We are, gloriously, heading into the last full week of January. This is roughly about the midway point of the season, so as I set up my weekly top 25, I figured this was a good time to widen the lens and delve a little deeper into my voting philosophies. These always sound real smart in the abstract. It’s when we get into specific applications that things get dicey.
Let’s start, as always, by passing along the correct order of the top 25 teams in college basketball, as submitted to the Associated Press on Sunday night:
Dropped out: UConn (17), Michigan State (25)
Almost Famous: Auburn, Charleston, Clemson, Duke, Iowa, Kentucky, Miami, San Diego State
Now about those philosophies. First, I tend to use something that I call the Law of Accumulation. If a really good team suffers a “bad” loss (Tennessee losing to Colorado in Nashville, or Xavier losing at DePaul), I tend to give that team a sort-of mulligan as long as it’s not part of a larger pattern. But if another such loss happens (Tennessee vs. Kentucky, for instance), then the prior loss becomes more significant.
This came into play with respect to Kansas. When the Jayhawks lost in overtime to Kansas State on Tuesday, I toyed with the notion of leaving them at No. 1. After all, the Wildcats are a top-10 team, the game was on the road, and the Jayhawks took them to overtime. But KU’s 23-point shellacking to TCU in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday changed that. It means that the Jayhawks didn’t just have a bad day or two. They’ve been exposed. (I explain how in my Hoop Thoughts column.) Either one of those losses would bump them down a spot or two, or perhaps not at all. The Law of Accumulation led me to drop them all the way down to No. 10.
In addition, there’s a difference between saying a game “didn’t matter” and saying it “didn’t happen.” Clearly, all games happen, but that doesn’t mean they should have the same impact — or any impact — on rankings. Here are three categories of games that could fall under the “didn’t matter” rubric: losing to a higher-ranked team by a close margin at home; losing on the road to a higher-ranked team by a big margin; and losing on the road to a lower-ranked but quality team by a close margin. If the losing team had a short-term injury issue, that is also more likely to render the game as “didn’t matter.”
It is often lost on readers that teams can move up and down the ballot not so much on the basis of what they did, but on what others did. If a team has a big win and deserves to jump a bunch of spots, then the teams whom it leapfrogged will move down even if they didn’t lose. The converse works for highly-ranked teams that fall. The teams they fell behind will move up even if they lost a game or two.
Finally, my rule of thumb on the metrics: They are useful, but not gospel. There are a bunch of different metrics, and they don’t always say the same thing. Sometimes they do say the same thing but suggest an untenable conclusion. For example, Saint Mary’s is No. 5 on BartTorvik, No. 6 in the NET, No. 6 in Sagarin, No. 7 on KenPom, and No. 13 in both KPI and BPI. Is anyone seriously suggesting this team that has just one Quad 1 win should be ranked ahead of Kansas, Arizona and Marquette? Yet, Houston fans (and most of my fellow AP voters) were arguing that the Cougars should have been No. 1 because they were No. 1 in most every metric. Even after their loss at home to Temple on Sunday, Houston is No. 1 on KenPom. Does that mean I should still put it at No. 1 on my ballot? You can’t make one case without the other. And I’m not making either.
• Houston’s loss to Temple didn’t qualify as a “didn’t matter” game because Temple is a mediocre team, and the game was at home. Still, it was a one-point loss, and the Law of Accumulation works in the Cougars’ favor, since it was just their second loss of the season (the other came at home to Alabama), and the first loss since Dec. 10. I won’t even say that it “validated” my decision not to rank the Cougars No. 1, because my top-ranked team from last week lost twice. That’s what happens in this sport, and particularly this time of year. So I dropped Houston, but not too far. Memphis is the only other AAC teams ranked in the top 50 on KenPom, but the Tigers are unranked in the AP poll. So if Houston loses again soon, the Law of Accumulation will render a harsher judgment.
• UCLA lost at Arizona? Didn’t matter. The Bruins had won 14 in a row, they were super impressive in their win at Arizona State on Thursday, Arizona was a really good team in dire need of a win at home, and the game was competitive. The Wildcats deserved to move up, but the Bruins shouldn’t have to drop from the loss. As it turned out, they actually moved up because three teams ranked ahead of them lost.
• Iowa State lost at Oklahoma State? Didn’t matter. The game was in Stillwater, and the Cyclones were up 16 in the first half but had to play most of the second half without Caleb Grill, who leads them in minutes and had a back issue. Iowa State lost, but only by two points. It has a big game coming up at home Tuesday against Kansas State.
• Speaking of which, it was not easy deciding the proper order between UCLA, Tennessee and Kansas State. Clearly they are all top-five-caliber teams. The metrics helped me decide this one, as the Wildcats have by far the worst numbers: No. 16 NET, No. 25 BartTorvik, No. 26 KenPom. KPI, which is more results-based and less predictive, is much closer to the mark with Kansas State at No. 7. In all the other metrics, K State is third.
• It was really hard deciding whether to rank TCU ahead of Kansas. The Horned Frogs had lost three out of four coming into Saturday’s game, but the first two were by a combined six points. Maybe it’s recency bias, but when you beat a team by 23 points on its home floor, and your resume is this strong, you should at least be one spot ahead on the next ballot.
• Xavier is a great example of a team that should not be ranked based on its metrics. The Musketeers’ rankings range from No. 15 (KPI) to No. 25 (NET). They’re 22nd on KenPom. It would be ludicrous to rank this team outside the top 20. This is a big week for the Musketeers as they have road games at UConn and Creighton.
• Texas lost at Iowa State? Didn’t matter. They Cyclones are difficult to beat at home, and I love the way the Longhorns followed that up by going into Morgantown and beating a West Virginia squad that had just beaten the TCU squad that romped Kansas. I left the Longhorns one spot ahead of Gonzaga because they trounced the Zags by 19 points in Austin, although that game was on Nov. 16, which feels like forever ago.
• If there were ever a team that fell victim to the Law of Accumulation, it’s UConn, which dropped to No. 17 last week and then blew a 17-point lead at Seton Hall to fall out completely. That was the Huskies’ fifth loss in six games, and it made their home loss to St. John’s on Jan. 15 more relevant. UConn got a nice win at home over Butler on Sunday, but it has a steeper challenge at home on Wednesday against Xavier, which started this downward spiral in the first place. The Musketeers better be ready for a fight.
• Conversely, Indiana benefited from the Law of Accumulation. The Hoosiers’ double-digit wins over Illinois (road) and Michigan State (home) made their 63-45 home win over short-handed Wisconsin on Jan. 14 even more impressive. Trayce Jackson-Davis has somehow found another gear, and Race Thompson came back earlier than expected. He only played four minutes against the Spartans on Sunday, but as he gets stronger, this team will get better, and likewise move up my ballot.
• It was really hard to leave out Auburn again, but it’s also challenging to shoehorn the Tigers onto my ballot without a signature win. They are 16-3, but they have just one Quad 1 win (at home over Arkansas). Even Florida Atlantic has two Quad 1 wins. Auburn lost at Georgia and USC, as well as on a neutral court to Memphis. I know I’m in the minority here (what else is new?), but the Tigers have ample opportunity the next three weeks to make this a slam dunk. They play Texas A&M twice, host Georgia and Alabama, and play at Tennessee on Feb. 4.
• Finally, how do you solve a problem like Charleston? The Cougars have now run their nation’s-longest win streak to 20. Last week they were No. 18 in the AP poll, and I presume they could go higher. When it comes to evaluating mid-major teams with gaudy records, the metrics are especially useful. And in this case, they are quite clear: The Cougars are not a top-25 team. They’re actually not even all that close. They have zero Quad 1 wins. The one Quad 1 game they played was at North Carolina (currently unranked), and they lost by 16. Their rankings range from 39 (KPI) to 74 (Sagarin). They are No. 73 on KenPom.
Compare that with Florida Atlantic, which is 2-0 in Quad 1 games (although it does have a Quad 2 loss at Ole Miss). The Owls are No. 18 in the NET, No. 22 on KPI, and No. 36 on KenPom. So why are they six spots behind Charleston in the AP poll? Or how about Boise State, which is between 21st-31st on the four major analytic sites? Why should the Broncos be unranked while Charleston is moving up the top 20?
This is not even to mention unranked power conference teams like Arkansas, West Virginia, Illinois, North Carolina and many others whose numbers are considerably stronger than Charleston’s across the board. Believe me, I would love nothing more than to see the Cougars continue to win and advance deep into the NCAA Tournament — which could well happen. But at this moment, on this day, in my opinion, they are not a top 25 team.
(Top photo of Purdue’s Braden Smith: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)