The JW Top 25

The JW Top 25
Dec 12, 2006, 07:10 pm
Just what exact thought process led to this year's catastrophe of a Top 25 poll that left the number one team in the country a substantial underdog in its very next game?

I would blame the use of these three steps and only these three steps in ranking teams against each other.

1. Start with non-objective Preseason Top 25 ranking.

2. Team loses. Team moves down.

3. Team ahead of team loses, team moves up.

Not many would argue that there is much more determining our national "Top 25", especially as far as the Coaches' poll is concerned.

But isn't the use of the word "top" in "Top 25" a bit misleading? Doesn't it indicate that a team ranked higher than another team is actually better than that team - that the higher ranked team should be favored by the voters when playing against the lower-ranked ones? If so, does this mean that college coaches actually think Pittsburgh is better than North Carolina, Ohio State and Florida, or that Wichita State is better than Kansas?

Everybody knows Kansas is probably a better team that Wichita State regardless of how you view the purpose of a poll. That the Jayhawks would be favored in a neutral site game tomorrow, and that they have a better chance of making a run in the Tournament. They also happen to have taken down the defending champs. Yet the Shockers are still higher in the “Top 25”.


Is this really all the collective mind made up of college basketball’s best coaches and analysts can come up with? Everybody can look up Wichita State on and see that they have beaten LSU and Texas. And everybody can figure out that Wichita State’s RPI is going to be higher in March because of these wins.

Yet the same talking heads who drone on about how these early non-conference games don’t mean much are the ones coming up with the rankings. The same folks who will blast the RPI as a flawed system in March are essentially using the same concept it to determine their “Top 25” teams in December.

The obvious answer here is that (thankfully) unlike college football, Top 25 polls don’t mean much in college hoops – especially not in Nov/Dec. I can live with this, but I also think that there are some very smart people wasting their votes by not even trying. People who could come up with something a lot more useful than a simple “who won, who lost” list. We really don’t need beat writers and coaches to tell us that.

My solution would be a “Top 25” that actually attempts to identify the Top 25 teams in basketball. Instead of emphasizing what has already happened, I would like to emphasize what is likely to happen in the future – tomorrow, and in March. It is completely subjective, but no less subjective than the National Polls, whose almost solely subjective preseason rankings are still determing the general range of where a team is ranked. It should also be pointed out that I am not pushing for a poll based solely on "what would happen tomorrow" and "what would happen in march". Balance is the key here, and even early-season foibles must carry some weight.

But at this point in the season, the JW Top 25 is going to focus much more on how a team played than the ultimate final score. There aren’t enough games played over an entire season to account for the extreme variations we will see from a team on a game-by-game basis, let alone enough pre-conference games. A likley fluke has the right to be labeled a fluke in this poll, until proven otherwise.

The JW Top 25 will take into account the difference between a decisive home loss by a veteran-laden team and a close road loss by a young team. The JW Top 25 will recognize teams playing at the height of their potential, and acknowledge that a team can rarely do this for a full 30 games. It will recognize teams with room to grow, as well as attempt to predict which teams will and which teams won't.

It will account for the fact that a young Ohio State team without a real big man nearly took down North Carolina in Chapel Hill and that they now have the best big man in the country. Ohio State doesn’t need Pittsburgh to lose to Buffalo instead of merely squeaking by to move past the Panthers.

Taking a look at Wichita State vs Kansas, the argument could be made that this would be one heck of a game if it was played tomorrow (I still take Kansas, though I see the possibilities here). But over the course of the season, the Jayhawks are the team to go with. They are young and not even close to clicking. They are talented enough that they don’t even have to click to beat Wichita State on many nights. We know the Shockers can’t afford not to click against the Jayhawks, and we know every team has nights were they don’t click. Furthermore, where an injury to a key player could essentially end Wichita’s season, there isn’t a single player on Kansas’ roster whose loss would significantly marginalize their chances in the long-term. This forecast may change if Kansas hasn't gelled in February, and Wichita has shown no signs of slowing down. But obviously Kansas deserves quite a bit more slack in the mind of anybody actually trying to get this thing right.

So of course, right now the JW Top 25 is going to look a lot more like the preseason list than anybody else’s. But going back to the idea just about everybody will agree with in that just about anything can happen before January, I would rather hold out on teams that I truly believe are going to be there at the end of the day than go all in on a squad who has an entire season to prove to me that they deserve to take over somebody else's spot.

As we get deeper into winter, patterns will emerge and flukes will reveal themselves – just like they do every year. It is a sustainable level of play that is being looked for. This is much less about W’s and L’s, and more about whether or not I think a team can win tomorrow – as well as win in March. Wins and Losses lead to these conclusions, but are not definitive change-causing events in and of themselves . As the wins and losses begin to mount, the underlying causes for these wins and losses become apparent and can be taken into account if projected to continue. The JW Top 25 will then change accordingly.

This isn’t anything revolutionary. In fact, it feels more like a much-needed dose of comon sense than anything else. It still seems like everybody thinks they are revealing some sort of secret when they put Butler in their Top 10. In fact, just the opposite is true. Anybody who follows college hoops knows that the Bulldogs beat Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga. I hope that’s not what they pay Billy Packer to do what he does. And if pollsters had to put down their own money next to each and every spot on the ballot, you can bet Butler may have just entered the Top 25 in time to lose to Nobody U last Saturday.

But just about everybody is still basing their polls off these same limited concepts that don't do much more than project the RPI. Call me crazy, but I want a poll that actually means something in December.

(As somewhat of an aside here, I must actually give a little bit of credit to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee for refusing to bow in to this line of thinking. The RPI and the who-beat-who supporters told us that teams like Michigan and Cincinnati should have made the cut over supposedly unjustifiable dancers like Air Force and Utah State. But does anybody actually think Michigan or Cincinnati would have made a higher-seeded team even break a sweat? It is a bit baffling that teams such as Missouri State and Hofstra didn’t get in, but the committee deserves a round of applause for picking the teams they thought had the best chance of winning, RPI and the “who-beat-who” line of non-reasoning be damned.

It is also ironic that countless analysts were bashing the RPI in one sentence, and then bashing the committee for not following RPI-related concepts in their selections the next?)

1. North Carolina
2. Ohio State
4. Florida
5. Gonzaga
6. Kansas
7. Pittsburgh
8. Arizona
9. Duke
10. Texas A&M
11. Wisconsin
12. Alabama
13. Washington
14. Connecticut
15. Wichita State
16. Oklahoma State
17. Boston College
18. Notre Dame
19. LSU
20. Missouri State
21. Syracuse
22. Marquette
23. Villanova
24. Tennessee
25. Nevada

Hopefully this can be a weekly listing – comments on the logic behind every team’s ranking will come in later editions.

Recent articles

Twitter @DraftExpress

DraftExpress Shop