to avoid a third straight conference loss is something Sean Sutton is probably trying not think about right now. (1/16 Texas, 1/20 Texas A&M)

15. Tennessee (13-4, 1-1; losses @Vanderbilt, @Ohio State, -3) – I just can’t penalize the Volunteers too much for losing these two games on the road. Vanderbilt is a very good team at home, especially against in-state competition. And as for Ohio State, if you can honestly drop Tennessee for that near-miraculous showing, I probably didn’t want to hear about your rankings in the first place. The fact that this team essentially has no returning player taller than 6’4 is a serious problem, but I thought Duke Crews and Wayne Chism did a phenomenal job on Mr Oden on Saturday. And if you didn’t catch it, down the stretch that was Chris Lofton getting to the basket repeatedly off the dribble. (1/17 @Auburn, 1/20 South Carolina)

16. Syracuse (14-4, 3-1; wins @Rutgers, over Villanova, +2) – Things are coming together for the Orange, with Darryl Watkins and Terrence Roberts both finally playing to win. Unfortunately, it appears that Eric Devendorf is following in his predecessor’s footsteps in terms of dominating the ball and bogging down the offense. It works when he is hitting shots, but those off nights are going to be rough. Meanwhile, the guy I felt gave Syracuse so much upside appears on the verge of falling out of the rotation altogether. We’ll see what happens from here on out, but this team has stayed ranked in the JW Top 25 when it shouldn’t have because wins like last week’s were an inevitability. One look at the schedule shows that until the end of January there isn’t much room for the Orange to move up. (1/17 Cincinnati, 1/21 St John’s)

17. Washington State (15-3, 4-2; win @California, loss @Stanford, -2) – Washington State is a team that gets crapped on by everybody, simply because of what they are. They get mid-major treatment from the high-major hype mongers because they have mid-major talent. But the mid-major crazies won’t give them any leash because they play in the Pac-10. This is the type of situation that the JW Top 25 is around to correct. Yes, the Cougars lost at Stanford. But Stanford is proving to be a solid team and Washington State also got a convincing road win against a Cal team that is proving to be surprisingly competitive sans Devon Hardin. The history-less Cougars have now taken down well-respected programs such as UAB, Gonzaga, San Diego State, USC and Arizona. They nearly beat the Bruins on the road. This is a team that needs to be ranked in the Top 20 – perhaps even higher – and they need your support!

18. Air Force (17-1; wins over New Mexico, @Wyoming, +1) – I told you from the beginning that it would be hard for this team to move much higher than #20, and that is still the case. The Falcons continue to prove that they deserve to be ranked, as winning in Laramie is not an easy thing to do. But this type of close win isn’t going to move a team higher in the rankings. Air Force is on top of the mid-major heap, and it would take a significant collapse for that to change anytime soon. Two more tests this week (1/16 @Utah, 1/20 San Diego State)

19. Clemson (17-1, 3-1; win @NC State, loss @Maryland, NC) – Clemson is very likely to fall out of the national polls in the next three weeks. The stretch goes UNC, Boston College, @Duke, Virginia, @Georgia Tech. The Tigers would be incredibly fortunate to come away with a 3-3 record in these six. The pollsters will see the losses piling up, start looking at that supposed soft non-conference schedule, and forget about the wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech. But as far as the JW Top 25 is concerned, this is a team that only has to win two of the next six while remaining competitive in the losses to keep a place reserved. It should be an interesting month. Much like Oregon, the Tigers were probably never as good as their national ranking would have indicated. But they are a team that that should finish with 10 wins in the ACC and go dancing for the first time in a while. (1/17 North Carolina, 1/20 Boston College)

20. USC (13-5, 3-2; loss to UCLA; +1) – How do you lose your only game of the week and move up? Make it a loss at the buzzer against a top 5 team. While the Trojans have a few more losses than several other teams that probably could be ranked here, their overall play leads me to believe that this is a team capable of contending for the conference crown. There are no off days in the Pac-10 this year, but a win over Arizona this week would be a huge lift heading into the easiest portion of the conference slate (1/18 Arizona)

21. LSU (12-4, loss @Alabama, win over Auburn, -1) – I don’t like this team, and my heels are pretty much dug in. The Tigers stay in this range until they prove me right or prove me wrong. Glen Davis is overrated by almost everybody, and a ten point road loss to the divisional rivals really isn’t conclusive. Struggling to beat the divisional doormats at home isn’t helping John Brady’s cause, either. Perhaps Terry Martin could emerge as the missing piece that allows this team to gel down the stretch, but even then I’m not counting on it. (1/17 Ole Miss, 1/20 @Arkansas)

22. Missouri State (13-4, 4-2; win over Evansville, loss @Southern Illinois – I’m just about through trying to come up with a favorite in the Missouri Valley. There are at least five teams worthy of Top 25 (and at large) consideration in the conference. Each one beats the others at home, and loses on the road. And in case you didn’t notice, this has been taking place at the top of the country’s elite mid-major conference for quite some time. Lining up the MVC’s big five against each other, ignoring home wins and road losses and keeping in mind that each team has played at least two “big five” opponents, Creighton is 1-0 (win @UNI), the Panthers are 1-1 (loss to Creighton, win @Wichita State), and the Shockers check in at just 0-1 (loss to UNI). Missouri State and Southern Illinois have yet to score a decision. This leads me to believe that Wichita State is far from out of the conference race, though the reality is that Indiana State is currently much more deserving of “Big Five” status. The Bears have the best at-large profile at the moment, but that really doesn’t mean squat. They lost @Southern Illinois by 20 last week, which even on the road and in the MVC is a bit too decisive for my taste. If we don’t get some clarity soon, I’m just going to rank “Eventual MVC Champ” at #15 next week and give an update on the location-adjusted standings. (1/15 @Illinois State, 1/18 Northern Iowa)

23. Texas (13-3, 3-0; wins Missouri and Oklahoma, NR) – Beating Missouri and Oklahoma isn’t going to get you back in the poll. But winning these games as emphatically as Rick Barnes’ Horns did is certainly a start. And Kevin Durant (I’m taking a deep breath here…) averaging 33 points, 14 rebounds while shooting 61% from the field, 93% from the field, and 50% from beyond the arc is one heck of a clincher. The Horns are on the road for their next three, so their stay in the JW Top 25 could be a short as Georgetown’s was (Hey, what can I say? When you swing, you might as well swing for the fences, right?). But Kevin Durant is the best player in the country, it isn’t even close, and the Longhorns are going to be a factor in the Big XII. (1/16 @Oklahoma State, 1/20 @Villanova)

24. Virginia Tech (13-4, 3-0, win over North Carolina, NR) – Do you pick Group A (Western Michigan, George Washington, Marshall), or Group B (Appalachian State, Duke, North Carolina)? It is a rigged question, as of course the first group is teams the Hokies have lost to, and the second is the teams they’ve beaten. So you tell me where Virginia Tech ought to be ranked. Gordon, Dowdell, Greenberg and company have been blowing close games for as long as they’ve all been there, and it is pretty obvious after watching the three ACC wins that this isn’t a tendency that will be going away anytime soon. But the JW Top 25 salutes the Hokies for shooting over 70% from the line in both of the big wins, the real difference between this year and last, and now must invoke the fundamental rule that these rankings are based upon: “Beat Duke and UNC in a 7-day stretch and you’re in, absolutely no questions asked.”

25. Marquette (15-4, 2-2; wins @UConn, over West Virginia, NR ) – Just when it seemed they were off the radar for good, the Golden Eagles appear once again. Say what you want about Connecticut’s scheduling, but Marquette is the only team to have beaten the Huskies at home this year. Considering the size disadvantage Tom Crean had to deal with, I think the win should count for something. Emphatically dropping West Virginia is another win against a mid-level Tourney hopeful that Marquette had been lacking headed into the week. But like usual, it isn’t clear how long the Golden Eagles will be able to hold this spot. Tonight is a trip to Louisville, followed by a visit to Pittsburgh on Sunday. If the end result is 1-1, I’ll do my best to keep the #25 team around for more than a week this time.

Dropped out: Georgetown, Butler, West Virginia

On the cusp: Notre Dame, Kentucky, Memphis, Butler, Georgia Tech, Creighton, Southern Illinois, Boston College, Maryland, Indiana

Left Out in the Cold… – While it was tough to come up with any deserving team for any individual spot outside the Top 10 this week, it once again doesn’t seem fair to leave any of these “on the cusp” teams off the list entirely. There really isn’t much to separate this group of runner ups from teams ranked 15-25. I feel particularly bad about axing Notre Dame, though my overall philosophy of ranking the better team higher made Marquette’s inclusion over the Fighting Irish a fairly easy decision. Kentucky was another team I was hoping to move in, but the Wildcats didn’t do enough to win me over in Saturday’s victory over Mississippi State. Keep in mind, it is quite feasible that Tubby Smith’s squad won’t go into an SEC game as an underdog until 2/10 against Florida. There is plenty of time for the Wildcats to earn their due.

Butler and Double Standards

Once again, I am really baffled by the lack of attention given to the #12 team in the country losing to Illinois-Chicago. If the Flames had beaten Duke (Coaches’ #11) or Alabama (Coaches’ #13), it would have been front page news across the country, with magazine and message board fodder still being strewn at the losers a week later. As for Butler’s loss? Barely even a word, and just a three spot drop in the polls. I realize that conference road games are never easy, but it shouldn’t be easy for Butler to keep a ranking bordering on Top 10 while playing in the Horizon league. These types of losses were absolutely going to happen, and the exact reason the JW Top 25 has been so reluctant to include the Bulldogs. I shudder to think what will happen if Purdue were to somehow knock off Wisconsin or Ohio State later this month. A win in either case would be counted as a monumental collapse for either team. But the Bulldogs’ win over the Boilermakers has actually been used to support Butler’s case by many.

Not Buying Memphis

Yes, the Tigers are going to sneak into the JW Top 25 here one of these weeks. They have a nice win over Kentucky, and could easily run the table in conference. But the C-USA is horrendous, and Memphis hasn’t backed up their preseason billing when it matters? Losing to Georgia Tech in November is a bad loss, and beating Kentucky in November isn’t nearly as impressive as it is likely to look in March. They were absolutely run off the court against Tennessee – normally I wouldn’t put too much stock in a road loss, but Chris Lofton outscored John Calipari’s entire team in the first half. This was a catastrophic blowout. I can’t really argue with the idea that this team is one of the Top 25 best teams in the country but it is certainly an assumption at the moment, one that I will be much more willing to accept if the Tigers can get a win @Gonzaga in mid-February. I really don’t think Memphis should be sitting pretty inside the Top 20 for how it has played, how it is playing, or how it will play down the road.

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