College Basketball Nation: Poll Thoughts

All the way back in 2010, Ken Pomeroy published something that hit every last one of my college hoops knowledge dopamine nodes. At first it was counterintuitive, then it was surprising, and then, once fully processed, it made perfect sense; it was the kind of thing Malcolm Gladwell has been making a living doing for years. (And yes, you hipster, I mean that as a compliment). The only difference? Gladwell usually doesn't write about the efficacy of The Associated Press preseason poll.

The crux of Ken's post was this: "You might be surprised to hear this, but I’m a big fan of the preseason AP poll." Wait ... what? Don't we spend all season talking about how dumb the AP polls are, and doesn't it follow that a preseason ranking -- based off little more than educated guesses -- would be dumbest of them all? Not so much, actually. Ken explained:
While experts naturally try to declare which teams are too high or too low in the polls, I imagine their success is like financial experts trying to pick a winning mutual fund. Some people are going to be right some of the time, but if we tracked such things, I think we’d find that the groupthink found in the polls would be tough to beat by any one person in the long run.
It’s when the games start being played that things fall apart. Then, each voter’s bias becomes the same. You lose, you drop in the poll. You win, and you move up. (I exaggerate slightly. Later in the season at the bottom of the poll, there’s some flexibility. I’m primarily referring to the top ten or so teams here.)
However, in the preseason, voters are free from such restrictions. With every team at 0-0, there is also no conflict in voting a team with a worse record over one with a better record, another thing that mid-season voters try to avoid. With the voters having to use their hoops expertise as opposed to adhering to certain conventions, you end up with an accurate picture of which teams are truly the best.

Think about all the swerves and course corrections -- rinse and repeat -- we go through the course of a college basketball season. Think of the way we underrate teams or overrate them based on nebulous perceptions. Think about the way first impressions cloud our judgement, or the way high-profile mistakes cause us to proclaim we don't "trust" certain players. Think about all of the weekly overreactions to this player or that. Think about all of the narratives that may or may not apply.

Think about the Indiana Hoosiers, now your feted outright Big Ten champion, and think about the difference a few inches of leather atop an orange metal cylinder makes. Think about all the luck.

When you think about it, trusting the preseason poll -- at least among the teams at the top -- actually makes perfect sense.

So for our final Poll Thoughts* of the season, at a time when any and all arguments about the polls somehow feel even less worthwhile than normal (and that's saying a lot), I figured it would be fun to go back and look at that preseason AP poll. After four months, and 30 or so games apiece, how do those October rankings stack up?

2012-13 AP Preseason Poll
  1. Indiana (46)
  2. Louisville (18)
  3. Kentucky (1)
  4. Ohio State
  5. Michigan
  6. North Carolina State
  7. Kansas
  8. Syracuse
  9. Duke
  10. Florida
  11. North Carolina
  12. Arizona
  13. UCLA
  14. Missouri
  15. Creighton
  16. Baylor
  17. Memphis
  18. UNLV
  19. Gonzaga
  20. Notre Dame
  21. Michigan State
  22. Wisconsin
  23. Connecticut
  24. Cincinnati
  25. San Diego State
Others receiving votes: Virginia Commonwealth 75, Murray State 64, Minnesota 58, Pittsburgh 36, Saint Louis 32, Saint Joseph's 30, Butler 22, Texas 20, Tennessee 18, Marquette 18, Kansas State 12, Miami (FL) 9, Saint Mary's 8, West Virginia 7, New Mexico 7, Florida State 7, Ohio 6, Alabama 5, Davidson 4, Northern Iowa 4, Stanford 4, Bucknell 1, Georgetown 1, Maryland 1

That's ... actually pretty darn good.

All right, obviously there are some misses, even in the top 10. NC State was always pretty obviously overranked (I won't give myself credit in hindsight often in this post, but this is one of those times -- that was a bubble team until two wins in March, and all of a sudden they're the ACC favorite?), but few saw Kentucky's total hangover. (Usually, when John Calipari gets talented freshmen, he wins. Every rule has an exception.) Duke was underrated. North Carolina was overrated. Voters seemed uncertain about UCLA, because "national title contender" or "dumpster fire" seemed the only two plausible outcomes. Baylor was a whiff. There are a few others you probably don't even need me to point out -- ACC regular-season champ Miami, for one. Gonzaga, for another. Georgetown, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, New Mexico, Marquette. Yes, there were misses. It's a preseason poll.

But there are also some pretty good picks up there. Ohio State may not be the fourth-best team in the country, but the way the Buckeyes are guarding people right now, the way they shut down the best offense in the country in its own building last week, they're really not far off. The voters were bang-on about Michigan in the face of some convincing statistical projections to the contrary. The voters got Florida, Kansas, Syracuse and Arizona about right (even if the latter two are fading somewhat down the stretch). As long as you're willing to agree that the 15th spot in the poll and the first handful of teams that also received votes are essentially interchangeable, you have to give it up for Michigan State, Wisconsin, VCU, Pitt, Saint Louis, Butler, Creighton, UConn, San Diego State, Notre Dame -- few of these teams have been outright flops.

And then there is the top. Indiana began the season ranked No. 1, the clear (if not overwhelming) favorite to win the national title. Louisville began the season No. 2. Throw Duke into that mix -- and it's not like being ranked No. 9 overall is being slept on -- and you've got three obvious current national title favorites a day after the end of the regular season.

Oh, and this isn't Gonzaga hate, I promise. It's just that the Zags have some not-totally-insignificant statistical history working against them. Because being the best team in the country and being ranked No. 1 before the tournament starts doesn't always go together.

As Pomeroy wrote all the way back in 2010:
Six times the preseason #1 has won the national title compared to three for the top-ranked team at the end of the regular season. The preseason #1 has made it to the title game a total of 10 times compared to just six for the final #1. It’s stunning to me that armed with 25-30 games of additional information, the writers’ ability to identify the nation’s best team (in so much as tournament performance is indicative of which team is best, which we know is not always the case, but over 21 years the final poll should have a leg up on the pre-season poll) gets worse!

We may not like to admit this, but alas, we are human. We love drama. We ascribe qualities to players and teams from the comforts of our couches; we make grandiloquent statements when a team wins and freak out when it loses. We think Illinois is one of the best teams in the country, and then the players are quitting on the coach, and wait, look, they're good again, what heart -- when really it's as simple as a team winning when it makes 3s and losing when it doesn't. But that's not as much fun to talk about. It has to be something deeper.

Sometimes it is, but often it isn't. For as much knowledge as we gain during the course of a 30-game regular season, it's difficult to separate the signal from so much noise. Which is why it's helpful to revisit how we saw things in the preseason, before anyone played anyone, and remember that our first instincts are often right.

* I will probably revisit this after we crown a champion in April, but from here on out it's all tournament, all the time.
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.

The polls don't matter.

We've said this all season; it's our standard disclaimer. Hey, let's talk about the polls -- it's a good argument, it's fun -- but for the sake of all that is holy, do not take any of this stuff too seriously. It's just a poll.

But there are rare instances in which the polls do mean something more than a week's worth of bragging rights. There are times when a team's appearance in the Top 25, or more specifically its ascent to the No. 1 overall spot, isn't just about a made-for-casual-fans snapshot of the college basketball landscape or a quick consensus of the season to date. In those cases, it's something much more. In those cases, not unlike Batman, the No. 1 spot becomes a symbol.

So it was with Michigan earlier this season, and so it is again today, as the Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in program history.

The Bulldogs got there by dominating their league and finishing 16-0 once more, something they've done a handful of times in their past decade-plus as one of the nation's most consistent college hoops programs, "mid-major" label sold separately. And even though the Zags are just the third team in the past 20 years to rise to the top from 21st or worse in the preseason poll, in some sense, this ranking really isn't all that big a deal. As Mark Few told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach:
"These kids have been ranked their whole careers," Few said. "Whether it was 20 or 10 or 5 or 2 or even 1, they've still been ranked. They've had a huge bull's-eye on their chest the entire time they've played at Gonzaga. This isn't something new.
"There might be a larger mass of (attention), but it's certainly not something new. We'll keep doing what we're doing. This group handles it really well. They don't get too caught up in it."

He's right: Gonzaga has been so good for so long that it is very much used to being ranked, whether No. 1 or otherwise. This isn't all happening at once, like some Saint Joe's-esque one-off miracle year. Few's program is consistently excellent. Its players know this drill.

Then again, this really is something more. Think about it: In 1999, a tiny school from the Pacific Northwest with a funny name stunned everyone in the NCAA tournament, toppling Minnesota, Stanford and Florida (the latter in one of the great finishes in tournament history) and immediately became synonymous with Cinderella. But the Zags did something funny: They didn't go away. Dan Monson took a job at Minnesota, Few stepped in, and Gonzaga kept winning, kept recruiting well, kept dominating the WCC, kept getting to the NCAA tournament. The Zags turned a year of unlikely success into 13 years of tournament appearances, into a program that can be ranked No. 1 for the first time in history and its coach credibly fails to bat an eye.

Being ranked No. 1 means a lot to any program. To a dominant Kentucky or Duke it means rightful success; to a long-suffering Indiana or Michigan it means resurrection.

To a program like Gonzaga, it is the culmination of a decade of work, a demolition of the barriers that are supposed to keep mid-majors in place and a testament to the best thing about college basketball: If you're good enough, everybody belongs.

Poll thoughts: Lazy voters strike again

February, 25, 2013
It's time for this week's poll thoughts. I know this won't be popular, but I'm substituting for his highness, Eamonn Brennan, who was so dismayed by the inclusion of a particular team in the latest poll that he lost all motivation to type, link, click and drop one-liners.

Either that or he ordered the wrong thing last night at the fast-food joint.

Whatever the case, Eamonn is out of pocket. But if he were here, I'm sure he'd be as startled as I am to see that Louisiana Tech -- Louisiana Tech! -- has entered The Associated Press poll at No. 25. Look, I get it. The Bulldogs' 118-48 victory over Central Baptist College last week was impressive. And so were all those victories over WAC powerhouses such as Seattle, Idaho and Texas-San Antonio. Louisiana Tech is 24-3, for crying out loud, and it's not like two of its losses were to McNeese State and Northwestern State.

Oh, wait ... yes, they were.

Sarcasm aside, kudos to the Bulldogs, who are ranked for the first time since 1985, when Karl Malone was on the team. They're doing the best they can with a schedule that's out of their control. Hopefully the publicity they receive from this week's ranking will help their program. But it's ridiculous for Louisiana Tech to be in the poll over teams such as Colorado State, Connecticut, Wichita State, North Carolina and UNLV.

The Bulldogs' inclusion validates the main criticism of the AP weekly rankings: Voters are lazy. Instead of watching games or, at the very least, doing research, they're voting for teams based on record and record alone. It shouldn't always be about how many games you win. It should be about whom you play -- and whom you beat. Sorry to be a party-pooper, but Louisiana Tech is not one of the top 25 teams in college basketball.

A few other thoughts:

-- Miami fell only three spots -- from No. 2 to No. 5 -- following Saturday's 15-point loss to ACC bottom-feeder Wake Forest (12-14, 5-9). I'd have dropped the Hurricanes lower, not just because of their upset to the Demon Deacons, but because of how they were playing before that. Jim Larranaga's squad played one of its worst games of the season in a 45-43 victory over Clemson on Feb. 17. And it didn't exactly dominate Virginia in a 54-50 win two days later. UVa boasts a decent squad, but when you're ranked No. 2 in America, you're held to a higher standard, especially at home. I don't foresee the Hurricanes getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

-- I don't have any problem with Gonzaga being ranked No. 2 -- which, by the way, is the highest ranking in school history. The Zags own two conference victories over a solid Saint Mary's squad and as always, played a tough nonconference schedule that included games against Oklahoma State, Baylor, Butler, Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Davidson. Anyone doubting Mark Few's squad needs to watch the Zags play. They clearly pass the eye test. This team has very few, if any, flaws. The frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris is one of the best in the country.

-- It's good to see Memphis back in the Top 20 at No. 18. The Tigers have been on fire since losing to Louisville in a curiously officiated game on Dec. 15. Memphis, 24-3 overall, has won 18 straight and is playing with tremendous structure and cohesion. In Saturday's game against Southern Miss, the Tigers had 25 assists on 29 field goals. I've enjoyed watching Josh Pastner -- who was 31 when he was hired to replace John Calipari in 2009 -- grow and mature as a coach.

-- Butler is a difficult team to rank. The Bulldogs boast victories over the country's No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams (Indiana and Gonzaga). But they've also lost to Saint Louis, Charlotte and La Salle in recent weeks. And they were nearly upset by George Washington and Fordham. I guess I can understand leaving Butler in the poll, though -- for now.

-- After watching the New Mexico-Colorado State game Saturday, I wouldn't have dropped CSU out of the Top 25 despite its loss to the Lobos. This is a very good Rams team. Heck, it took someone (Kendall Williams) scoring 46 points for them to get beaten Saturday.

-- Kudos to VCU for rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat Xavier Saturday, but the Rams haven't been playing like a Top 25 team. Maybe it's the images of that 76-62 thumping VCU suffered at the hands of Saint Louis last week that are sticking in my head.

-- A few other tidbits from our friends at ESPN Stats & Info: Georgetown has its highest ranking since 2010. ... Syracuse is out of the top 10 for the first time this season. ... Saint Louis is ranked for the first time this season and, at No. 18, has its highest ranking since 1994.

Poll Thoughts: Settling in (for now)

February, 18, 2013
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.

Have the polls finally calmed down?

It certainly looks that way, particularly at the top. For the first time in months, since Duke was rounding the tail end of its nonconference schedule in late December, we've got a No. 1 team that has managed to maintain its grip on the spot for longer than a few days, or a solitary week. Indiana plays at Michigan State Tuesday — possibly without Victor Oladipo — so we'll revise accordingly. But you get the point: Despite its best attempts at Illinois, IU didn't relinquish its top spot after one week like so many other No. 1s had done this season. The Hoosiers kept it. I suppose that's something.

More interesting to me, though, is where we currently are with the top 10. Disagree on individual placement all you like -- as I wrote last week, at this point you can choose your own poll adventure, free from the conventions of the enterprise -- but would anyone disagree that those are essentially the best 10 teams in the country?

For most of the season you've heard that this year includes no "great" teams (a tricky proposition to quantify but probably true); it's likewise been said the sport has between eight and 10 very good squads, any of which could win the 2013 national title.

That much is true. Those teams: Indiana, Miami, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Florida, Duke, Michigan, Syracuse, Kansas, Louisville. In the middle of February, after dozens of upsets and week after week of poll churn, we seem to have this thing mostly figured out. For now, anyway.

Some quick thoughts on the non-top-10 portions of the poll:
  • Arizona is probably ranked a little too high. I realize saying this might cause a rush of Arizona fans to scream at me in LOUD CAPS LOCK NOISES, but when that happened earlier in the year it was justifiable -- we disagreed about what a couple of last-second wins said about the Wildcats at that particular point in time. Lately, Arizona's losses have not been of the last-second variety. On Feb. 10 the Wildcats fell at home to Cal, 77-69, and followed that up with Thursday's 71-58 loss at Colorado. On Sunday, at a vastly improved but still not very good Utah, Arizona barely held on for a 68-64 win. The Wildcats' offense is the best in the Pac-12, but they're playing just the fifth-best per-possession defense to date. Where some might see a national title contender I see a team still putting it all together, one that may get there before March but isn't quite there yet. Your mileage may vary.
  • It may be time to take Wisconsin a bit more seriously. I know, I know: The Badgers exclusively play close games, which makes it difficult to be impressed; they play Iowa at home roughly the same way they play Minnesota on the road. But they are winning (most of) those games and doing so while playing the best defense in the Big Ten and the third-best in the country on a per-possession basis.
  • Butler is overrated right now, and I don't think it's particularly controversial to say so. The win at Fordham was far too close for comfort, the home loss to Charlotte wasn't that close at all and, as Butler's offense has cooled off, it hasn't improved proportionately on the defensive end.
  • Other than that? Honestly? There's not much else to dislike. Of course, you may disagree. Let's hear it in the comments.
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.

On Thursday, Indiana lost at Illinois 74-72 after a late-game collapse and a defensive breakdown gave the Illini -- a 2-7 Big Ten team to that point -- the easiest last-second buzzer-beater these eyes have ever seen.

Five days later, Indiana is still No. 1.

How does that work? It's a combination of factors. The first is that Indiana rebounded from that collapse in Champaign, Ill., with one of its most impressive wins of the season, a 81-68 decision at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are one of the nation's 10 best defenses, and had just pushed Michigan to the brink in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night, but Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo were dominant in Columbus, and the Hoosiers set the tone in the first half and bossed the game in the second. It was thorough.

It also probably didn't hurt that Illinois turned around and beat Minnesota 57-53 on Sunday, helping to prove that its 2-7 start was as much about cold shooting as some deeper functional malaise.

But more than anything, that's just how this season has gone. Every team ranked No. 1 in the past five weeks has lost within days of achieving that ranking, and it's gotten to the point where we all have to acknowledge that the poll's usual rules for arguing on behalf of a first-place team -- chief among them: no losses allowed -- don't apply to the 2012-13 season. Everything's wide open.

This is an immense relief. Think about it. For the first two months of the season -- and in pretty much every season before this one, at least that I can remember -- fans have argued back and forth about their respective team's résumé mostly as a matter of comparing wins and losses. Many times the AP poll devotes its No. 1 spot to the team that lost longest ago on the calendar, regardless of the quality of its wins since. People confuse "résumés" for "teams," as if the process by which teams achieve their results -- even for the purposes of ranking teams -- is beside the point. This is all very frustrating.

And it's all over, at least for now. We have reached a point in the 2012-13 season where everyone can basically agree there are eight or nine teams that can win the national title, and that none are distinctly flawless or dominant. The rest of the Top 25 (and then some) is similar: If you think you can really tell me whether Colorado State is better or worse than Oklahoma State at this stage of the season, you're kidding yourself. If you think there should be some huge consensus on the No. 1 team in the country -- whether it be Indiana or Duke or Miami or Michigan or even Gonzaga -- you're kidding yourself.

You know what this gives those of us who have to rank and write about rankings? Freedom. I don't have to do anything with my rankings because someone's "résumé" tells me so; at this point, every "résumé" is the same. So I'm free to pick who I think the best team in the country is, and pick a different team next week based on rules strictly of my own devising. Everything's on the table now. All the options are there.

Personally, I do still think Indiana is the best team in the country, especially when Zeller plays like he did Sunday. But I would happily hear arguments for Michigan, Miami, Florida, Gonzaga or even Louisville, even after Saturday night.

From poll chaos, we achieve mission clarity. We're in a good place.

Other thoughts on the Week 15 (Week 15 already!) poll:
  • The prompt for the above discussion was seeing just how close the first-place voting was. I have to say, I'm a little shocked Duke received that many first-place votes -- the Blue Devils aren't defending well right now, and they barely got out of Boston College with a 62-61 win Sunday. I'm guessing most AP voters missed that one. The Grammys red carpet show was starting, after all, and those Ke$ha jokes in your hometown Sunday column aren't going to write themselves. (The only joke that writes itself goes like this: "Wiz Khalifa.")
  • Happy to see Miami jump five spots up to No. 3 and receive 17 first-place tallies, mostly because when rankings matter, they matter to fan bases and programs that don't get to experience them all that frequently. Miami hasn't been a basketball school since ... well, since ever. But the Canes have a legitimately great, well-coached team, and it's a lot of fun to see Jim Larranaga surprise everyone in Coral Gables with ever-ascendant success.
  • There is a bit of cognitive dissonance in Indiana's maintenance of its No. 1 spot and Florida's descent to No. 7. How do I mean? Well, the Hoosiers lost a road game to a mediocre conference opponent. So did Florida. Indiana lost its game because it fell apart in the final two minutes of the game; Florida lost because it couldn't make a shot for the first 20. I'm not sure one off-shooting night should so readily negate all of the dominance we've seen from Florida thus far -- and it's still No. 1 in the KenPom rankings, for what it's worth -- even if a loss at Arkansas does tend to make you wince.
  • Kansas dropped to No. 14 after its three straight losses, and I think that's fair. It didn't warrant a full-scale plunge from the rankings, but there are some significant issues there that can't be brushed aside so easily anymore.
  • As expected, Memphis hopped into the poll this week after its win at Southern Miss, which is a little bit baffling to me. I mean, good win, but exactly what evidence do we have to tell us that Southern Miss is even a top-50 team? It isn't wins. It isn't per-possession stats. Memphis has definitely looked better in recent weeks, but it is kind of funny that a team can fall totally off our radar from Dec. 15 to Feb. 9, and as soon as it beats its first remotely decent opponent, we leap right back on the bandwagon. Weird.
  • And hey, look who it is: Kentucky's back! I actually have less of a problem with this, even if it feels similarly arbitrary (wins at Ole Miss and A&M didn't do it for the AP voters, but home wins over South Carolina and Auburn do) because the Wildcats have been playing a lot better in recent weeks. They still have some defensive issues (they force the fewest turnovers per possession in the SEC, for example) but the general development over the past month has been almost entirely positive.

Poll Thoughts: Michigan is No. 1

January, 28, 2013
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.

The polls don't matter, unless they do.

It all depends on what "matter" means. If it means "has a tangible effect on the rest of the season" or "plays a role in postseason selection or seeding," then no, the polls don't matter. But if it means "allows a long-suffering fan base an immense catharsis after more than two decades of despair," then, well, duh: Of course the polls "matter."

You better believe the polls matter to Michigan fans Monday. For the first time since Nov. 30, 1992, the Wolverines are the No. 1 team in college basketball. ESPN Statistics & Info whiz Jeremy Lundblad cooked up some relevant trivia:

Nov. 30, 1992: Last Time Michigan Was No. 1
  • Second year of the Fab Five
  • Trey Burke was 18 days old
  • John Beilein was in his first season as a Division I head coach (Canisius)
  • Bill Clinton was elected president 27 days before
  • Barack and Michelle Obama had been married for one month
  • No. 1 song: "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston
  • No. 1 movie: "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York"

"Home Alone 2" and Whitney Houston. Ahhhh. The '90s.

We all know what's happened since. The Fab Five failed to deliver a national title. The Ed Martin scandal got then-coach Steve Fisher fired, forced Michigan to take down its Final Four banners and dissociate itself from the team until this year and put the program in a deep and depressing hole -- after the 1997-98 season, Michigan didn't return to the NCAA tournament until 2009.

Things couldn't be more different now. Beilein has one of the nation's best teams -- with the most efficient, and arguably most entertaining, offense in the country -- led by one of the game's great players, national player of the year candidate Trey Burke. Beilein's mix of talented freshmen and developed veterans is enviable to all but a few teams in college hoops. The Wolverines no longer play in a drab and dreary concrete slab; the recent Crisler Center renovations have made the building (by all accounts) a clean, modern, well-lit place to see basketball. Fans are back on board. Students pack the courtside seats.

Now, at long last, Wolverines fans have something tangible they can point to -- a symbol of how far this program has come, and what it still has left to accomplish. Oh, that "matters." Does it ever.

Other assorted thoughts from the Week 13 AP poll:
  • Louisville took a dive. I have to admit: Even after three straight losses, I did not expect to see Louisville fall out of the top 10. I'm not panicking: The Cardinals have their offensive issues, like when Russ Smith doesn't shoot the ball well (but still shoots it a LOT), and they may take a few more losses in Big East play (particularly on the road) before the season is out. But as long as Louisville plays that defense, and its offense is merely above average, the Cards are a national title contender. That fact won't change before March. We can't say that about Oregon or Ohio State.
  • I knocked Kansas State out of my personal power rankings this week not because either of the losses the Wildcats suffered last week were bad (at home versus Kansas, at Iowa State), but merely because I think they're a good team that might be a tad bit overrated. The AP voters took them down a notch, from No. 11 to No. 18, which I suppose is close enough for me. But it's going to be very interesting to see how the rest of the Wildcats' season goes, because when you line up K-State's per-possession performance with its ranking, it's hard to know quite what to think.
  • The biggest fall of the week was taken by Minnesota, and no surprise there: The Gophers have lost their past four games. That sounds bad, but except for Northwestern, those losses -- at Indiana, versus Michigan, at Wisconsin -- were all completely understandable. Minnesota needs to cut down on the turnovers that make it occasionally vulnerable to teams like Northwestern; if the Gophers turned it over less but rebounded at the same level on the offensive end, they might be a top-five team. In any case, I think they'll be all right.
  • Marquette snuck in at No. 25, and I am definitely OK with that. But for a two-point OT loss at Cincinnati, the Golden Eagles are unbeaten in Big East play. But they're more than just a pretty record -- they've played the third most efficient offense in the Big East to date, and they're getting to the free throw line more than any other team in the league, because forward Davante Gardner has gone from awkward project to one of the most efficient big men in the country. Gardner draws 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes, and the Golden Eagles really get after it on the offensive end. Massively intriguing team.
  • The biggest risers of the week were Miami, which moved up 11 spots after the Hurricanes dump-trucked Duke, and Ole Miss, which moved up seven spots to No. 16 after beating Tennessee and Auburn. You have to give it up for Marshall Henderson: The kid may have needlessly taunted Auburn fans (whose response was hilarious; Google the .gif) but he got you to pay attention, didn't he? He got you to recognize that Ole Miss was, in fact, awfully good. That's the best explanation I can think of for ranking a team seven spots higher after it barely beats Tennessee and Auburn. (Big week coming up for Ole Miss: The Rebels host Kentucky on Tuesday and travel to Florida on Saturday. No pressure.)
  • As I wrote Sunday night, pretty much all of the top 10 -- or at least the top seven, depending on whether you include Louisville -- are essentially interchangeable. I could make what I think would be a pretty convincing argument for Florida to be ranked No. 1, but would that argument be more convincing than the one for Michigan or Kansas or Indiana or Syracuse or Duke? No. Any or all could rightfully assume the mantle "best team in the country," and I don't think that's something we're going to settle anytime soon. I'm sure we'll hear whining and trolling about the college hoops regular season not being very good, and the talent being down, and this deep pool of potential "best teams" will be one of the reasons given. Besides annoying, it will be wrong. We have eight potential national title contenders, and maybe 20 teams who you could see at least theoretically winning the thing. I don't know about you, but that just sounds exciting to me.
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.

Florida is not the eighth-best college basketball team in the country.

Let's just get that out of the way now. Because we should be able to agree on that much, right? We have a multitude of evidence to the contrary: The Gators' 83-52 stomping of Missouri, the fact they've outscored their conference opponents by 0.42 points per possessionInsider (by contrast, last season Kentucky went 16-0 in the SEC and its efficiency margin was 0.26) and the fact of the seven or eight teams we might plausibly call No. 1, the Gators are the only team that boasts a top-five efficiency defense *and* a top-five efficiency offense.

So we can all, at the very least, acknowledge that right now there are very few, if any, teams playing better basketball. And we can probably all admit that Florida could be, and maybe even should be, No. 1 overall.

But, of course, that is not how polls work. The Gators have two losses -- at Arizona and quasi-away versus Kansas State -- and one-loss teams like Duke, Michigan, Kansas and Syracuse were always going to get better billing since that's the case. Frankly, I think you can make pretty reasonable arguments for Duke (which still has the best "résumé," if that's what you're into), Michigan (which just won an uber-impressive game at Minnesota), Kansas (which hasn't lost since mid-November) and even Syracuse (which just beat No. 1 Louisville in Louisville). But Florida should definitely not be ranked below Louisville, Arizona and Indiana. It should be in serious contention for a No. 1 spot.

Other assorted poll thoughts:
  • Butler moved into the top 10 after Saturday night's miracle win over Gonzaga at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and I really like what the voters did with both teams. Butler got the requisite move up (from No. 13) while the Zags moved just a couple of spots down (from No. 8 to No. 10). Any sort of loss at Butler probably wouldn't have made Gonzaga's stock fall in the poll, but *that* loss at Butler? That is hardly cause for a downgrade.
  • Maybe the biggest disparity between efficiency ranking and poll ranking this week is Kansas State. The Wildcats are ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 44 in Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean efficiency rankings. I would venture to say they should be slotted somewhere in the middle.
  • Oregon is rapidly rising up the polls -- from a new entry last week to No. 15 this week -- and for good reason. Saturday's win at UCLA was an impressive one, and it's clear the Ducks are capable of contending with Arizona for the Pac-12 title.
  • I think poll voters really took notice of the injury to Missouri's Laurence Bowers. How do I know? Because Florida destroyed Mizzou without Bowers, but the Gators weren't given a major boost after that 31-point shellacking, and the Tigers, while downgraded five spots from No. 17, weren't fully booted from the poll. So the win wasn't that impressive, while at the same time it wasn't an indictment of Missouri? Bowers' absence is the only explanation. Fair enough, I guess?
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.

Last week included a pretty boring batch of poll returns, as expected: With a few exceptions (the Big Ten), conference play hadn't yet begun in full force, and many teams were spending the first days of January working in those tune-ups for the gauntlet ahead. Everything was in stasis.

This week is a bit more active. The start of conference play has brought the extinction of our remaining unbeaten teams: In the past seven days, Michigan, Duke, Arizona and Wyoming all have fallen, the former three doing so on the road in Big Ten/ACC/Pac-12 play. Naturally, that led us here at the college hoops desk to come together to present each team's respective top-rank case.

The poll voters answered that prompt with the obvious choice: Louisville.

For what it's worth, I tend to agree. If you're going by who you think the best team in the country actually is, and you want to factor in per-possession play and all the rest, you can make a case for Indiana (as I did in our little Sunday night feature), and you can argue that the Hoosiers are the best two-way team in hoops and that they still have the potential to get much better. But you can make that same tempo-free-plus-potential case for Louisville. And besides, the Cardinals are already awfully good.

If you merely compared résumés, like we do come Bubble Watch time, then you might think Indiana is a nonstarter. The Hoosiers' schedule is nowhere near as good as Louisville's. And Louisville's schedule is not as tough as the one belonging to Duke, which beat the Cardinals all the way back in November. Frankly, Duke has a good argument to retain its own spot -- it lost on the road (as opposed to a neutral court) and did so without one of its most important players, forward Ryan Kelly.

That's not really how the AP poll tends to work, though. Its voters tend to keep things a good deal simpler: If you and a bunch of one-loss teams could all potentially be No. 1, the spot will go to the team whose loss came earliest in the calendar. This is the one governing principles of the Associated Press poll. I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of sense, but humans tend to prioritize recentness. And hey, we're only human.

A few other quick thoughts on this week's poll:
  • Arizona dropped three spots and Minnesota one after their road conference losses, and I'm OK with that mostly because neither team was punished heavily for losing to good teams on the road in conference play. It happens.
  • Butler coach Brad Stevens doesn't pay attention to rankings, but I wonder if he is currently refreshing his browser, marveling at the fact his Bulldogs are ranked No. 13 on Jan. 14. They just keep slowly but surely climbing up those ranks; I can't imagine, as he developed his offseason plan for world domination, that even he could have seen that one coming.
  • NC State jumped six spots to No. 14 after its win over Duke, and deservedly so. The Wolfpack are still a bit defense-averse for my liking, but my hesitancy to rank them was probably a bit unfair, considering Notre Dame is cut from the same essential statistical cloth (great offense, sub-100 efficiency defense). The reason? I saw NC State a lot in November, and I came away thinking that the Wolfpack spent a lot of time on the court not all that engaged with what was happening in front of them. And there was the lingering notion (since proven correct) that last season's Sweet 16 run caused them to be vastly overranked to begin the season. But neither was the case Saturday. Great win, and a great court-storming.
  • Though Illinois dropped 11 spots this week, it managed to hang on to its spot in the Top 25. The Illini were manhandled by Minnesota and Wisconsin this week (the former in Champaign, Ill.), and forget the polls: The Illini need to start racking up a few Big Ten wins to avoid turning a fantastic early start into a months-long bubble drama.
  • UCLA is back in the poll, and I have no problem with this, either. It was easy to rip the Bruins two months ago. But with Shabazz Muhammad balling, the Wear twins playing well and eight straight wins under their belts, it is much harder to do so now.
  • We can discuss Pittsburgh's sudden and strange propensity for losing at the Pete, but before we do, we should talk about the really nice win Marquette managed to pull off there Saturday. The Golden Eagles have been a bit of a project for Buzz Williams, but right now they're sitting at 3-0 in Big East play with wins over UConn, Georgetown and at Pittsburgh. Not too shabby.
  • And this is kind of a remarkable stat, but for the first time since 1984-85 VCU is a member of the Top 25 poll. How about those Rams?

Poll Thoughts: Minimal movement

January, 7, 2013
Like so many college students across the country, Poll Thoughts took a few weeks off for winter vacation. (Monday "eve" holidays will do that to Poll Thoughts.) I miss a lot of things about college, but a month-long winter break is right at the top of that list. If there is one thing general society should adopt from our nation's institutions of higher learning -- and this list is long, too -- taking a four-week break in the heart of winter to eat, sleep, and watch the entire "Sopranos" series run should be among them. Winter break, man. It's the best.

Anyway, like that kid who walks into the first day of the spring semester with a black eye (aka Wild New Year's Guy), the Poll Thoughts are officially back, and here are the rankings. And like college, while some of the faces and seating arrangements have changed, things mostly look the same. Let's take a quick look, shall we?
  • This past week, I had at least one Twitter person ask me whether the AP poll would punish Arizona for the way it beat Colorado this week, whether Sabatino Chen's last-second three that should have been but wasn't would essentially register as a home loss in the eyes of voters. It's an interesting notion, and if there's anyone who can get behind the idea of reading between the lines of losses (home, road, neutral, whether the referees completely rob you of your game-winning three, that sort of thing) it's yours truly. But the polls don't work that way. If you win, it's a win — there are rarely conditions attached. So Arizona dropped just one spot this week to No. 4, and that should surprise no one.
  • I have no real issues with the top 15, or even the top 18. Missouri might be a bit overrated at No. 10, but it's in the ballpark. Same with Ohio State at No. 15. But I'm wondering if Georgetown isn't becoming a bit overrated at No. 19. The Hoyas took a tough last-possession loss at Marquette Saturday, with no small amount of officiating issues, so it's hard to punish them in this week's poll. But when you look at Georgetown's adjusted efficiency numbers, you see a really good defense and a thoroughly mediocre, borderline ugly offense, one that could really struggle to score on Big East defenses. Something to keep an eye on, at least.
  • I believe VCU, Wyoming and Oklahoma State should all have a place in the poll, but I can understand why Oklahoma State doesn't -- two straight losses, albeit good ones (home to Gonzaga, at Kansas State) are going to knock marginal top-25 teams out of the poll from time to time. Wyoming, however, is one of four remaining unbeatens, and I don't think that's just about their admittedly so-so schedule. The Cowboys can really play. But VCU is the real miss here. The Rams are playing at a top-10 level, efficiency-wise, and while they struggled to get past Lehigh Saturday, more often than not they've been flat stomping people.
  • If you put three teams in, you have to take three out, and I would argue that NC State and Georgetown are the most likely candidates. Wolfpack fans get mad at me about that, but their team lost to the two good squads they've played this season (both in rather convincing fashion) and since then they've beaten UConn (neutral floor) and Stanford (at home). Um, OK? This is the part where, in lieu of actual hoops evidence, preseason expectations start creeping back in. And this team does score the ball well. But they've also allowed 1.01 points per possession in their 14 games to date, good for No. 173 in the country. Until they defend even passably, I'm not convinced NC State is a top-25 team. I would be happy to be proven otherwise. Someone needs to challenge Duke in the ACC, after all.
  • As always, leave your thoughts in the comments.

Poll Thoughts: Down goes Indiana

December, 17, 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.

"I don't think too much about rankings. We will probably be ranked after this week but that doesn't make us any better than what we were last week."

After Saturday's win over Indiana, someone asked the victorious Brad Stevens a question about what it meant to beat a No. 1-ranked team, and what the polls would eventually say about his group, and probably something about national respect or whatever, and with a total and utter nonchalance that could not possibly fit the spiritual mission of Poll Thoughts any better, Stevens replied with the above.

This is something I try to say just about every week, but it is a difficult thing to hammer home when you are writing 600 words about that week's Top 25 poll. But it's true all the same: rankings are dumb! If you are a fan who gets worked up about the precise position of your team in the polls, and wait how is that other team ranked higher, and isn't this just a total injustice -- you're wasting your mental energy. If you use rankings as nothing more than a crude snapshot of the current hoops landscape, you will lead a much happier and more fulfilled life. Promise.

If you don't take my word for it, will you take Brad Stevens'?
  • Speaking of Stevens, thanks to his Bulldogs, Indiana fell from its preseason No. 1 perch all the way to No. 6 this week. Personally, I am surprised the Hoosiers didn't fall a bit further. Consider the losses of teams ranked below them: Ohio State lost to Duke at Duke, and Florida lost to Arizona at Arizona (more on that below). Indiana lost to previously unranked Butler on a neutral floor (one dominated by IU fans) in Indianapolis after the Bulldogs lost three players to late foul outs. Maybe people were that impressed with Butler; maybe people just think Indiana is better on a per-possession basis -- which is not entirely unfair (at least to Ohio State). But the polls are usually not quite so forgiving.
  • Florida shouldn't be ranked so low. I know, the Gators lost, and they melted down a bit in the final minutes of Saturday's Arizona win. (The best was the final possession, when the TV camera panned out to the crowd; Florida players were still scrambling to recover the ball and Billy Donovan was already walking to midcourt to congratulate Sean Miller well before the game finished. The second the ball was mishandled, Donovan knew the deal.) But for one, Arizona appears to be good. Also, the Wildcats were at home. The Gators have had one of the most impressive starts to the season of any team -- they lost and still moved to No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's per-possession efficiency metric -- and there is absolutely zero shame in leading the entire game at Arizona and then succumbing to pressure on the road in December. It happens. It improved my opinion of Arizona somewhat, but it didn't change my opinion of the Gators one bit.
  • NC State crept back into the poll at No. 25. I would be 100 percent all right with that, except ...
  • Pittsburgh remains unranked yet again. The Panthers are underrated. I say this every week. I said it last week. I will say it again next week. And the week after that, too, if I have to. Doesn't anyone notice this?! I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!
  • Oregon is still just outside the cusp of the poll, and no one but the Ducks and Panthers received much extraneous love.
  • Oh, and Stevens was right: Butler is now the No. 19-ranked team in the country. First Alex Barlow, now this. It's like he can see into the future!

Poll Thoughts: Stasis wins the day

December, 10, 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.

In so far as the Monday afternoon reveal of the Associated Press Top 25 poll can be suspenseful, the past two weeks have done their best to deliver. Two weeks ago, UCLA was unceremoniously dropped from its No. 11 ranking after a home loss to Cal Poly. Last Monday, once-No. 9 Kentucky was sent packing after a home loss to Baylor. Both were among the highest-ranked teams of all time to drop entirely out of the AP Top 25.

The poll's determinative value at this stage of the season is minimal, but what it is occasionally good for is narrative. UCLA and Kentucky, two of the youngest and most talented and to date most tantalizing/frustrating teams in the country, did not have a good November. The polls told the story.

If there is a story to this week's otherwise staid ledger -- as the AP story dryly notes, the "only changes in Monday's poll is the order, not who's ranked" -- it is the ascendance of the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois is not new to the polls. Last week they were ranked No. 13. The week before that, No. 21. That climb has been slow and steady because Illinois blitzed the Maui Invitational field, including a Butler team that beat Marquette and trounced North Carolina, and the Illini avoided would-be buzzkillers such as Gardner-Webb and Georgia Tech at home. (Even Western Carolina gave U of I a run last Tuesday.) But that climb did not, at least to me, confer legitimacy. It was obligatory, a tip of the cap to a surprisingly positive start. Illinois got hot in Maui and then won games at home, and then jumped in the polls when other teams lost. Were they really one of the best 15 teams in the country?

After Saturday's win at Gonzaga, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Illini may not be defending at an elite level, but they are scoring that way, primarily because they shoot a ton of 3s (their 3-pointers to field goals ratio is ninth-highest in the country) and, you know, make them (Illinois is 40.9 percent from 3, ranked No. 10 nationally). Funny enough, this was a reason for skepticism, and may continue to be an ongoing bugaboo. Pundits will say things like "when you live by the 3 ..." before ominously trailing off. And that may be right. But right now Illinois is living, it's impossible to argue otherwise, and the polls reflect as much. Good job, polls.

A couple of other quick thoughts:
  • I assumed Gonzaga might fall further than No. 14. It's down only four spots from where it was before a two-point win over Washington State and a home loss to Illinois. But when you think about it, you either think Illinois is good or Gonzaga is overrated; you can't move Illinois up to No. 10 and then (indirectly) punish the Zags for losing to the No. 10 team in the country. Plus, Gonzaga is good. This makes sense.
  • As mentioned above, there were no subtractions or additions to the Top 25, so it is hard to gin up much outrage over any of it. I would probably argue that North Carolina and North Carolina State still don't deserve to be ranked, but at least NC State has played (relatively) well at Michigan and beat that feisty UConn team last week. As for the Tar Heels, I've seen UNC crush overmatched mid-majors and get crushed by Butler and Indiana. I love Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo, but I'm still not convinced.
  • Were those two teams to fall out of the poll, their two replacements would clearly be Pittsburgh and Oregon. Both teams received 177 votes in the purgatorial "others receiving" category this week. Based on per-possession statistics, it is much easier to make the case for the Panthers, whose offensive and defensive efficiency numbers grade them out as a top-10 team to date. Oregon is less of a darling to date, but it is nice to see Dana Altman's team get this much of a look from national voters. The Ducks do have a win over UNLV (in Vegas, no less) and can be forgiven for a hard-fought loss to Cincinnati. Arsalan Kazemi has made an immediate impact. If only the rest of that nonconference schedule wasn't so totally abysmal, huh?

Poll Thoughts: The Lexington plummet

December, 3, 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.

Last week, we spent a few words lamenting the UCLA Bruins, whose mediocre start, punctuated by a dramatic come-from-ahead home loss to Cal Poly, caused them to rightly free-fall out of the Associated Press Top 25. (The coaches kept them in, of course, because coaches' poll voters don't actually keep up with this whole basketball thing. Ugh.)

Anyway, the key takeaway was this: The then-11th-ranked Bruins' departure from the Top 25 made them the second-highest ranked team since the advent of the modern (25-team) AP poll in 1990 to fall all the way out of the rankings. The only team ranked higher? No. 9 Missouri in January 2011.

A week later, we have a new recordholder.

Last week, Kentucky was ranked No. 8 in the polls. This week, the Wildcats are unranked. That makes them, according to ESPN Stats & Info's Jeremy Lundblad, the highest-ranked team ever to fall out of the poll in just one week's time. The new leaderboard looks like this (see chart at right).

How did this happen? Well, Kentucky went to South Bend on Thursday -- a game I had the good fortune of attending -- and was unsurprisingly snuffed out by a much smarter, savvier, veteran Notre Dame team playing in a rowdy gym, riding a wave of infectious campus enthusiasm. That loss was one thing; it shouldn't have been shocking to see a team this young take its lumps in its first true road game.

Saturday was a different matter entirely. Kentucky lost at home to unranked Baylor -- a Baylor team that had previously lost to Charleston, a Baylor team that is young in its own right, a Baylor team that didn't even play all that well in Rupp Arena but still won. Kentucky really did play that poorly. The Wildcats' offense is a bit of a mess -- the team needs a true point guard, Nerlens Noel doesn't have a low-post game, Alex Poythress is hot and cold, Kyle Wiltjer went 1-for-11, and even Archie Goodwin, by my lights the best player on the team, is far too prone to just put his head down and drive to the basket and hope he gets fouled. Forget comparisons to last year's incredible team. This group is, at least right now, the worst team Calipari has coached at Kentucky, and probably his worst team since the 2005 Memphis Tigers, who went 22-16.

That doesn't mean the Cats will stay that way, of course. I doubt it. But for now, in a world that has in some ways been dominated by Kentucky basketball for the past three seasons, and almost exclusively dominated by it the past 12 months, all of a sudden Kentucky basketball is losing games at home, falling out of the polls, and just generally having a bad week.

Kentucky basketball? Bad week? Error, error, does not compute.

Other poll thoughts:
  • I have no problem with the polls keeping Indiana at No. 1 and Duke at No. 2. If we were choosing No. 1 seeds at the end of November, though, I would give Duke the No. 1 overall seed. Why? The Blue Devils' résumé is better. You really can't say enough about the November schedule they've plowed through. I wonder if any team has ever played so tough a month of early-season basketball, let alone survived unbeaten. Indiana has some nice wins but can't match Duke's victories. But guess what? I don't care. Rankings aren't always inherently about résumés. They're about which team you think is better. Wins and losses -- particularly head to head -- are a big help in pointing us in that direction, but by the fifth week of the season if who-beat-whom is the only barometer for how you're gauging teams, you're doing it wrong. I think Indiana is better. Until something causes that opinion to change, I'll stick with the Hoosiers at the top of the poll.
  • Ohio State fell three spots, from No. 4 to No. 7, in this week's poll. The Buckeyes' only loss came at Duke, 73-68. If you considered the Buckeyes a top-five team before they nearly beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, I'm not sure why you would change your opinion after that loss.
  • Cincinnati jumped six spots in the poll, to No. 11, and I don't really have a problem with that -- I really like Cincinnati. But it is worth remembering just how fragile these rankings can be, seeing as Alabama remains unranked and Cincy needed a ridiculously awesome step-back buzzer-beater to shake the Crimson Tide at home.
  • Here's another head-scratcher: NC State dropped seven spots in the poll, to No. 25, after losing at Michigan 79-72. Last week, after a 20-point neutral-court loss to Oklahoma State and a two-point home win over UNC-Asheville, NC State was the No. 18 team in the country. But after losing in Ann Arbor to a very good Michigan team (one the AP poll itself believes is the third-best in the country), the Wolfpack are suddenly teetering on the brink of poll oblivion. I just ... I don't know.
  • It should be noted Kentucky wasn't far off the Top 25. The Wildcats were the poll's leading also-receiving-votes-getter, followed by Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Oregon, Alabama, Connecticut, Baylor, Colorado and so on. Among those teams, Pittsburgh is the most criminally underrated. If the Panthers had beaten Michigan, as opposed to fallen by four on a neutral floor (hardly cause for shame), this wouldn't be an issue.
  • Likewise, it is nice to see voters pay so much attention to what Virginia Tech has done in the first few weeks of its season. An impressive home win over Iowa is a nice little way to prove you're not going to be abysmal, but it didn't tell us much beyond that on Tuesday. But Saturday's win over Oklahoma State showed James Johnson's team -- led by All-American candidate Erick Green -- plans to do much more than merely tread water.

Poll Thoughts: See you, UCLA

November, 26, 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.

Since we started Poll Thoughts, I've spent a lot of time making fun of the coaches poll. This is not hard to do. We can safely assume most coaches don't really spend all that much time worrying about their ballot; it is a notorious joke. But the Associated Press poll deserves nearly as much scorn, because I'm pretty sure there are a ton of AP poll voters who don't really pay all that much attention to college basketball.

Which brings us to UCLA.

First of all, lest you thought the Bruins' drop from No. 11 to outside the top 25 is the steepest in poll history, rest assured, it is not. According to ESPN Stats & Information's Jeremy Lundblad, Missouri's fall from No. 9 in 2011 was higher -- the only decline steep enough to eclipse the Bruins.

Then again, it was no surprise to see UCLA fall out of voting favor in the latest Associated Press poll. What was a surprise, at least to me, was that there were still 85 voters who kept the Bruins in their top 25. Eighty-five! Next to the coaches poll, which actually kept UCLA in the top 25, this looks downright enlightened, but that is not the standard by which we should be judging our pollsters.

The bottom line: UCLA hasn't beaten anyone good, and has struggled against teams it should beat (it needed overtime to beat UC-Irvine and barely got past Georgia) and on Sunday night suffered the upset of the season in a come-from-ahead home loss to Cal Poly featuring quite possibly the single dumbest foul of all time. UCLA was ranked so high in the preseason based solely on its incoming talent -- it's not as though last year's team was anywhere near top-25 worthy -- and that talent has thus far struggled under Ben Howland. They do not belong anywhere near the top 25. The fact that they are anywhere near it is a regrettable mistake. The fact that they received 30 more votes than did Pittsburgh is unforgivable.

Associated Press poll voters: Please pay more attention to basketball!
  • This goes for North Carolina, too. Perhaps it makes sense that UNC didn't fall all the way out of the poll -- at least the Tar Heels have been good on a per-possession basis, and have a road win at Long Beach State, and have stomped on teams they're supposed to beat badly -- but last week's 82-71 loss to Butler in Maui was hardly impressive. The young Tar Heels were thoroughly schooled by Brad Stevens' Bulldogs, especially in a blowout second half, and it took a ferocious comeback (in which Butler never really lost control of the game) for North Carolina to make the final score look remotely respectable. Even then, it was deceptive. UNC didn't guard anyone, didn't have any clue how to get offense in the half court, and just generally looked like the type of team that is going to blow out the Chaminades of the world based on sheer talent alone, but will run into serious trouble when facing remotely competent foes. And for all this, they fell a grand total of ... five spots. Maybe I'm being harsh, but that seems too few to me.
  • I have no problem with the top 10 to 12 spots of the poll. I can understand the Duke-as-No. 1 movement, considering the number of quality opponents Duke has already beaten, but it's impossible for me to unseat a No. 1-ranked team that a) hasn't lost and b) is solidly ranked No. 1 in adjusted efficiency. Gonzaga probably deserves to rank higher, but oh well.
  • The new inclusions -- Georgetown, Illinois, New Mexico, Minnesota -- are all deserving. And speaking of which, how about those Illini? Sure, they needed a late 3 to survive Gardner-Webb on Sunday, but they avoided that post-Maui hangover and got the full ranking benefit of unexpectedly winning the island tournament, and in style to boot.
  • NC State basically stayed where it was, thanks to its 82-80 survival of UNC-Asheville. I did not rank them in my power rankings last week or this week. Maybe I am just more ready to abandon preseason expectations than most, I don't know. But I struggle to understand why they should be included and not, say, Pittsburgh.
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. (New season, same intro. We're back. Huzzah!)

In case you're new to Poll Thoughts, the idea behind this enterprise is relatively simple: When the polls arrive, I criticize them.

Sure, I can comment, analyze and observe or run line-item reports on why each team is ranked where it is, but let's be honest: That's not fun! What is fun is when the polls get something drastically wrong. We get to have a laugh and explain why. Various fan bases get to laugh along, or get angry at being the example for said laughter. (And if there's one thing we know about vocal sports fans on the Internet, it's that they love to feel aggrieved. That sound you just heard was thousands of keyboards typing the word "hater." Mine too. Hater!)

We also get the bonus of knowing that the polls don't actually matter at all. They are snapshot portraits of the hoops landscape for casual television viewers -- a convenient visual cue. Because that is the case, we can engage in this enterprise from a healthy distance. Nothing is at stake.

With that out of the way, how do I feel about the Week 3 polls?

I ... have no problem with them whatsoever.

That's anticlimactic, I know, but it's still awfully early in the season. There hasn't been time for the games to get too confusing or for top teams to take bad losses, and even when that is the case, you sense everyone is wary of overreacting, knowing full well just how wacky 40 minutes of college hoops can be. Plus, the lack of results makes it difficult to distinguish -- and thus argue -- between teams. We're in the beginning phases of figuring this whole thing out.

Still, if I do have one gripe with this week's poll, it has to do with NC State.

The Wolfpack are ranked No. 16 in the AP poll and No. 15 in the coaches' poll, down 10 and nine spots, respectively, from their No. 6 perch last week. The reasons are obvious: On Sunday, unranked Oklahoma State housed the Wolfpack for the entirety of their 76-56 win. NC State got no production from Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie, who fouled out early in the second half. It looked lackluster and disengaged, and the result was a truly ugly loss.

So here's a good early example of why the polls don't always make sense. Oklahoma State just beat a full-strength NC State on a neutral floor by 20 points. But NC State remains ranked higher than the Pokes, which come in at No. 20, because, well, why exactly?

If the answer is "it's just one game, and we still think NC State is really good," fine. I can accept that. I saw T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis, and I believe. Our Power Rankings kept NC State at No. 18, for example. I can dig it. (I, on the other hand, did not rank them. No mercy!)

But if the reason is "because NC State was ranked No. 6 before," that's everything I hate about the polls. They are based entirely on perceptions that, once codified, are too slow to reverse. When you consider this NC State team was ranked that high thanks not only to its stellar recruiting class but also because it won two games in the NCAA tournament -- after barely making it into the tournament in the first place -- there's reason to question that ranking.

Anyway, like I said, I can see a couple of different arguments there but no reason to work up too frothy a lather. Nor are any of the other things that stick out about the polls -- Wisconsin and Notre Dame's banishment, Pittsburgh's non-inclusion, Colorado missing out on the coaches' poll, etc. -- because it's simply too early.

But you know we'll get there. We always do.

Poll Thoughts: Temple remains intact

February, 27, 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.

Another week, another ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll, another relatively boring and mostly meaningless batch of rankings to digest and dissect with only occasional seriousness. Let's get right to it:

Temple stays in, and I kind of like that. It took Temple quite a while to gain the national voting respect Fran Dunphy's team deserved: The Owls had to go 11-0 from Jan. 18 to Feb. 22 to sneak into last week's poll, where they entered at No. 22. Given that, it's kind of refreshing to see Temple survive this week's loss to Saint Joe's with a poll position intact. It would have been easy for most voters, who were apparently hesitant to add Ramone Moore and Co. to their dockets in recent weeks, to drop the Owls just as quickly, but apparently voters realized that a) losing at Saint Joe's is understandable; the Hawks are a solid team hunting a fringe spot in the NCAA tournament bubble, and b) Temple's performance in Atlantic 10 play has been impressive no matter how you slice it. My first assumption about this week's poll, before I even took a glance, was that this wouldn't happen. It's hardly a big deal, but I'm glad to see it nonetheless.

Florida's magic poll elixir. Have the coaches' poll voters actually watched Florida lately? Did they happen to see Saturday's 14-point loss at Georgia, yet another symptom of the Gators' main disease: lackluster defense? It's not that Florida is a bad team. I'm not saying that. It's just that the Gators seem to have some sort of Steve Jobsian reality-distortion field around their weekly poll placement. Two weeks ago, when they were blown out by Kentucky at Rupp Arena, and lost to Tennessee at home, Florida dropped from No. 7 all the way to ... No. 12. This week, after a road loss to Georgia, Florida dropped from No. 11 to No. 13. Which brings us to another oddity ...

Wisconsin's win at Ohio State was apparently no big deal. Wisconsin was ranked No. 15 in last week's poll. This week, they lost at Iowa -- an ultra-hot team at home, one that got 63 points in two games (and two career high scoring nights) from senior guard Matt Gatens in wins against Indiana and Wisconsin -- and went to Ohio State, one of the toughest places to play in the country against one of the nation's best defenses, and came away with a win. And ... they're right back at No. 15 this week. I suppose I get the loss at Iowa dinging them somewhat, but compare that week to Florida's and tell me why the Gators should be ranked ahead of the Badgers. Maybe this is correct! I'm open-minded. But it is a little confusing.

Margin call. The poll's margins saw a decent bit of movement: New Mexico, last week's ascendant team, fell out of the poll after two straight losses at Colorado State and TCU. Vanderbilt didn't make much headway despite a tough, if ultimately losing, effort at Kentucky. Iowa State's win at Kansas State didn't get the Cyclones in; in fact, Iowa State received just eight votes in total, just two more than Long Beach State and three more than the vanquished Wildcats, which just last week beat Missouri and Baylor on the road. How soon we forget.

In the meantime, word to Drexel: The Dragons are simultaneously fighting their way into the NCAA tournament conversation and the coaches' poll. Their win at Old Dominion on Saturday was their best of the CAA season to date (an imbalanced schedule yielded just one game apiece against George Mason and VCU, both of which came at home), but it's impossible to quibble with this team's work since December. Bruiser Flint's team ended the regular season having won 23 of its past 24. The Dragons might need a big CAA tourney performance to get in the tournament, but the 30 votes they tallied in this week's poll (second only outside the top 25 to Gonzaga's 48) counts as a sign that the nation's coaches have, at the very least, taken notice. So, you know, that's something.

Is it possible for a top-10 team to fly under the radar? Because, if you ask me, Marquette -- this week's No. 7 squad -- most certainly is. Or, at the very least, it was. But if the Golden Eagles finish their excellent Big East run with two more wins (they go to Cincinnati and finish at home vs. Georgetown this week), and Jae Crowder or Darius Johnson-Odom (or both) pick up some suddenly expected individual hardware, Buzz Williams' once-quiet outfit will be getting plenty of close looks in advance of the NCAA tournament. What a season in Milwaukee.