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Poll Thoughts: Harvard somehow hangs on

1/9/2012

College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make the arguments any less fun. In that spirit, I present the creatively named Poll Thoughts, which you can expect every Monday until the season is over.

Week 10 is here. The coaches' poll results are in. With all precincts reporting, Duke has slipped out of the top five, Indiana has inched into the top 10, Wisconsin has left the building entirely, Harvard has somehow survived at No. 25 and yours truly has been thrust into the uncomfortable position of arguing against a team from the Ivy League in favor of a team from the Big East. Only in Poll Thoughts, you guys. Only in Poll Thoughts.

Let's begin.

Coaches love Harvard, apparently. Usually, the Poll Thoughts starts at the top of the poll and works its way down. Usually, the Poll Thoughts prefers to side in favor of the bootstrapping mid-major over the big-money power-six program. Neither of those things is true today. Why? Because Harvard's inclusion in the poll is one of the more glaring coaches' mistakes we've seen thus far this season. The Crimson were hanging on at No. 21 before their 60-54 loss at Fordham on Jan. 3. In the meantime, Seton Hall beat UConn by 12 points at home, and that game was preceded by an impressive win over West Virginia and followed by a solid road win at Providence.

When you compare the two teams' résumés to date, things look even worse: Harvard doesn't have a win anywhere near as good as the one over UConn, and the Crimson's best victory to date, over Florida State in the Bahamas, looks worse and worse with each gross FSU performance. (The Seminoles have won one of their past four, including a triple-OT home loss to Princeton and Saturday's 20-point road drubbing at the hands of a bad Clemson team.)

Usually, the Poll Thoughts prefers to root for the underdog. And I'll admit it's been lovely to see Harvard -- so improved under Tommy Amaker and the clear favorite to win the Ivy League -- get its first poll recognition in decades this season. It's a nice little story. But this inclusion stretches credulity, to say the least.

Wisconsin waves farewell. Wisconsin has left the poll for the first time all season this week, but even the most die-hard Badgers fans probably would find it difficult to argue that the departure wasn't deserved. The Badgers' cold shooting has cost them their past three games, including a pair of rare home losses, one of which came by seven points to Iowa. If that doesn't get you unranked, nothing will. And so it did.

Hey, check out Middle Tennessee! Give the coaches credit for this much: They reserved some noteworthy love for the Middle Tennessee, which is now 15-2 (4-0 in the Sun Belt) with its only two losses coming in double overtime at Belmont (a loss later avenged with a 65-62 win on Dec. 13) and at UAB. Middle Tennessee may not crack the poll anytime soon, but the Blue Raiders pulled in 20 votes this week, more than Alabama, West Virginia and a host of other teams that typically garner much more attention. For a Sun Belt program, 20 poll votes is a victory unto itself.

Meanwhile, Murray State continues its climb. The Racers added two more wins to their record this past week, surviving a pair of tricky games against Eastern Kentucky and Austin Peay en route to their still-unblemished 16-0 record. Last week, a 14-0 slate earned Murray State the coaches' No. 18 spot. This week, thanks to the attrition surrounding them, the Racers moved up to No. 14.

How high can they go? Will they keep moving up by default, even as their wins come against the downright awful OVC? Will the coaches institute an invisible poll ceiling along the way? Would one loss knock the Racers out of the Top 25? This is a fascinating little experiment in poll reality, because if we're being honest, Murray State is not the 14th-best team in the country by any stretch of the imagination. But if Isaiah Canaan keeps banging home 3-pointers, well, who knows?

Michigan earns its ranking. The Wolverines appeared to be one of the most overranked teams in the country last week; their shoddy defense to date and so-so efficiency margins belied a team arguably could have been left out of the poll entirely, let alone included at No. 13. But last week, Michigan rewarded the coaches' seemingly misplaced faith. The Wolverines nearly toppled Indiana in Assembly Hall, losing 73-71 instead, then put a hurting on an ice-cold Wisconsin team at home, holding it to 41 points in their season's most impressive win to date. Michigan might not be the 13th-best team in the country, but after last week's performance, that ranking feels much closer to reality.

Duke falls out of the top five, but is it far enough? The top 10 is relatively reasonable this week, as is the top five, which is: No. 1 Syracuse, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Baylor and No. 5 Ohio State. You might notice that Duke is not among these teams. Nor should it be. The Blue Devils looked thoroughly mediocre in last week's loss at Temple, and losing to Temple, despite the Owls' excellence in that game, should knock you down a peg or two in the rankings. But at No. 6, did Duke fall far enough? The Temple loss was followed by an uninspiring escape against a rebuilding Georgia Tech team, which trailed the Dukies by just three points with 41 seconds remaining.

Considering the comparative résumés of the two teams just below Duke in this week's rankings, Duke arguably should have fallen even further. This week's No. 7, Michigan State, beat Indiana by 15 on Dec. 28, won at Wisconsin last week and is unbeaten in 14 straight games. Indiana has upset Kentucky and Ohio State and outlasted Michigan at home and Penn State on the road to move to 15-1 by Sunday afternoon. The Michigan State argument is a bit trickier, because Duke beat the Spartans head-to-head on Nov. 15, but given how bad Duke's defense is playing right now, wouldn't you take either team over Duke at this point? And if not, why not?

For the record, The Associated Press agrees with me. Great minds, AP. Great minds.