Teams leading and falling in the RPI race, uneven officiating and more
It's hard to believe, but we are already into the second week of January, which means that February is around the corner, which means that the greatest month ever invented is down the street and on your left. And that means that everybody's favorite three little letters -- RPI -- are once again about to enter the sporting vernacular. Yippee!
I say: Wait. The RPI rankings, which are already criminally misunderstood, won't become relevant for another five or six weeks. There are too many games to be played. Think of it like election night. The early returns might tell you a little bit about what is happening, but we can't draw a conclusion until most of the returns are in.
There is, however, one area in which most of the returns are in, and that's the nonconference strength of schedules. The NCSOS rankings are valued greatly by the men's basketball committee, which is why the first two months of the season are so riveting. Coaches know that if their teams wind up on the NCAA tournament bubble, they can help themselves by putting together challenging nonconference schedules, or hurt themselves if they don't.
Thus, before we set our sights to the future, let us take one last look at the first two months of the season. Your resident Hoop Thinker has assembled a list of 10 potential bubble teams who helped themselves during nonconference play, as well 10 potential bubble teams that hurt themselves. Before I begin, let me pass along two points:
Herewith, my twin lists of 10:
BYU (Nonconference strength of schedule rank: 4) -- The Cougars' win at Stanford and neutral court win over Texas look pretty good in retrospect. Unfortunately, the WCC looks like a one-bid league, so BYU will probably have to win the league tournament to get into the field of 68.
Alabama (11) -- The good news is, the Tide played a lot of tournament-bound teams like Duke, Wichita State, Xavier, Oklahoma and UCLA. The bad news is, they lost all those games. They also lost to non-tourney teams Drexel and South Florida. So they've got a lot of work to do in a weak SEC.
Xavier (18) -- The Musketeers have not lost since they went 0-3 at the Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving week. Should they regress, they banked some house money with nonconference wins over Tennessee and Cincinnati. The road win over Alabama won't hurt, either.
Tennessee (25) -- Cuonzo Martin did a good job challenging his team with this schedule, but too often his Volunteers did not rise up to meet it. Their best nonconference wins came over Xavier at the Battle 4 Atlantis and against Virginia at home. The fact that they started SEC play with a road win at LSU is a good sign.
North Carolina (29) -- I assume no one is pooh-poohing the notion that the Tar Heels could miss out on the NCAA tournament. They are, after all, 0-3 in the ACC. They have much work to do between now and Selection Sunday, but if they are close, their wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky will look huge when compared to the profiles of other bubble teams.
Florida State (32) -- The Seminoles had a solid nonconference season that included neutral court wins over VCU and UMass, but the two that got away (Michigan and Florida) could sting in the end.
Virginia (28) -- The Cavaliers' road loss at Wisconsin-Green Bay won't hurt them that much since the Phoenix are ranked 35th in the RPI (although I expect that number will decline). If Virginia is on the bubble, its neutral court win over fellow bubble boy SMU will also help.
St. John's (38) -- Yes, the Red Storm played two top 10 teams in the nonconference season, but they lost both (to Wisconsin and Syracuse). They also lost on a neutral court to Penn State. Right now, this team's best RPI win came at home against No. 91 San Francisco. That's not going to cut it.
Oklahoma (57) -- It looks like the Sooners won't have to worry about being on the bubble, but if that's where they end up, this number will look nice on their team sheet. This is the very definition of a smart nonconference schedule. All of Oklahoma's opponents were beatable, but only three were ranked below 200.
Notre Dame (65) -- The neutral court win over Indiana will help. Losing at home to Indiana State doesn't qualify as a bad loss, but given that the Irish are off to a rough start in ACC play, they could have done without it.
Utah (347) -- Only two teams in the country played a weaker nonconference slate. Seven of the Utes' opponents are ranked below No. 270 in the RPI. They better win a lot of conference games if they're going to have any hope of sniffing the bracket.
Houston (339) -- The Cougars are off to a 2-1 start in the AAC, but it is going to be a long climb. They already have three losses to teams ranked below No. 100, and No. 94 Louisiana-Lafayette will dip below that threshold soon.
Washington (248) -- Very few major conference coaches hurt their teams more consistently than Lorenzo Romar when it comes to putting together weak, home-cooked nonconference schedules. And when Washington played games that could have helped (at San Diego State, vs. UConn, neutral court vs. Indiana), it lost. Throw in the home loss to UC Irvine and neutral court loss to Boston College, and you can see just how far this team has to go.
Arkansas (230) -- The Razorbacks actually got a couple of pretty good nonconference wins against SMU (home) and Minnesota (neutral), but they also played seven home games against teams ranked No. 260 and below. The committee doesn't like that.
Pittsburgh (178) -- Given how much Pitt's nonconference schedule has been maligned, you might be surprise it is ranked this high. The Panthers have only played one top 50 team all season (Cincinnati), but they balanced that by playing only three teams ranked No. 200 or below.
Butler (173) -- It's looking more and more like Butler will not make the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs have lost their first four Big East games (including at home to DePaul), and their best nonconference win came at home over Princeton.
Indiana (157) -- There are a few too many teams ranked below No. 200 here (six to be exact), but the Hoosiers did a decent job setting the table for Big Ten play. If they end up missing out on the tournament, that one-point loss to UConn in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 22 will feel like the difference.
Marquette (155) -- Talk about bottom feeding: Buzz Williams scheduled five games against teams ranked 300 in the RPI or below. Obviously he knew something about his team that the rest of us didn't, since the Golden Eagles were picked No. 1 in the Big East's preseason poll but now sit in fifth place with a 2-2 record.
Wake Forest (186) -- The Demon Deacons notched a couple of decent nonconference wins over Richmond (home), St. Bonaventure (home) and USC (neutral), but that's not going to get them very far. They also played seven games against teams ranked below 230.
Saint Louis (148) -- The Billikens have only lost two games, and both were to teams ranked in the top 10 of the RPI (Wisconsin and Wichita State). They beat Indiana State at home and Vanderbilt on the road, but aside from that they didn't get much done the first two months.
During the first two months of the season, there was a lot of chatter about the rule changes to try and limit physical defense. Those changes seemed to be working, as all the offensive numbers ticked up with minimal disruption to the games.
Still, many coaches digested the changes with a healthy dose of skepticism. The big test, they argued, was what would happen once conference play began. Would the referees keep making the same ticky-tack calls? Or would they revert and let the physical contact go?
The answer, it appears, is the latter. During the last week, I asked several coaches if they thought there had been much slippage since the start of conference play, and nearly every one said yes. But you don't have to ask a coach if this is happening. All you have to do is watch the games.
John Adams, who as the NCAA's men's basketball officiating coordinator has led the charge to cut out hand checking and its wicked stepsisters, fired a shot across the bow at the refs last week, posting a brief but highly critical memo to the NCAA's official website for referees. "Post play is as rough as I have ever seen it," Adams wrote. "There is still way too much illegal contact committed against players without the ball."
Adams also said he is noticing that, although defenders are using their hands less, they are using that as license to initiate even more contact with their lower bodies. Adams further noticed that even in games that started out being called properly, "enforcement tends to fade late in close games."
This is problematic on two fronts. First, it creates an uglier product during the very time of year when games are becoming increasingly meaningful. And second, the tendency in the past has been for officials to wield a much tighter whistle in the NCAA tournament, because that is their best prospect for advancement. That throws everybody off once again.
Adams and the league coordinators have always known that the transition to conference play would be the most difficult aspect of implementing the changes to the rule book. But that is no excuse for failing to do it well. That's why Adams concluded his memo by writing: "I listened to an announcer last night on ESPN say: 'What they [officials] work on and talk about in November and December eventually goes away in January and February, and we get back to playing college basketball.' Our challenge is to prove him wrong."
Finally, this is a big and very exciting week for me as my new book Wooden: A Coach's Life (Times Books) will finally go on sale this Tuesday. This project has been more than four years in the making, and I feel extraordinarily privileged to be able to present the definitive biography of this American icon.
This book is neither a hagiography nor a takedown. Rather, it is a balanced, nuanced portrayal of a complicated man whom I believe was the greatest coach in the history of American sports. And yes, it delves head-on into some of the more controversial aspects of Wooden's life as well as his program at UCLA. I'll have plenty to say about what is actually in the book beginning on Tuesday. In fact, at least count, I have been booked for 46 radio interviews between Tuesday and Friday. Forty-six! I'm exhausted already, but very pumped, as you might imagine. I got a head start last week with this eight-minute interview on NPR's "All Things Considered" program. If you want to order the book, feel free to do so here. I dare say you won't be disappointed.
READ MORE: Five Games To Watch ... A Few Minutes with Fran McCaffery ... Seth's Top 25
Kansas at Iowa State, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
DeAndre Kane or not, the Cyclones still have Hilton Magic working in their favor. The joint is gonna be jumpin'.
Iowa State 76, Kansas 72
Wisconsin at Indiana, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The young Hoosiers only have a few opportunities to face top-tier conference teams at home, and they need to cash in. Unfortunately, the Badgers are mature, tough, and very much on a roll.
Wisconsin 80, Indiana 70
Kentucky at Arkansas, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Arkansas blew a golden opportunity to knock off a Casey Prather-less Florida team over the weekend. The Razorbacks need to bounce back here, and I think they will.
Arkansas 79, Kentucky 74
Oklahoma at Kansas State, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Kansas State was embarrassed at Allen Fieldhouse over the weekend, while the Sooners finally earned their signature win against Iowa State. I spy a swinging pendulum.
Kansas State 72, Oklahoma 66
Georgetown at Xavier, Wednesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network
I have no idea what has gotten into Xavier sophomore point guard Semaj Christon, but he is really starting to come into his own. That, plus the fact that Xavier is coming home after a disappointing loss at Creighton, spells bad news for the Hoyas.
Xavier 72, Georgetown 62
SI.com: So you had a mildly interesting week. On Sunday, you got ejected from a loss at Wisconsin. On Thursday, your team played a game without you because you were suspended. And then on Sunday, you won a road game against the No. 3 team in the country. What do you have to say for yourself?
McCaffery: (Laughs) It was an interesting week, to say the least. The beauty of it is that the kids never really changed in terms of their approach. It was business as usual in terms of game prep, get ready for the next one, no big deal. Don't get too high, don't get too low.
SI.com: It's not easy to win in Columbus. What went so well against Ohio State?
McCaffery: We didn't turn it over, and we rebounded. If you give them second shot opportunities, you can't win, because then you have to fight their press instead of getting run-outs. That's when we're at we're best, when we're running.
SI.com: The day after you were ejected against Wisconsin, your comments indicated that you didn't think you made contact with the official. Is it fair to say you were surprised that you were suspended?
McCaffery: I don't know that you're ever shocked about anything. Things happened at the time and I was giving an honest answer. I didn't feel like there was any contact. I think I would remember if I ran into the guy.
SI.com: Bottom line, was it fair that you got suspended?
McCaffery: You know what? At this point, I'm kind of done with it.
SI.com: My main criticism of what you did is that you're supposed to be an educator. How can you act like that and then turn around and tell your players they are supposed to keep their cool when adversity strikes?
McCaffery: That's a very fair question, but if you watch me coach, I'm actually pretty calm. I don't often raise my voice to my players or the officials. It's not like I'm flipping out all the time. So I tell my guys to keep their cool, but they know I'm a fighter, that I'll be fighting for them, and that I have their backs. They respect that.
SI.com: I'm guessing your fans loved it. Am I right?
McCaffery: Yes. Maybe there were some who didn't, but overwhelmingly, the things I heard were, "Keep coaching with passion. Keep fighting for our guys."
SI.com: Where did you watch the Northwestern game?
McCaffery: I was in my office with a few other people. My wife was there for the first half. I wasn't allowed to be in the arena, so my office is in a building next door. I could go to the shootaround that afternoon and the pregame meal, but for the game I couldn't talk to them before, after or at halftime.
SI.com: What was it like to watch your own team play without you?
McCaffery: It's not something you ever want to do, but it was a different perspective. It was interesting to sort of sit there and watch from afar. You're thinking about who you'd be subbing, what you'd be running, what defenses you would change to. Your mind still works the same way, but I thought my assistants did a good job.
SI.com: So what do you have in store for us next week?
McCaffery: Well, it's a bye week, so we don't play until next weekend. I'm gonna let 'em enjoy the moment a little bit. Then we'll get back to work.
* (Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Michigan State (4)
4. Wisconsin (5)
5. Florida (6)
6. Wichita State (7)
7. Villanova (9)
8. San Diego State (11)
9. Iowa State (8)
10. Iowa (17)
11. Ohio State (3)
12. Oklahoma State (13)
13. Baylor (10)
14. Kentucky (15)
15. UMass (18)
16. Kansas (20)
17. Cincinnati (22)
18. Memphis (23)
19. Creighton (24)
20. Oklahoma (25)
21. Louisville (19)
22. St. Louis (NR)
23. Xavier (NR)
24. Colorado (14)
25. Louisiana Tech (NR)
Dropped out: Duke (12), Oregon (16), Gonzaga (21)
The big news from this week's ballot is who is not on it -- namely Duke, which until last week had not been outside the AP's top 10 in six years. It's not just that the Blue Devils have lost two out of their last three. They've lost to bad teams. Notre Dame followed up its win over Duke by losing at home to N.C. State and on the road to Georgia Tech. Clemson's previous best win this season was a two-point squeaker at Boston College. Meanwhile, Duke's best win was at Madison Square Garden over UCLA, a team I have yet to rank this season. And let's not forget that besides their losses, the Blue Devils' needed narrow escapes to win at home over East Carolina and Vermont. I expect this team will get better -- heck, it could still end up in the Final Four for all we know -- but at the moment, there is simply no case for putting Duke in the top 25.
I have also consistently ranked Oregon below where my fellow AP voters have ranked it. It's not that I didn't think the Ducks were good, I just didn't see enough quality wins to justify a higher spot. The first time Oregon played a single ranked team was Jan. 5 at Colorado, and the Ducks lost by nine. They followed that by dropping home games to Cal and Stanford. Oregon has much work to do, and it won't be easy with three consecutive road games up next.
As for Gonzaga, I didn't notice it before this week, but this team has played a very un-Gonzaga-like schedule. That's largely because the Zags lost to Dayton in their first-round game at the Maui Invitational, which put them in the consolation bracket. Gonzaga's best wins came in Maui over Arkansas and in Morgantown over West Virginia. Meanwhile, the Zags have lost to Kansas State in Wichita, and over the weekend they lost at Portland for the first time since 1996. That's not a top 25 profile.
The other conspicuous absence from my ballot is a team I still have not ranked this season: Pittsburgh. Look, I think this is a pretty good team (although losing sixth man Durand Johnson to a season-ending knee injury is a tough blow), but the fact is, the Panthers' 3-0 start in the ACC came courtesy of home wins over Maryland and Wake Forest and a road win over N.C. State. The only mildly difficult game the Panthers have played was against Cincinnati in Madison Square Garden, and they lost by a point. We're about to get a better idea of just how good this team is because three of its next four games are on the road, including Jan. 18 at Syracuse. If the Panthers perform well, I'll be more than happy to stick a number next to their name.
The toughest team to rank this week was Colorado. On the one hand, I didn't feel it was right to drop the Buffaloes' completely out of my ballot for losing at Washington because a) it was a road game and b) they played the entire second half without their best player, Spencer Dinwiddie. On the other hand, it looks like Dinwiddie could be lost for the season. I figured I'd leave them in for now and see what happens, but that injury is a devastating blow.
St. Louis makes its first appearance on my ballot this week. The Billikens' only two losses came by five points at home against Wichita State and by six on a neutral court against Wisconsin. They own road wins at Valparaiso, Vanderbilt, Rhode Island and Dayton. I've watched this team play several times. They more than pass my eye test.
Xavier is another newbie. The Musketeers had won eight straight before falling at Creighton on Sunday. That stretch included a neutral court thrashing of Cincinnati, a gritty road win at Alabama and a 7-point home win over Marquette last week. And although it is often pointed out that Xavier went 0-3 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, remember that the Musketeers were up big on Iowa early in the second half when Semaj Christon went down with leg cramps. And they still took the Hawkeyes to overtime before losing. Xavier is playing much better now and could end up as Villanova's primary challenger in the Big East.
Finally, I caved and inserted Louisiana Tech at No. 25. Did I do that partly out of sentiment to give some love to an off-the-grid midmajor? Of course. You know I'm a sentimental guy. But when I went back and reviewed the Bulldogs' 12-3 record, I was reminded that those wins include a road game at Oklahoma on Dec. 30. That win looks even better now than it did at the time.