Today, I launch an abbreviated season of “The List,” which will rank my top-25 teams each Monday afternoon.
As I mentioned back when we launched Basketball Prospectus, I have been a big college hoops fan for more than 20 years. I came to the game during the Chris Mullin era at St. John’s, and never really went away. I experienced Harold Miner’s career while at USC—during a very brief period when our basketball team was better than our football team—which sustained my love for the game through college. Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate the wide variety in styles of play at the college level, and the drama that the shorter season, excellent postseason setup and increased parity provide.
About four years ago, I started putting together rankings for a small group of friends, a list that grew to about a dozen by last season. In doing my rankings, I try to stick to one guiding principle: performance matters. This isn’t unlike how I do baseball analysis, and as people like Ken Pomeroy teach me how to use advanced metrics to measure performance, I get better at drilling down to a team’s quality.
Pulling back a level, while acknowledging the use of tools such as efficiency ratings, I focus largely on wins and losses: who a team beat, and because home-court is so important in college basketball, where they beat them. A road win matters more, as does a home loss. Neutral-court performance, in the post-“2 in 4” era, is also a key indicator. I will use subjective criteria as well; I watch a lot of college basketball, and it’s not possible for me to not take what I see into account. You can judge for yourself whether I should or not, but I’m comfortable with using observational evidence in hoops, where the interaction among teammates is a greater part of the game, in a way that I would not be in baseball.
One thing I don’t care about is preseason rankings. I’m launching this feature a bit late, but only by a few weeks. Ranking teams before January is a hopeless exercise, especially when you consider the roster and role turnover in modern college basketball. The effect preseason rankings have on polls throughout the season gives them a flaw they can never quite shake. My rankings don’t have that flaw; nor do well-designed performance metrics.
We’ll have plenty of time to talk philosophy. Here are this week’s rankings, covering games through January 27. All records are Division I games only, and all rankings are mine, not any kind of official Basketball Prospectus opinion.
- Kansas (19-0). We know they can play defense. The difference this year is that they can score, with the third-best offensive efficiency in the nation. They shoot twos better than all but three teams, and much better than they did in the past two seasons, seasons that ended in disappointment. Their Achilles’ heel is foul-shooting: 66.2%, and none of their nine rotation guys is above 75%. A team that will be protecting leads needs to be able to do better than that.
- Memphis (19-0). Memphis has better wins than Kansas, and could be ranked ahead of them, as they are in the coaches’ poll. They have similar strengths and weaknesses to Kansas, with a fantastic, athletic defense and an efficient offense. They play a different game, a drive-and-kick offense that works much better with their athletes than with, say, Pepperdine’s. Their inability to hit foul shots is going to cost them, however; few teams in the nation are worse from the line than their 58.6% mark, and only Doneal Mack (11-for-14) is a very good option late in games.
- North Carolina (19-1). There’s a dropoff after the top two to Carolina, whose high-scoring games aren’t just a product of Roy Williams’ foot and a gas pedal. Their defensive efficiency of 91.7 is high for a title contender, and you’re hard-pressed to find very good teams that allow opponents to shoot 47% from two-point range. The Tar Heels have allowed 80 or more points in five of their last six games, and you can only outscore your defense on so many nights.
- UCLA (17-2). Two tough home losses stand out, but consider that UCLA hasn’t really had their full rotation healthy and available yet this season. If Kevin Love can survive the pounding he’s been taking and the inevitable freshman fatigue, a third straight Final Four isn’t just possible, it’s probable. They don’t play from behind very well, shooting threes neither well (210th) nor often (281st) and playing at a very slow pace (228th). If they get bounced from March Madness, it will be in a game in which they fall behind by 10 early in the second half.
- Duke (17-1). They’re a second-half collapse and an overtime heave removed from an undefeated season, and even if they hadn’t been victimized by Pitt, I might not have them higher. With Brian Zoubek out, they have no one taller than 6’8”, and just one player taller than 6’5” on the floor most of the time. That’s a Valley team, not an ACC one. They deny the three and play the passing lanes very well, and Mike Krzyzewski has pushed the tempo more with his smaller, good-shooting team. With all that, though, the lack of size is going to bite them, if not in a weak ACC, in the tournament.
- Georgetown (16-2). Before dinging Georgetown too hard for their schedule, consider that playing Michigan, Alabama and taking roadies to Ball State, Old Dominion and Memphis is clearly not an attempt to avoid good games. Intent of schedule should matter, even if the numbers don’t look very good in a particular year. Despite the presence of 7’2” Roy Hibbert, the Hoyas have struggled on the defensive glass, allowing opponents to snag three out of every 10 misses. That’s killed them in losses to Memphis (16 offensive boards allowed) and Pitt (12).
- Washington State (17-2). Their two losses are at UCLA and at a healthy Arizona, and no two-loss team in the country can match that. Washington State never, ever loses composure, running their stuff, playing lockdown defense and shooting the lights out (seventh in eFG at 56.2). With three seniors and three juniors getting most of the minutes, they’re as experienced as any team in the country, and could rightfully be ranked five spots higher. With four straight home games against the California teams coming up, they might well get there.
- Tennessee (16-2). There’s a gap after Washington State. The Vols give up a lot of easy points, as evidenced by the 51.3% their opponents shoot from two. Some of that is the pressing defense they play, some is a schedule of pretty good shooting teams, and some is that they’re just not that good in the half court. Tennessee shoots 41.8% from three, and 63.9% from the line. That’s partly Wayne Chism (12-31), but still…. Tough road week coming up, they could jump a couple of spots with two wins.
- Michigan State (18-2). Sometimes, they just don’t show up, which makes it hard to take them seriously. The 36-point night at Iowa was as bad a performance as you’ll see from a nominal Final Four contender. Even by Tom Izzo standards, this team plays inside the arc: 338th in the country in three-point rate, and only Drew Neitzel, among rotation guys, averages two attempts a game. A soft Big 11 makes them a threat to have a good record, but the entire conference will get exposed on the first weekend of the dance.
- Wisconsin (16-3). Ken Pomeroy takes a long look at the Badgers and finds them, rather than Sparty, to be the best team in the Big 11. I can’t choose between them, and with all due respect to Ken, the Badgers’ only good win is a one-point, last-second escape against Texas. That has to matter. We’ll know more by the end of the week: Indiana comes a’callin’, and then the Badgers go to Minnesota in a game the Gophers must have.
- Xavier (17-4). I’ll probably write more about this at some point, but there’s no way you can call Atlantic 14 teams “mid-majors”. In Division I you have the BCS schools, then a second tier that includes the A-14, Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC. The Valley, in the last three years, has moved into this tier. Those 11 conferences are majors, with a division within the group. After that you have the occasional multi-bid conferences such as the Horizon, West Coast, MAC and Colonial; you might put the Sun Belt here, and sometimes the MAAC, Big West and Southern conferences spend a year or two in this class. Then there’s everyone else: the conferences that never, ever get an at-large bid.
Anyway, Xavier isn’t a mid-major. They are, however, a devastating team that occasionally loses the keys to the defense. Drew Lavender is 5’7”, and I don’t care how good you are, when you’re 5’7”, sometimes you’re a problem on the defensive end. It’s an exploitable weakness that will cost them a game every couple of weeks.
- Texas (15-3). The good: a backcourt that can shoot and rarely turns the ball over. The bad: a backcourt that consists of two guys under six feet tall. Throw in 6’2” Justin Mason, and I guarantee you that Kansas is not quaking in their boots about playing the second-best team in the Big Ecks-Eye-Eye. It’s a mismatch. That said, Texas has three very good wins, including a road win at Pauley Pavilion, so you have to take them seriously. There’s another dropoff at this point.
- Indiana (17-2). Losing at home to a Connecticut team down a starter is a big black mark. The Hoosiers have now played two games against likely tournament teams and lost both (maybe Illinois State makes it, maybe they don’t). As with the other two good teams in the conference, Indiana will put up a good record beating the awful bottom five, but it will take some kind of good win on the road—say, at Wisconsin Thursday—to make them relevant nationally.
- Drake (16-1). Like Indiana, their only RPI top-50 win is over Illinois State. The Coffee Cakes have won their share of close games (28th in Luck) and have beaten some good-not-great squads in Duquesne, Creighton and Southern Illinois. The Valley’s weakness this season will make it hard for them to survive a rough stretch; they need to win the conference outright, preferably at 15-3 or better, to assure themselves an at-large bid.
- Butler (19-2). How many Horizon League teams have ever had two more losses in conference than outside of it? Butler, which ran the table outside of the league, has lost two close games at Wright State and Cleveland State. Don’t be fooled by the scores: this Butler team is terrific with the ball and not so good stopping it, allowing a 50% eFG and 50.2% shooting from two-point range. They’re tiny up front, which means their long-term future depends on catching the right matchups.
- Arizona (13-6). As Ken noted today, Kevin O’Neill has improved the Wildcats’ notoriously poor defense by staying off the offensive glass. That has slowed Arizona’s games down while giving them a better shot at defending in the half court. Two of the ‘Cats losses are in overtime, and two others were by seven points, total. The Wildcats are also one of three teams to have lost to both Kansas and Memphis (Oklahoma, USC). With a healthy Jerryd Bayliss on hand, this is a very good team, and possibly a protected seed. The road trip to L.A. this week is huge.
- Connecticut (14-5). The Indiana game was a lesson in what happens when the big kids get hold of the court. Hasheem Thabeet changed the game, despite having just two blocks and five rebounds in 38 minutes. The Huskies outrebounded the Hoosiers 41-26 and held them to 12-for-42 from two-point range. That’s size. The Huskies might go right back into their poor-shooting, indifferent-defense shell this week, but when you look at their schedule, it’s easier to see them going on a very long run. They don’t play a team clearly better than them until the semis of the Big East tournament.
- Florida (18-3). The stats hate the Gators, who despite an 18-3 record and a big win over Vandy are just #42 in the RPI, and #33 in the Pomeroy Rankings. That’s largely scheduling: their best win before Saturday came against Temple, and even now they’re just 3-3 against the RPI top 100. The SEC East will afford a number of opportunities of course, and what we will probably learn is that this is a young team a year away from real success. I’d be shocked if they won even once this week (at Arkansas, at Tennessee).
- Kansas State (13-4). Their obliteration at the hands of Xavier looks more like a blip, the only black mark in a two-month run of Ws. Michael Beasley is using nearly a third of the team’s possessions, but using them well, while crashing the glass and getting to the line. Their backcourt can’t handle Kansas’s, which makes the upset bid a longshot, but Beasley’s skills and the home crowd should make it Kansas’ most interesting game in some time.
- Oklahoma (14-5). Oklahoma has five losses, and all five are of reasonable quality, with the worst a home loss to Stephen F. Austin. (It sounds worse than it is.) Blake Griffin and Longar Longar are hard to guard in tandem, and the freshman’s offensive game is getting better by the week. He made some big baskets to take out Baylor Saturday afternoon. The game against Texas A&M Saturday is one of the best matchups of the week.
- West Virginia (14-5). I can’t say I’m sold, as what you have here is a John Beilein talent base playing a Bob Huggins system. However, like Oklahoma, you have a five-loss team with no bad defeats, and a couple of good wins. Picking off Georgetown would have been a huge scalp; even without it, though, they’re a tournament team. The Mountaineers are eighth in the Pomeroy Ratings thanks to excellent three-point shooting (47th nationally) and great defense (12th). Hmmm…maybe the mix is working after all.
- Marquette (13-4). They’re on probation until they pick up a conference road win, which better happen before they go to St. John’s on Feb. 20. Their three Big East road games have resulted in losses by 15, 20 and 16 points. You can’t ride that December win at Wisconsin forever.
- St. Mary’s (16-2). You’d think they’d be higher, but they’re just 33rd in the Pomeroy Ratings, 2-2 on the road, and were slapped down in their only two real road tests, by Southern Illinois and Texas. 2007 wins over Drake, Seton Hall, San Diego State and Ohio have had better legs than expected. Mostly, they’re not good enough defensively to hang with top teams. Gonzaga should exploit them twice.
- Vanderbilt (17-3). This is a little harsh. However, they should never have let Kentucky get out of regulation, and the losses to Tennessee and Florida were awfully ugly. They don’t play defense, which shows up both in the stats and on the floor, leaving them to try and win every game 83-80. Efficient teams like the Vols and Gators just eat them alive, and they had trouble putting away mid-level teams in December because they couldn’t get stops.
- Stanford (16-3). A nod to the Pomeroy Ratings, which show the Cardinal as the 15th-best team in the land. There’s no nonconference pop here, just beating the teams they should beat (save for Siena) and losing to the ones they should lose to. If they do nothing but that the rest of the way, they’ll go 22-10, get an eight seed and go out quietly in the first round. They’re a very blah team.