Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who's #1?

Yesterday's edition of the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls both have Duke sitting pretty at #1, with the UConn Huskies coming in a distant second - Duke got 62 first place votes to UConn's six in the AP poll, and the Blue Devils received 30 of the 31 first place votes in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

Call me a UConn homer, call me a Duke hater, I don't care - is Duke really that much better than UConn? Or fellow one loss teams Oklahoma, Wake Forest, and Pitt?

According to the RPI, yes (all RPI numbers are taken from RealTimeRPI). Duke, Pitt, and Oklahoma are 1, 2, 3 in the RPI, with UConn sitting at 6 and Wake Forest at 12.

Duke is 7-1 against the RPI top 50, with their wins coming against Xavier (4), Georgetown (13), at Florida State (17), Virginia Tech (32), Davidson (37), at Purdue (39), and Michigan (47), who doubles as the only team to beat them.

UConn is 4-1 against the RPI top 50, with wins at West Virginia (18), against Wisconsin (22), Villanova (26), and Miami (38), losing to Georgetown (13). But UConn also owns wins against Gonzaga (51) and at Notre Dame (75), two teams that are talented but have hit a rough patch during the season.

In fact, UConn has beaten six teams that were ranked at the time they played them, the most in college basketball.

So what does all that mean? It looks like, based on the numbers, that both the voters and the computers got it right. Duke does have a better resume than the Huskies, although I think it is much closer than the polls would lead you to believe.

But the RPI numbers don't always tell the whole story.

The way I see it, you can rank teams two different ways. The first is based on their performance, the resume of wins they have put together. The other is to breakdown the teams - the players, the coaches, the style of play - and decide subjectively who you believe is a better team. The first is a clear cut, objective ranking system, while the second is influenced much more by opinions and biases.

So I ask you, if Duke played UConn on a neutral court, who would win?

To be honest, no matter where the game is played, I don't see any way UConn beats Duke.

The Huskies struggle against teams with a big man that can step out and play the perimeter. See Georgetown and Greg Monroe. Why? Because Hasheem Thabeet cannot guard anyone on the perimeter, and he is not enough of an offensive threat to take advantage of the mismatch on the other end.

UConn has been playing some zone of late, as teams have begun to figure out what kind of offense to run against the Huskies. But do you think that Jim Calhoun, a coach that prides himself on his team's rugged man-to-man defense, will switch to (let alone effectively coach) a zone defense, especially when you consider how good of a team Duke is offensively (sixth most efficient according to Kenpom).

So Duke is the best team in the country then, right?

Not so fast.

Pitt is second in the RPI and 5-1 against the RPI top 20, with wins over Florida State (17), Siena (20), Georgetown (13), Syracuse (16), and West Virginia (18), their only loss coming to Louisville, who may deserve to be in this conversation as well (more on that in a bit). Pitt is, physically, the toughest team in the country, and there may not be someone harder to keep off of the offensive glass than DeJuan Blair. The development of Jermaine Dixon as a scorer has made this Pitt team even more balanced and dangerous.

Oklahoma, third in the RPI, is 8-0 against the RPI top 50, with wins against Purdue (39), Texas (23), Baylor (24), and Utah (25). They also have Blake Griffin, the most dominant big man in the country, a back court (Austin Johnson and Willie Warren) that is emerging as one of the best in the Big XII, and a bench that is slowly turning from a weakness to a strength with the development of Omar Leary and the return of Juan Pattillo.

Wake Forest is 12th in the RPI, but they have three of the best wins out of this entire group - beating UNC and winning at Clemson and at BYU (which is a much tougher place to play than you think - 22,000 screaming mormons is enough to rattle anyone). With Jeff Teague and arguably the best frontline in the country, Wake has proven they can beat anyone, anywhere (except Va Tech at home, apparently).

And that only includes the one loss teams. UNC was the favorite up until their two losses to start the ACC, but after blow out wins over Miami FL and Clemson, they look to be back on track. Louisville may actually be the hottest team in the country right now, with seven straight wins, including victories against Villanova, Notre Dame, Pitt (the only team to beat the Panthers), and Syracuse in the last two weeks. Michigan State is rolling again. Marquette is leading the Big East.

So does Duke deserve their #1 ranking?


Are they the best team in the country?


What does it all tell us?

Contrary to what many people (including this guy) had been saying earlier in the season, it is wide open this year. If my analysis didn't convince you, maybe this will - in the last three weeks, three different teams have been number one. And if Wake can beat Duke tomorrow night at home, it will be four in four weeks.

March is going to be a lot of fun this year.

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