A new year has dawned, and with it a new chapter. College hoops have formally pivoted from non-conference play — full of easy buy-in games, exciting challenges, and tournaments played both inside casinos and in the tropics — to conference play, where teams have to travel through frigid temperatures and try to win games in hostile cauldrons. This means no more hiding, no more smooth sailing for anyone. Nothing but frozen, choppy waters ahead.
So this may be the last time all season that I can say there wasn’t a lot of movement on my ballot. Here, then, for the first time in 2023, I present the correct ranking of the top 25 men’s college basketball teams, as presented to the Associated Press Sunday night:
Seth Davis’ Top 25 Team for Monday, January 2nd
drop out: North Carolina (16), Kentucky (19), Memphis (21)
always famous: Auburn, Florida Atlantic, Illinois, Missouri, Providence, Saint Mary’s, Utah
Notes on voting
• Those of you who follow my rankings closely (and you know who you are) understand that I consider a lot more than just winning or losing matches in the past week. I put extra weight on who I played, how I played, and most of all, where I played. We all know it’s really hard to beat on the road. Conversely, it means that a top 25 team must win at home, especially if it is against a team ranked lower or none at all.
I had three hits inside my top five from last Saturday that I needed to keep in mind: O’Conn’s 83-73 loss at Xavier Stadium, Kansas’ 69-67 home win over Oklahoma State, and Arizona’s 69-60 win at Arizona State. I almost left UConn in second place, because there is no shame in losing to a good team on the road, and the Huskies are arguably the best team in the country this season. I did have to, however, move Arizona up two spots because their win was crucial, and it happened against a good team on the road. Arizona also had a neutral win over Indiana and a home win over Tennessee in December, which pushed its 81-66 loss at Utah on December 1 deeper into the rearview mirror. Most teams will have a bad game now and then, and that was losing to a conference opponent on the road.
As for Kansas, I don’t generally believe in penalizing teams after wins, but the Jayhawks were playing at home against an unranked Oklahoma State team that lost this season to Southern Illinois and UCF, and were close to losing. I don’t think moving a team down one hole is much of a penalty anyway, but the Jayhawks went down because of my decision to jump over Arizona.
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• I think there is still some confusion about why Houston is ranked #8 when the Cougars were #3 in an AP poll last week and ranked #1 on NET, KenPom, and BartTorvik. The answer lies in their bio. Houston’s best win was in Virginia. A great win on the road, no doubt, but Virginia also lost its next game in Miami. Other than that, Houston’s best win in Fort Worth came against unranked Saint Mary’s. It also has several wins over unranked teams that were uncomfortably close, including a 71-65 home win Saturday over UCF. It’s worth noting that Houston is #7 in the Kevin Pauga KPI rankings, which are based solely on scores, while other metrics are meant to be predictive. There are also some direct results to consider. Houston lost at home to Alabama, so shouldn’t the Cougars be ranked behind the Crimson Tide? And Alabama lost to Gonzaga in Birmingham later that week, so shouldn’t the tide be behind the Zags? Given that Houston is by far the best team in its conference, I would expect this team to continue winning and move up the rankings accordingly, but that’s why I’m putting the Cougars in their place. Scales are helpful, but they are not good news.
• To broaden my view on metrics, let’s take a look at some of the teams where ranking seems to be elusive, for better and for worse. Is there anyone who would argue that Miami does not deserve the rating? Well, the Hurricanes are 33rd on the grid, 37th on KenPom, and 50th on BartTorvik. However, KPI ranked them ninth. They shouldn’t be rated that high, but in this case, the KPI is much closer to accuracy.
Then there are the two teams the metrics love to hate: Wisconsin (44 NET, 42 KenPom, 49 BartTorvik) and Providence (57 NET, 44 KenPom, 58 BartTorvik). The KPI is split on this one – Wisconsin is at 12, Providence is at 64. This is all because the metrics don’t like teams that win a lot of close games. However, when they factor in the rankings and quadruple records, a win counts the same whether they come by one or 100. By the way, Providence has a big game Wednesday night at home against UConn. Huskies won’t be in a good mood, but not often when you’re playing a top-five team in your arena. Monks would do well to at least pass the eye test.
On the flip side, the Scales are smitten with West Virginia (13 NET, 20 KenPom, 13 BartTorvik, 25 KPI), although the Mountaineers’ best win has been in Pittsburgh and they just lost at Kansas State in the Big 12 opener. Auburn also has the Scales Strong and still ranked 25th on the AP list even though the Tigers’ resume is pretty decent. Their best win at a neutral venue was over Northwestern, and they suffered losses in December to Memphis (neutral) and USC (road).
• The biggest winner this week, of course, was Xavier. This was a great win for the Knights on Saturday under tremendous pressure. The two things that stood out to me were Jack Nong’s 15 points, three rebounds, and three assists while fighting a virus. Most people don’t want to get out of bed when they’re that sick, let alone play a top-level basketball game, but Nung pulled it off like a champ. The other was the contributions off the bench of 6-7 senior forward Jerome Hunter, a gay guy who played with Shawn Miller’s brother, Archie, at Indiana. Xavier is a really good offensive team but a very defensive team. Hunter gives this team the toughness it needs at the end of the floor. It will become a very precious piece during the Dog days of February.
• I was more supportive of North Carolina and Kentucky than my fellow voters, but those teams made it easier for me to part with them after losing to Pitt and Missouri, respectively. Speaking of Missouri, I gave the Tigers a hard look, not only for their win over Kentucky but also for their evisceration of Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how good these teams are, and the Tigers had a very questionable non-conference schedule, so I decided to wait a little longer before putting a number next to their name. But if they continue to play like this, it’s only a matter of time.
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• Memphis’ loss at Tulane on Sunday opened up another venue. I’ve been tripping over Creighton for the past couple of weeks – I even gave the Jays a coveted Buy-Plus rating in our Hoop Thoughts stock report – so I give them last place even though it doesn’t take much to beat Butler and DePaul is home. My point all along was that the reason Creighton went down so badly was because of Ryan Kalkbrenner’s exit, but now that he’s back, I expect them to pick up again. They’ve got Seton Hall at home and UConn on the road this week, to be followed by Xavier (road) and Providence (home) next week. We will soon find out if my belief in this team is justified.
(Top photo of Xavier’s Colby Jones: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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