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Saddle Up: Underrated Virginia takes its shot

2/28/2013

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It lives in fear of medical bills.

No. 3 Duke at Virginia, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Virginia might be the most underrated team in the country, at least by the one system more important than any other in college hoops in late February and early March: the RPI.

The Cavaliers are ranked No. 65 according to that metric, and it's not hard to figure out why: early-season losses to George Mason and Old Dominion (whose down year and No. 322 RPI just keep coming back to haunt the Cavs). Some of those losses were suffered while the Cavaliers weren't at full strength -- the RPI doesn't factor injuries and the like into its formula (the BPI does), and committee members are left to tease out some of those injury specifics on their own. The point is, when you lose games like that, full strength or not -- and your nonconference schedule isn't all that great (No. 297) in the first place -- your RPI figure is going to suffer. Even if you win at Wisconsin. Which Virginia did.

Compare the RPI to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, in which the Cavaliers are ranked No. 16 overall. There might have been wider gaps between RPI and efficiency numbers for bubble teams in recent years, but I can't remember any. If you're inclined to side with the efficiency statistics -- and why wouldn't you be; they're better -- we're seeing a huge evaluative gap between what Virginia is and what the tournament selection committee's favored organization says Virginia is.

If I were a Virginia fan -- or Tony Bennett -- this would make me angry.

But there is some good news. The Blue Devils come to Charlottesville on Thursday night. Duke is still the nation's top-ranked RPI outfit, and for obvious reasons: The Blue Devils are 24-3 with eight top-50 wins, five of which came on neutral courts during the nonconference season. There is no better RPI-related scalp than the Blue Devils, and it's not really close. The good news portion of this information is that despite all that RPI love, Duke is totally beatable, particularly on the road. The Blue Devils have played just the ACC's fourth-best per-possession defense in conference play; they allow opponents to grab 33.1 percent of available offensive rebounds (third-worst in the league), get to the line 36.5 percent of the time (also third-worst in the league) and let opposing offenses shoot 50.3 percent inside the arc (just plain worst in the league). There are some major flaws here, flaws Virginia -- which has the highest effective field goal percentage in ACC play at 54.1 percent -- should be able to exploit.

If all you see is RPI updates and Bracketology, you could be fooled into thinking the Cavaliers weren't very good. But they're better than the weird old RPI and the top-25 polls give them credit for -- just about every other metric we have tells us so.

Now all they have to do is prove it.

No. 2 Gonzaga at BYU, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Every Monday -- except this past Monday, when I came down with whatever stomach thing keeps making my life miserable four days on -- I argue that polls are mostly meaningless. Then I discuss the polls as though they mean anything. It's usually pretty fun.

But there are times when I'll acknowledge that polls do have meaning. One such instance was earlier this year, when Michigan was voted the Associated Press No. 1 for the first time since Nov. 30, 1992 (back when "Home Alone 2" and Whitney Houston were the cream of the cultural crop). Since the Fab Five glory days, Michigan fans had agonized for decades -- actual decades -- for a rebirth of Wolverines basketball. Finally, it had arrived. A No. 1 seed merely made it official.

That's why Thursday night's game is so important for Gonzaga. If the Zags win at BYU -- no easy feat, but a manageable one -- and then hold serve at home against Portland on Saturday, they'll almost certainly become No. 1 in the Associated Press poll Monday afternoon. On the one hand, that means nothing. We know Gonzaga is good; we've known it since the late 1990s. On the other hand, for a tiny Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., that broke into the tournament more than a decade ago as the quintessential Cinderella to not only be the No. 1 team in the country but to be a program for which that kind of ranking is not the least bit surprising -- well, in some ways, it means everything.