The JW Top 25: Debating #1
|by: Jonathan Watters - Director of NCAA Scouting
|February 19, 2007
|The Debate for #1
Once again, the major media polls have given me a reason to climb up on my soapbox (and when have I ever turned down the chance to do that?). I started releasing a weekly Top 25 to voice my complaints with the way the national polls are run, and the top spot in both of the new polls is the perfect example. Wisconsin has a bit of a case for the top spot, but Ohio State? It really can’t be justified.
First of all, let’s take a look at Florida against Wisconsin. Both teams now have one loss in conference play. The SEC is a much tougher conference than the Big Ten this season, and in league play the Gators are 6-1 against probable NCAA Tournament teams, including 2 road wins. The Badgers are 1-1, with the home win over Ohio State and the loss @Indiana. Losing @Vandy and @Indiana are fairly comparable, so I am trying to understand what Wisconsin has done since the start of conference play .
Some will point out the win over Ohio State, now apparently a consensus Top 5 team in the country. Florida doesn’t have a conference win over a team of that caliber. But the problem with this logic is that Florida absolutely mopped the floor with the Buckeyes just two weeks before Wisconsin’s 3-point victory. This would be a point in Florida’s favor, wouldn’t it?
Another line I’ve seen since the debate began was that Wisconsin’s non-conference profile is better. This argument has a bit of merit, as Wisconsin’s key resume games (neutral court loss to Missouri State, home win over Florida State, home win over Winthrop, win @Marquette, home win over Pittsburgh, win @Georgia) is more impressive than Florida (neutral court loss to Kansas, neutral court loss to Florida State, home win over Providence, home win over Ohio State). There is no denying this, but I will point out that Florida wasn’t at full strength for either of the non-conference losses. And even with Wisconsin’s better non-conference performance and the Gators’ lineup of laughable non-conference opponents, the Badgers’ overall SOS is lagging Florida’s now.
Finally, I will fall back on what the JW Top 25 is really all about. The Gators are simply the better team. This column has repeatedly made note of Florida’s tendency to play in a beatable manner from time, but the reason Florida has been number one since late December has been stretches of play like the second half against Ohio State, the second half against Vandy in Gainesville, and coming back from 18 down to handily defeat Alabama. When the Gators are playing at the top of their game, nobody is going to touch them. Not Wisconsin, not North Carolina, and especially not Ohio State. And given how the Gators are the defending champs with everybody back, I wouldn’t bet on a collapse in March.
I am all about the “what have you done for me lately” argument early in the season (when we don’t have a substantial body of work to judge off of), and this is the only justification for moving Wisconsin ahead of Florida in the polls. Florida lost, and in the major media polls, you drop when you lose. Wisconsin won, so they moved up. And this is ridiculous, because Florida is clearly the better team right now. If these teams played tomorrow on a neutral site, Vegas would pick the Gators, and so would most everybody else. Every team is going to slip up during the regular season at some point (unless you are Larry Johnson-era UNLV), so Florida keeps the top spot until Saturday’s loss can be confirmed with a pattern of sub-par play.
As for Ohio State, I’m going to be brief. The Buckeyes aren’t even number one in their own conference. They haven’t beaten a single Top 25 team. There were absolutely hammered by the incumbent number one, and haven’t played a lock NCAA Tournament team in a month and a half. They nearly lost to Penn State last week. I realize Greg Oden has improved since the Florida loss and that the Buckeyes are a lot better than their win profile win would indicate, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to wait until they beat Wisconsin this Sunday before entering Ohio State into the number one discussion?
Legitimate debate will begin next weekend, when Florida is likely to have two more meaningless conference wins and the winner of the Sunday’s Wisconsin-Ohio State showdown might actually have a valid argument for owning the top spot. Wisconsin would be the clear-cut Big Ten champ, with three wins over Top 10 teams and only two losses overall. That is a profile that matches up against Florida’s, but the Badgers also have to take care of Michigan State in East Lansing tomorrow night, which is easier said than done. Ohio State would finally have a marquee win to back up the “Greg Oden factor”, which I actually do believe is legit. Still, the overall profile wouldn’t match the other teams in the 1-seed discussion.
February Madness On Tobacco Road
There is a lot of conference-related intrigue at the moment, but I really don’t think anything can top what is taking place in the ACC on a top-to-bottom basis. It was commonly thought that Duke and UNC would reign supreme yet again, with only a couple of teams even capable of making a run at the giants. But every week has offered up examples of how anything can and will happen in this year’s ACC. Virginia Tech took recently completed a sweep of the Tar Heels, Virginia went on a 7-game win streak that left the Cavaliers at the top of the standings, Clemson took an undefeated record well into ACC play, and the Blue Devils found themselves on the bubble after a 4-game losing streak.
Of course, that was an eternity ago in 2007 ACC time. Virginia and all their momentum hit a brick wall by getting blown out by their rival Hokies. The Hokies followed that key victory with the “shocker” in Chapel Hill, but Seth Greenberg would be the first to tell you that NC State needed a piece of February madness as well. Bracketed around the two resume-making wins were two resume-killing blowout losses to NC State, who also recently defeated UNC. Wake Forest is even getting in on the party, knocking off a Clemson squad now in near-free fall after handing Georgia Tech a critical blow earlier in the season. The Yellow Jackets would be in great shape if they hadn’t blown the game in Winston-Salem and flopped in the season-opener against Miami, while Maryland would be very close to “lock” status if not for slipping up against those same 3-9 Hurricanes. We all know there isn’t a true off night in the ACC, but this is getting absurd...
The Tourney chase is getting fairly interesting as well (remaining games, most likely ACC record, realistic NCAA seed range in parentheses)
North Carolina (NC State, @Maryland, @Georgia Tech, Duke) (12-4) (1-2) – The Heels actually project closer to 11-5 than they do to 13-3. Roy Williams’ young team just isn’t playing great basketball right now, with halfcourt problems on both ends of the floor. This team is good enough to beat good ACC teams on off nights, as the win @BC shows, but the next four are all dangerous. NC State is feasting on teams that can’t perform in the halfcourt, and already beat North Carolina once. Maryland and Georgia Tech can challenge UNC athletically and are never easy to beat on the road, and you can bet that Coach K will have something up his sleeve for Duke’s return trip. This team is far from a lock to win the conference title.
Virginia (11-5) (@Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, @Wake Forest) (4-6) – The Cavaliers may look like a good bet to win three of their final four, but Virginia was already massacred by Virginia Tech and teams like Miami and Wake Forest suddenly look a bit more dangerous on the road after recent events and Virginia’s schizophrenic on-court persona. It basically comes down to this – when Singletary and Reynolds are scoring efficiently, this team is probably going to win. When they aren’t…well, things can get dicey in a hurry.
Boston College (11-5) (@Virginia Tech, Clemson, @Georgia Tech) (4-8) – Boston College may have more to gain or lose than any other ACC team over their final three games. Even though the Eagles have acquitted themselves nicely after Sean Williams got canned with a blowout win over Clemson and two wins over Florida State, one can’t help but think that this group still needs to prove itself a bit. BC gets that chance, with games against three teams still very much in the Tourney hunt. There is a road game against a hot team they blew out at home, and a home game against a tanking team they were destroyed by on the road. Then there is the road game Georgia Tech, a team that has played well at home all season. The only thing we know about Al Skinner’s team is that they are in.
Virginia Tech (11-5) (BC, Miami, @Virginia, Clemson) (4-7) - The Hokies get the same projected record as Virginia and BC, but are clearly the least likely of the three teams to reach that mark. The Hokies’ trip to Boston College was a disaster, Clemson is a complete unknown, and don’t think for a moment that Virginia Tech’s home blowout of Virginia means much of anything in terms of predicting the return game.
Duke (9-7) (@Clemson, Maryland, @North Carolina) (4-8) - With all the doom and gloom in Durham, one would assume the Blue Devils to be in a lot worse shape than this. Last week almost completely righted the ship, with critical wins @Boston College and home over Georgia Tech. Looking back at how the ACC has played out, it is the home losses to Virginia Tech and Florida state that are “upsets” when viewed against preseason expectations, and both those games went down to the final play. My guess is that the Blue Devils are only slightly worse than their preseason expectations and will win two of their final three.
Maryland (8-8) (Florida State, North Carolina, @Duke, NC State) (6-OUT) – While the win @Clemson is huge, the Terps still have work to do. This team is more than capable of losing to Florida State and NC State, and either one would put Maryland at 7-9 if the North Carolina and Duke games go as planned. I think this team needs to win at least three between now and the end of the ACC Tourney to feel truly comfortable. Many people would assume the Terps are in, and it would take quite the collapse for this to happen, but collapsing down the stretch isn’t yet a distant memory for Maryland fans.
Georgia Tech (7-9) (Wake Forest, @Virginia, North Carolina, Boston College) (7-OUT) – This team’s fate could be dramatically altered based on its play down the stretch. The Yellow Jackets really put themselves in a bind with the losses to Wake Forest and Miami, but still have a handful of very impressive wins. Looking at who they’ve beaten, they ought to be in right now. But would the committee really select a team with a 6-10 conference record in a year where the bubble is tight? This would be very possible, given Tech’s schedule down the stretch. The Wake Forest game is a must-win, and then one of three games against the conference elite. Even then, a decent showing in the conference tournament would help. At the same time, this is a team more than capable of winning three out of its last four. Two more in the conference tourney could actually get the Jackets a decent seed.
Florida State (7-9) (@Maryland, NC State, @Miami) (9-OUT) – Florida State has really blown it, losing three straight close games to teams ahead of them in the standings. The home loss to BC really hurts, because the Seminoles really had that game wrapped up and would probably be in good shape had they won it. Now, the last three are absolute must wins and Maryland is hot.
The “Super Conference”, Villanova, and Notre Dame
Yes, the 8-5 Fighting Irish came up with a couple of quality early season wins over Maryland and Alabama (notice how neither is a lock to make the tourney). They have beaten the upper middle of the pack teams at home, including Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, and Providence.
Yet on the road, this team has been absolutely awful. There were blowout losses @Georgetown and @Villanova, the only times they have played (or likely will play) road games against NCAA Tournament teams. There are at mediocre Syracuse and over awful Cincinnati, but losses @St John’s, @South Florida, and @DePaul. You might be wondering how Notre Dame fared on the road out of conference, and the answer is that I really can’t tell you because Mike Brey didn’t schedule any non-conference road games. Notre Dame also got the luxury of playing South Florida twice, Pitt not at all, and just two road games against the current Top 4.
No, Villanova hasn’t played all that well on the road, either. But they did take down Oklahoma @Oklahoma, in the non-conference. In-conference, they knocked off Georgetown early and also beat Providence (fairly similar to Notre Dame’s win @Syracuse). Their road losses have come at West Virginia, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Marquette. Instead of getting South Florida twice, the Wildcats got a home and home with Georgetown. Where Notre Dame got a pass on playing Pitt, Villanova missed out on South Florida.
Somehow, Notre Dame has managed to play a near mid major caliber schedule while playing in the Big East. It is very possible that Notre Dame could end the season two or even three games ahead of Villanova in the conference standings and be no more worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. I would like to take a quick moment to congratulate everyone who allowed this remarkable situation to become possible.
Elsewhere in the Country…
Georgetown – For some reason, people forgot about this team after they lost three games to good competition early in the season. But now it is nine in a row, including four straight over Tournament teams and two of those on the road. Suddenly, the Hoyas are the odds-on favorite to win the Big East as Saturday’s game against Pitt for all the marbles takes place in DC. A win over Pitt, and a 2-3 seed appears likely.
Louisville – The home loss to an even hotter team aside, Rick Pitino essentially wrapped up a return to the Dance with wins @Pittsburgh and @Marquette last week. Derrick Caracter's reuturn has really sparked this team, as he is about the only Cardinal player that can reliably create his own shot. The schedule is manageable down the stretch, so a 12-4 conference record and upper-tier seed is very much within the realm of possibility.
Old Dominion – The Colonial has dropped in the conference power poll this year, but it has just as much to do with a couple of other conferences getting better than it does the Colonial getting worse. The top 4 is probably just as good as last year’s top four, though I will stop short of predicting another Final Four appearance for one of the conference’s elite. The top teams have been beating on each other all season, creating a near carousel of teams that appear to be in good position for an at large. The dust has now all but settled, and while Virginia Commonwealth is the likely regular season conference champ, it is Old Dominion that might be in the best position for an at-large berth. The Monarchs have now won nine in a row, including a sweep of the other Colonial contenders that when combined with an early season victory @Georgetown gives ODU a worthy at-large profile.
Memphis – No, (neutral loss to Georgia Tech, neutral win over Kentucky, loss @Tennessee, loss @Tennessee, win @Gonzaga) is not the resume game profile of a 3-seed. Not even close, really. But the Tigers are still on fire, having won 15 straight and appearing much-improved on Saturday against Gonzaga from the last time we saw them against a ranked team. Memphis’ 07 profile is actually quite similar to Gonzaga’s 06 profile, with just one win over an at large team but a perfect conference record and a high-major media profile. Gonzaga got a 3, so one would expect Memphis to as well. Did anybody think Jeremy Hunt would be an all-conference performer for Memphis this year?
Vanderbilt – A win over the top team in the country will get you on lists like this one. The Commodores are undefeated at home since the third game of the season, including wins over Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. But Vandy also has a road win at Kentucky and is in good shape for an 11-12 win conference performance and Top 5 seed. Senior swingman Derrick Byars is probably the SEC player of the year at this point.
Oklahoma State – Just how in the world were the Cowboys ranked in the Top 25 as of yesterday? Since nipping Pittsburgh, the Cowboys have been blown out @Kansas, @Texas A&M and @Texas, lost @Colorado, @Oklahoma and at home to Missouri, and needed multiple OT’s to take down Texas and Texas Tech at home. The wins over Missouri State and Syracuse don’t look all that spectacular anymore, and the next two games are at home against Texas A&M and @Texas Tech. Given how poorly the Cowboys are playing all of a sudden and how unlikely a win this week probably is, winning the last three (Kansas State, @Baylor, @Nebraska) doesn’t even get them in for sure.
Oregon – The Ducks could be on the verge of .500 in Pac-10 play, having lost five of six with the one win a 4-point home victory over Arizona State. Next up is Washington State, whom Oregon got incredibly lucky to beat when they were playing well. The last two are at home and very winnable so an NCAA Tourney bid isn’t in doubt, but this team has slipped on both sides of the ball in recent weeks.
Indiana – The Hoosiers were considered a mortal lock after beating Wisconsin a couple of weeks back, but have suddenly lost three of four, with all three coming to bubble teams on the road. What this has done is erase the impression that Indiana is part of the Big Ten’s upper tier instead of the best team in the middle of the pack. Games against Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State remain, but the Hoosiers also must travel to Michigan State this weekend. 10-6 and third place in the Big Ten with the win over Wisconsin gets the Hoosiers in, but what about 8-8 and 5th, lacking a single significant non-conference win? The Hoosiers could find a way to blow it after all…
1. Florida (NC)
2. UCLA (NC)
3. Wisconsin (+1)
4. North Carolina (-1)
5. Ohio State (NC)
6. Kansas (NC)
7. Texas A&M (-2)
8. Georgetown (+2)
9. Washington State (NC)
10. Pittsburgh (-4)
11. Southern Illinois (+1)
12. Nevada (-1)
13. Memphis (+2)
14. Vanderbilt (NR)
15. USC (-1)
16. Virginia (+8)
17. Marquette (-4)
18. Duke (NR)
19. Virginia Tech (+4)
20. Butler (-4)
21. Boston College (-2)
22. Air Force (+3)
23. Louisville (NR)
24. West Virginia (NC)
25. Stanford (NR)
Dropped Out: Arizona (17), Indiana (18), Oregon (20), Kentucky (23)
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