As mentioned, I use an objective measure as a starting point and a sanity check. The formula is 20% RPI (via CollegeRPI.com, 40% Pomeroy Rating and 40% Sagarin Rating. I’m not going to say that that’s the best way of melding these numbers; I just wanted something that ensured I wouldn’t be leaving unranked, say, one of the best teams in the Big East, which happened in the coaches’ poll last week.
At the bottom of this page you’ll find the rankings if they were done solely by this objective score, presented without commentary, as point of comparison. Where I think this system has helped me the most is by causing me to not overreact to my image of a team. Marquette, for example, has been extremely frustrating to watch, and were it up to just my subjective evaluation, they would probably be unranked. Their #12 ranking the objective list would indicate that that’s a mistake. I end up splitting the difference.
Among teams ranked by me and unranked objectively, you have Purdue (#26), St. Mary’s (#28), Butler (#30) and Vanderbilt (#34). I’m comfortable with my rankings, especially the last two, on whom the various systems differ pretty wildly.
All records are Division I games only, through Sunday, and the second number in parens is a team’s rank in last week’s poll. The List will probably continue to run on Tuesdays for the rest of the season.
- Memphis (25-0) (1). At any given moment, someone, somewhere, is saying that it would be good for Memphis to lose a game before the NCAA tournament. These people are well-intentioned, but what’s the rationale? In 2004, St .Joseph’s lost in the A-10 tournament, then lost again in the Elite Eight. In 2005, Illinois lost their last game of the regular season, then fell short in the national championship game. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that “-1” makes you better prepared to win a championship than “-0” does, and I’m sure “-0” makes you more special if you can pull it off. I don’t particularly think Memphis can—the foul shooting will kill them at some point—but it’s the right goal.
- Kansas (23-2) (2). They have two losses, both in conference against top-15 teams on the road. For some reason, when they lose these games, they drop in the polls. I don’t understand it; unless the standard is “best teams of all time,” these losses are perfectly reasonable, and all of the objective evidence we have indicates that Kansas is a great team. Their physicality and dominance on the defensive end keep them ahead the next group.
- UCLA (21-3) (4). There’s a gap between the top two teams and UCLA. It’s closing rapidly, though, as UCLA’s defense tightens closer to March. Conceding that USC was playing without Daniel Hackett, the complete shutdown of O.J. Mayo Sunday night was one of the more impressive performances of the season. The only question for UCLA is whether they can get the entire rotation healthy for March. If so, they’ll play into April.
- Duke (22-2) (3). Wake Forest’s lack of status in the polls aside, Duke’s loss wasn’t a bad one. Road games in conference are simply never that bad. It’s worth noting that Duke’s entire starting lineup fouled out, reflecting the speed edge that Wake had up front and strength edge in the back. Teams can outphysical Duke, and how far the Blue Devils go in March willl in part be determined by the matchups they draw.
- Tennessee (22-2) (5). It’s not at all clear to me that the Volunteers deserve to be ranked where they are in the major polls. Would they be favored, or close to it, on a neutral court against any of the teams above them in The List? Their success at romping through the SEC as more to do with that conference being down, and at that, they haven’t exactly Davidson’d the conference. The Memphis game could look a lot like the Texas game.
- North Carolina (24-2) (7). Even without Ty Lawson, they had an easy week against two of the ACC’s lesser lights. Ideally, Lawson would return for the 3/1 game at Boston College, giving him two warmups before the season finale at Duke. Without him, Carolina is just a top-15 team, not a Final Four contender.
- Georgetown (20-4) (6). Something’s not right. The Hoya offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders for a while, and even in their wins, they’ve been letting bad teams hang around far too long. It seems they could run more of the offense through Roy Hibbert, who although leading the team in possessions used hasn’t had the same impact he did in 2007. Like UCLA, Georgetown’s eventual tournament exit will happen when they get down 10 points and can’t come back, as was the case the other day against Syracuse.
- Xavier (21-4) (8). Despite some unimpressive outings, Xavier is riding a seven-game winning streak, three of those on the road (eight and four after Monday night’s league-locking win at Rhode Island). There’s a lot to be said for being able to shoot, having a game-controlling point guard and burying your free throws. With four seniors in the top six, this is a team that may well end up underseeded before making a run to the Elite Eight or even Final Four.
- Connecticut (20-5) (11). Find their next loss for me. The Huskies close by playing just one NCAA team, getting West Virginia at home. Going to Villanova is potentially dangerous, because the Wildcats are capable of shooting 14-for-25 on threes, but they’ll have to to have any chance, because their frontcourt won’t score. Of teams off the radar right now, the Huskies are the best stealth candidate for a #1 seed. They won’t be challenged until the Big East semis.
- Drake (21-2) (9). Going into Carbondale and losing isn’t a big deal, and will have no effect on Drake’s winning the Valley. It does, however, point out a key point about the Valley: it’s a tough league, and the most likely scenario is that Arch Madness produces an automatic-bid winner other than Drake. Will a second loss push the Cakes down to an 8-9 game? The seed question here is one of the most interesting this year.
- Stanford (21-4) (10). A split in Arizona is nothing to be ashamed of, even if it happened a bit backwards. Down the road, I’d give just about anything to see Stanford play Connecticut, with two of the best defensive front lines in the country squaring off. The Cardinal is just missing one element, a top-tier three-point shooter. Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill just don’t shoot threes well enough to take advantage of teams’ need to collapse on the inside.
- Washington State (20-5) (13). The road sweep up in Oregon put things straight, and they can put a crimp in the Arizona schools’ NCAA chances this weekend at home. Numbers don’t lie: the Cougars have become a better offensive team than defensive one since the turn of the calendar, allowing more than a point per possession in league play. They were going to need to improve the attack to succeed, but having done so, it’s time for Tony Bennett’s charges to pick things up defensively.
- Texas (20-4) (16). This may be too low given that they’ve now beaten Kansas, UCLA and Tennessee. Then again, their in-conference numbers still put them behind Kansas State, and D.J. Augustin’s shooting woes have to be a concern. Next Monday’s trip to Manhattan will be a great game, with the winner clinging to the hope of the Big 12 championship.
- Butler (24-2) (14). The fantastic Joe Lunardi has a comment in his latest Bracketology about how Butler is “really get a pass in the ‘quality win’ discussion.” Now, the numbers back up his point: Butler has one RPI Top 50 win, over Ohio State, and no other top-50 games. However, and this comes up more in college football than college basketball, I think “intent of schedule” is relevant here. Butler won the Great Alaska Shootout, played Florida State on a semi-neutral court, won at Bradley and Southern Illinois. Clearly, Butler was trying to play a bid-worthy schedule. To me, criticizing a team because the major teams it played turned out to be lousy is counterproductive. I know the numbers are a factor, and they have to be, but Butler doesn’t have a lack of quality wins because it scheduled that way; it has a lack of quality wins because its BCS competition tanked.
- Wisconsin (21-4) (15). I have no idea what to do with teams from Wisconsin. The Badgers’ numbers are terrific, and yet every time I watch theym play they look lost on the court, with a lack of intensity that goes beyond just the pace at which they play. They don’t shoot well enough, and with just 63 possessions a game, they increase the chance that teams can hang around long enough to squeak by them late. They’ve won two games on last-second prayers-their two best wins, in fact—without which they would have a distinctly unimpressive resume.
- Louisville (20-6) (20). Ken and John have been singing the Cardinals’ praises for a while now, so I’ll just note that this conservative ranking reflects an acknowledgement that the team that lost at home to Cincinnati and Dayton, and by 10 at Seton Hall, is still lurking here. Three of Louisville’s final four games are potential losses, including very tough road trips to Pittsburgh and Georgetown. If they have nine losses on March 15, how high can you realistically slot them?
- Purdue (21-5) (24). Is it fair to slot Purdue behind both Wisconsin and Louisville? Probably not, especially Wisconsin, which was swept by the Boilers. Then again, Purdue does even worse by the objective measures, which seems to be factoring team age into their forumlae. I’m going to take a small pass here: I’ve probably seen less of Purdue than of any team on this ranking, save Drake, and have no subjective sense of whether they’re a good team in a bad conference, or a great young team. Remember: home loss to Wofford.
- Kansas State (17-6) (17). Kansas State doesn’t shoot that well, so the fact that they’re the best offensive-rebounding team in the country is pretty valuable. As any team featuring three freshmen will be, their wildly inconsistent, capable of beating Kansas, then losing to a crippled Missouri team or a Texas Tech squad playing out the string. They have a brutal stretch starting Saturday: at Baylor, home for Texas, at Kansas over eight days.
- Indiana (21-4) (18). They have excellent numbers and as compelling an inside/outside combo as there is in basketball. At the same time…why was Wisconsin even in that game? They get no bonus points for me for playing well under the circumstances; they created the circumstances, and like it or not, schools get bids, not just the players. The conference is just awful, making it hard to take what will be a 15-3 or 14-4 record in it that seriously (the same goes for all of the top five teams). It’s entirely possible that a 10-6 Big 11 team without nonconference pop won’t deserve an at-large bid.
- St. Mary’s (21-3) (23). They’re a hard team to judge because their best season has come in an absolutely brutal year for the West Coast Conference. The six teams other than St Mary’s and Gonzaga are just horrible, six of the worst teams above the level of the one-bid conferences. Santa Clara and shoot a little and do nothing else, and the other five…picture teams that can’t shoot, littered with players who can’t break anyone down off the dribble, playing (Pepperdine sort of excepted, Loyola less so) slow half-court basketball. I’ve watched as much WCC ball as any conference, and any loss suffered by St. Mary’s or Gonzaga other than to the other is a potential bid-killer. So what I’m saying is, don’t be that impressed by the road wins this weekend for SMC.
- Texas A&M (19-5) (19). Note that they were slotted here before Monday night’s disaster in Austin. A&M now has basically one impressive win since November, and that game was returned by 27 points. No, I’m not that impressed by beating Oklahoma at home. They have three road wins, all over non-tourney teams, and are 3-4 on the road in toto. John Gasaway’s numbers put them not at the bottom of the top, but the top of the middle of a muddled Big 12.
- Marquette (17-6) (NR). Like I say…teams from Wisconsin. Marquette either wins big or loses ugly, and if you know which team will show up on a given night, you’re a better man then I. They absolutely destroyed Seton Hall and Pittsburgh last week, and really, based on talent they should remain unchallenged until a March 1 home game with Georgetown. Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a physical St. John’s team give them fits Wednesday night.
- Notre Dame (19-5) (22). This is almost certainly penalizing them too much for the loss at Connecticut, and they followed it up with a road win. Still, I worry about this team’s defense, which gives up a shade over a point per possession. The Irish don’t force turnovers, and some of their 19-5 record stems from an opponents’ free-throw percentage that is fourth-worst in the country. Unless they’ve discovered some exceptional jinxing techniques, that’s more fluke than skill. Then again, they haven’t lost a game they shouldn’t have lost since November.
- Vanderbilt (22-4) (25). It’s probably worth noting that the SEC killed them this year, giving them, over 19 days in January, road trips to Lexington, Knoxville, Gainesville and Oxford. They lost all four, making it seem like they were collapsing—OK, they lost three of those by 16+--when they were mostly getting scheduled to death. A five-game winning streak features two road wins, and that’ll extend to six this week. The February 26 rematch with Tennessee—which will be coming off of the Memphis game—is a huge opportunity.
- Clemson (18-6) (NR). They’ve played six overtime periods in six weeks, in no small part because they shoot 62.9% from the foul line and can only get two real good options—Demontez Stitt and Terrence Oglesby—on the court late in games. Combined with the fact that their halfcourt defense is only so-so, it means that teams are almost never out of games against the Tigers. That’s a bug, not a feature, especially in a conference where everyone can hang around for 38 minutes. They could finish anywhere from 9-7 to 12-4 in the ACC without surprising me at all.