Monday, February 13, 2012
Poll Thoughts: Um, hello? Wichita State?
By Eamonn Brennan
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. In case you missed it, Jason King filled in admirably during my constant travel last week. Gracias, Jason.
I'll admit it: This has not been a particularly engaging season for the Poll Thoughts. There just hasn't been much in the way of "controversy." Controversy is in scare quotes because it's actually impossible for the ESPN/USA Today or Associated Press polls to be controversial. For something to be controversial, it has to actually matter, and the polls -- as veterans of this space already know -- do not matter. They're helpful guidebooks, snapshots for casual fans, and decent indicators of national perception. But their relationship with reality, let alone rigor, is tenuous at best.
Still, the polls have done a mostly good job this season. It's hard to remember a time when I looked at one of the coaches' polls and was totally blown away by its stupidity. Until -- drum roll, please -- today.
How on earth is Wichita State not ranked?! And this is why. The Wichita State Shockers are 22-4 overall and 13-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference. This weekend, they achieved that record (and sole possession of first-place in a quality league's standings) by absolutely drubbing the previously ranked Creighton Bluejays, 89-68, in a game that was never particularly close or competitive. On Saturday, as my roommate and I were marveling at the scores baked in the TV viewing in ESPN and Samsung's built-in Scorecenter app,* my roommate looked at the Wichita State-Creighton score and asked me whether Wichita State was any good. "They are," I said. "Really good." Would they be ranked on Monday? "Oh, no question. Probably should have been already, but they'll be in the top 25 for sure."
I was wrong, apparently, but I shouldn't be. In case you needed added evidence of how good this team has been, let's consult (as usual) Ken Pomeroy's rankings, where the Shockers come in at No. 9 in the nation overall. Or, if you need another data point, observe our newfangled (and just-released, more on this later) Basketball Power Index, in which Wichita State ranks No. 11. See? Gregg Marshall's team is really good! And yet, somehow, they're merely receiving votes, while the likes of Mississippi State -- which lost at home to Georgia Saturday -- remains in the poll at No. 23. (The Bulldogs' KenPom rank? No. 71. Are they that bad? No. Are they top 25 good at this point in the season? Also no.) This should have been an easy swap. And yet, here we are. Baffling stuff.
(*I'm not shilling, promise. The thing is just plain awesome.)
Speaking of which, what about Temple? If Wichita State doesn't tickle your fancy (and I don't know why it wouldn't, but hey, different strokes), you could make the exact same argument about Temple, which came in just behind the Shockers in the also receiving votes category and actually beat WSU back in November. Temple has won its last eight games against Atlantic-10 competition, including Saturday's waltz of a home win over one-time A-10 contender Xavier; Fran Dunphy's team has established itself as the best of a topsy-turvy, wide-open league. I'm not exactly sure how Mississippi State's recent body of work could be considered more worthy of a rank than Temple's. Maybe you can tell me.
Notre Dame arrives. For all the complaining about the bottom edges of the poll and the inability of the coaches to find a spot for this excellent Shockers team, you have to give them credit on one new inclusion: the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. (Nor do I have a particular problem with Gonzaga after the last week's win over Saint Mary's, though Wichita State probably has an argument here, too.) Mike Brey's team was left for dead in November and December, but Brey has suddenly built them into one of the nation's most surprisingly consistent teams. Since Jan. 21's home upset of Syracuse, the Irish have won six in a row, including a 17-point home win over Marquette and road victories at UConn, Seton Hall and West Virginia. This inclusion may have been a week or two late, but at least it finally happened.
The curious case of the Duke Blue Devils. Here's the thing: When you watch Duke, you don't see the fourth-best team in the country. At least, I don't. I suspect even the most partisan Duke fans -- who ought to know elite basketball when they see it -- would agree. And yet, for all the defensive struggles and unusual home losses (Miami, Florida State) and the general feeling that this young team isn't anywhere near the vintage we've come to expect from Coach K's program, it's kind of hard to dispute the ranking. Strictly based on wins and losses, does any team ranked below Duke have a better résumé? Does any team have a win as good as the Blue Devils' dramatic come-from-behind victory at UNC Wednesday? Coach K said in his postgame news conference that he thinks North Carolina is still the best team in the ACC; I'm inclined to agree. Crazy things happen in less than three minutes, and all that. But as jarring as it is to see Duke among the top-five teams in the country, at this point, it's not hard to see why the coaches put them there. Slightly deceptive? Sure. But entirely understandable all the same.
Despite ugly week, Florida holds steady. Of course, there's nothing wrong with taking your licks at Kentucky. Florida is not the first team to do so this season, nor will it be the last. (Newsflash: Kentucky is really, really good.) But here's the thing: On Saturday, Florida lost at home to 13-12 Tennessee thanks mostly to a typically lackluster defensive performance. That's Florida's second loss to the Vols this season. And still, the Gators hold relatively steady at No. 12. I'm not sure Marquette doesn't deserve a nudge upward. Saint Mary's lost at Gonzaga; that's hardly incriminating. Even San Diego State, which took a hard-fought two-point loss at UNLV, may have a case. Either way, Florida fell five spots, so this No. 12 ranking may have as much to do with that as it does any rigorous team-by-team comparison. But the Gators feel far shakier than their ranking suggests.
Murray State Watch: This is the first post-loss poll of the fascinating season-long Murray State saga, one that has seen the Racers rise as high as No. 7 in the country on the strength of their undefeated record. The first question -- how high can Murray State rise? -- was answered last week. The next question -- how far could Murray State fall? -- is available here. The answer: Not all that far, actually. You could imagine the voters using Thursday's four-point home loss to Tennessee State as a reason to take this upstart squad with the gaudy record in the weak Ohio Valley down a peg. Instead, the Racers merely fell to No. 14. I have no problem with this. I don't believe for a second Murray State is one of the best 15 teams in the country, no more than we thought they were one of the best 10 last week. But I don't care who you play, or what league you're in: A 24-0 start is an accomplishment. The recognition seems appropriate.
As always, unleash your poll thoughts (i.e. rants, complaints, homemade poetry verses, and so forth) in the comments below.