The Top 25 matters in college hoops, Q&A with Craig Neal and more
In college basketball, the polls are meaningless. Nobody cares about the polls. The polls are not worth our attention.
Bunk. B.S. And balderdash.
If you believe otherwise, then you must have missed that riveting Iowa-Iowa State contest in Ames last Friday night. Both teams entered the game ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1987 and just the second time in history -- and everyone in the building knew it. That's what made it such a big game.
Or maybe you haven't spoken with an Arizona fan, who is well aware that his beloved Wildcats ascended to the No. 1 ranking last week for the first time since 2003. Or a Wisconsin fan who knows that his fourth-ranked Badgers are at their highest perch since the end of the 2006-07 season. The folks in Wichita, Kansas, know full well that the No. 11 Shockers own their highest ranking since December 2006. Villanova fans know their team is ranked for the first time since February 2011. And have you heard that UMass has a number next to its name for the first time since early in the 1998-99 season? Massachusetts natives sure have.
The significance isn't even limited to the Top 25. When one of those off-the-grid midmajors gets a speck of love in "Others Receiving Votes," it means a great deal, as the people at Saint Mary's, George Washington, Harvard and Toledo can currently attest. I know how much it means to them because as soon as the polls come out each Monday, my inbox is flooded with emails from their p.r. departments touting this very thing.
Most of all, if you think nobody cares about the polls in college hoops, just check my Twitter timeline after I release my AP ballot each Sunday night. As soon as I do, my mentions feed explodes with messages from fans who are outraged that I ranked their team a couple of spots too low. They always try to follow that up by saying "that's why the polls in college basketball are so meaningless." But if that were the case, why get so angry in the first place? Why do we care so much about a silly little ranking?
Because we do. One of the major reasons why we enjoy watching sports is because it allows us to assess and debate. It's hard enough for college hoops to garner attention this time of year with so much football going on. The poll is a weekly news event that gets people talking. As a veteran AP voter, I can tell you that there is no hedging when it comes to making a Top 25. You can't be vague and say a team is "overrated" or "not getting enough love." You make your list, you check it twice, and out it goes. Everyone has different opinions about my ballot, but they can all agree on one thing: I got it wrong.
In fact, I would argue that college basketball is the only major sport that gets this poll thing exactly right. In our sport, the polls mean a lot but decide nothing. That's not the case in college football where, perversely, the rankings can actually help determine who plays for a championship. And of course, there are no national rankings in pro sports. That's no fun.
College hoops rankings do more than just stir debate. They help set narratives like the one that unfolded in Iowa last Friday. Because they have been around for so long (the AP poll began in 1946) they give us historical perspective. In addition, remember that a lot of people who tune into these games are casual fans taking a sneak peek. If they happen to land on, say, the Florida-Memphis game on Tuesday night, they will learn off the bat that Memphis is ranked No. 15 and Florida is No. 16 this week. It will give them a sense of how important the game is, and it might make them more inclined to stick around. And in the end, if the voters get it wrong -- and let's face it, we often do -- then everybody can yak and yak all they want, but they don't have to worry, because the debate will be settled exactly where it should: on the court, in March, during the NCAA tournament. That's where the noise stops.
So let's stop pretending like these polls are meaningless, because they're obviously not. Let them be our guilty pleasure. Whether we want to admit it or not, we live in a poll-arized world. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Read more: Five Games I'm Psyched To See, AP Top 25
Wichita State at Alabama, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Frankly, anytime Wichita State plays, I'm psyched to watch. The Tide is off to a shaky start, but Alabama is an athletic team playing at home with a chance to notch a statement win. The Shockers better be ready.
Wichita State 76, Alabama 70
Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati at Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
This will be Pittsburgh's first game against a high-caliber opponent, although given how much difficulty the Bearcats have had scoring, it may be an ugly contest.
Pittsburgh 67, Cincinnati 59
Florida vs. Memphis at Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Florida point guard Scott Wilbekin may be a problem child, but he is a mighty tough and effective point guard. Now that he's healthy and back in the fold -- hopefully for good -- the Gators should establish themselves as firmly among the nation's elite.
Florida 78, Memphis 72
UMass at Ohio, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
This is a classic trap game, but I'm guessing the Minutemen are too talented and experienced to fall into it.
UMass 81, Ohio 75
Duke vs. UCLA at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
The Blue Devils will have nearly two weeks between their win over Michigan and their next game against Gardener-Webb on Monday night. That's a lot of time for Mike Krzyzewski to work on his team's shortcomings.
Duke 75, UCLA 65
SI.com: You were an assistant coach at New Mexico for six years before taking over in the spring for Steve Alford. What part of being a head coach has surprised you the most?
Neal: I think the biggest surprise was the relationship with the players. It's a different relationship because now you're the one making the decisions. You're still there for them, but you're not the sounding board anymore. It was a little bit of a transition for all of us.
SI.com: Your big Aussie, senior forward Cameron Bairstow, might be the most improved player in the country. How did he get so much better?
Neal: He's just a tireless worker. He came here at 6-9, 205 pounds, maybe 210. Now he's 6-9, 250. We beat Cincinnati the other night, and before he went in for the press conference he was in our weight room lifting. He does that after every game. He got a lot of confidence this summer playing for the Australian national team at the World University Games. I'll tell you what, if you can find a power forward better than him right now, I'd like to see it.
SI.com: How did you get your nickname "Noodles"?
Neal: In high school, I played about 6-4, 145 pounds. I looked like a bunch of noodles running up the floor. My high school teammates starting calling me that. Then when I got to Georgia Tech and Dick Vitale got a hold of it, that's when it stuck.
SI.com: Do people still call you "Noodles" now that you're a head coach?
Neal: I still hear it because that's what I've been called for so long, but I don't let my players call me that.
SI.com: What was it like playing for Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech?
Neal: He wasn't big on scouting reports. I don't think we ever did a scouting report. But he taught me how to be a man, and I think that has helped me. You always wanted to run through a brick wall for him because you knew he cared so much about you.
SI.com: You were a third-round NBA draft pick with the Portland Trail Blazers and then you bounced around the minor league circuit for a while. Was it hard when your playing days ended?
Neal: I told myself when I was 26 or 27 that when I got to be 30, if I didn't make it back to the league, I was done. I wasn't going to chase it. A lot of my buddies went overseas, and when you're removed from the States for eight, nine, 10 years, it's not easy to come back and get into the real world.
SI.com: You spent several years working for the Toronto Raptors as a scout and assistant coach. Why the move back to college?
Neal: When Lenny Wilkens resigned, I had a year off to go home. My kids were young. The league is awesome, but you're working all the time, year round. Even in the offseason, I was always working guys out or getting ready for the draft. We still work hard in college, but because of the NCAA rules, you can only work so much. It's more conducive to raising a family.
SI.com: You have a well known affinity to riding Harley Davidsons. Do you get to ride them often?
Neal: Oh, yeah. I've got two of 'em now. It's fun to ride them to the office and kind of clear your mind. We've got wonderful weather here and great places to ride. When I really want to get away, I'll get a couple of buddies and we'll take off and go for two or three days. It's just a way for me to relax and go to a place where nobody can get you on the phone.
SI.com: Your son, Cullen, is a freshman guard on your team. You also played for your dad when you were in high school. What's the most important thing you learned from that experience that you are applying to this one?
Neal: Just to spend as much time as I can outside the court than I did with my father. Once we leave the floor, I try to be Dad, and that's not always easy.
*(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Ohio State (3)
4. Michigan State (4)
5. Duke (5)
6. Louisville (6)
7. Wisconsin (8)
8. Florida (14)
9. Wichita State (9)
10. Oklahoma State (11)
11. Memphis (12)
12. UConn (13)
13. Iowa State (15)
14. Villanova (16)
15. Baylor (17)
16. North Carolina (23)
17. Kansas (7)
18. Colorado (18)
19. Iowa (19)
20. Oregon (20)
21. Kentucky (10)
22. UMass (21)
23. San Diego State (22)
24. Missouri (NR)
25. Gonzaga (NR)
Dropped out: New Mexico (24), Boise State (25)
Even if you had no idea it was exam week at most colleges, you'd be able to tell by looking at these numbers. There was very little movement on my ballot. My decision to bump Florida up six spots was as much of an eye test as anything else. The Gators looked so good for much of that Kansas win that I really do think they are at the top of the poll to stay, and clearly the team to beat in the SEC.
It might not seem fair to penalize New Mexico for losing to a Kansas team that had been ranked above it, but the Lobos were badly outclassed, and the Jayhawks weren't exactly playing like a Final Four team. And I might have spared Boise State for losing a true road game at Kentucky -- no shame in that -- but when the Broncos followed that up by losing at home to Saint Mary's, that made the decision to drop them out easy.
As you all know, I like to find an unheralded mid-major to plug into the last spot or two on my ballot (John Feinstein started this tradition with the AP poll), but there just weren't any legitimate candidates. So I settled on Missouri and Gonzaga to round things out. I took a look at Saint Mary's, but that win over Boise State was by far the Gaels' most impressive of the season. (For the life of me, I'll never understand why Randy Bennett schedules so weakly every year.) SMU clocks in at a respectable 8-2, but the Mustangs also don't have anything resembling a signature win.