Poll Positions: Top 25 Chatter

December 12th, 2006

Who’s the Team to Beat?

So here we are, officially one month into the 2006-07 college basketball season. It is therefore OK to start asking ourselves the most pointless but intriguing question in the sport, one we will keep asking all the way to Selection Sunday: Who is the team to beat for the NCAA national championship?

UCLA (# 1 AP / Coaches) right now clearly is that team.

The undefeated Bruins have won the EA Sports Maui Invitational, one of the best of the preseason tournaments, beating Kentucky and Georgia Tech, and, most recently, they defeated a legitimate Top 10 caliber team in Texas A&M (# 13 AP / Coaches).

As many have pointed out, their defense was so solid they still bested the Aggies despite being out-rebounded, having a lousy night from the free throw line, and missing several easy shots. In other words, they beat a quality opponent even when they weren’t playing their best. More importantly, eight different Bruins scored, three of them in double digits. This is nothing new. In the championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational for example, ten players saw at least six minutes of playing time, nine of them scoring.

They have the talent – sporting two PAC 10 Player of the Year candidates in juniors Aaron Afflalo and Josh Shipp. They have the experience – having been the national runner-up a year ago. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should be back at full strength soon after straining his groin. They are one of the deepest teams in the nation, are unselfish, and very well-coached. UCLA deserves every #1 vote they received.

There are of course other schools that would beg to differ. Pittsburgh (# 2 AP / Coaches), for example, would tell you that their surprising scare against 6-4 Buffalo was just a fluke. They’ll have a chance to prove it: six of the Panthers’ next ten games will more than likely be against Top 25 competition.

Yet being the team to beat isn’t always a good thing. There was UNLV in 1991, Michigan in 1993, Georgetown in 1985, Duke in 1999, Kansas in 1997 and Arizona in 2003 to name just a few glaring examples of sure-bet champions getting tripped up on their way to their coronation. Although on rare occasions they succeeded (Indiana in 1976, Kentucky in 1996, UCLA – any year between 1967-1973, etc).

Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that two of the last four national champions were not even ranked in the preseason (Syracuse in 2003 and Florida in 2006) and that only one of the last four champs even earned a #1 seed (North Carolina in 2005). In fact, last season saw the first Final Four without any #1 seeds in 26 years.

Acknowledging all that, as well as the dangers of being perceived as a boring, predictable, connoisseur-of-the-obvious for picking the current #1 team in the country, it says here that UCLA will win their 12th NCAA title in Atlanta.

Butler Getting Respect

All too often, coaches and (especially) sportswriters only vote to place certain teams in the Top 25 because the feel they have to, not because they think the school is truly deserving of it. For example, when a team, normally a mid-major, wins their first 10 or 11 games, many feel obligated to put them into the Top 25 rankings. But as soon as they suffer their first defeat, those teams usually drop like a rock in the polls, or out of the rankings altogether. The reason is that few people really believed in them in the first place, and a tough loss to a below-average team gives voters an excuse to put them in their place.

That is why it was refreshing to see Butler (# 18 AP / Coaches) only drop down a few notches after their surprising loss to Indiana State, a team that has already been beaten by the likes of Middle Tennessee and Ball State. The fact they only moved down 3 or 4 slots shows that most poll voters and coaches truly believe the Bulldogs belong, which they undoubtedly do.

Other schools being shown some leniency by the voters include Memphis (# 19 AP / Coaches) who had an ugly, ugly loss to Tennessee on Wednesday, but only dropped 3 places, and Florida (# 5 AP / Coaches). The Gators are right back in the Top 5 despite a shocking loss to Florida State a week ago. Voters and coaches clearly believe in the defending champs, even if they are the only team in the top 10 with 2 losses.

Aiming High

When Coach of the Year honors are being handed out in a few months, one name that will in all likelihood be on the list of finalists is Air Force (# 24 AP / # 20 Coaches) Coach Jeff Bzdelik.

Last season he led the Falcons to their best season in program history, winning 24 games and taking them to just their fourth ever NCAA Tournament. Just four weeks into the season, all his Air Force squad has done is beat the likes of Texas Tech, Stanford, Colorado and Wake Forest, with their only loss coming against Duke (# 6 AP / # Coaches) in the CBE Classic. Their success so far has earned them only their second Top 25 ranking in Academy history.

But that doesn’t begin to tell the story. According to the Air Force Academy’s website, the average SAT score of incoming cadets is 1293. The very bare minimum that is accepted, even for very good basketball players, is 1140. On top of that, as is the case with all military academies, all prospective cadets actually require a formal nomination from a Member of Congress before being accepted.

There are very few student-athletes of any sport that can meet those strict academic requirements, giving Coach Bzdelik (and his predecessors) a much smaller pool of prospects from which to recruit, to say the least. Throw in the fact that all cadets also have military assignments during the summer (while most other student-athletes are in the gym or playing summer leagues), and must agree to an eight year military commitment upon graduation, five of them on active duty, and the recruiting pool gets that much shallower.

It gets better. Due to the nature of their responsibilities while on active duty, until recently, the service academies prohibit enrollment to anyone taller than 6’ 8’’ and weighing over 250 pounds. Although it should be noted that the academies don’t expel students who grow past the height limit after enrolling, which is how David Robinson of the Naval Academy was permitted to graduate.

Still, imagine being a coach and potentially having to tell basketball prospects, “sorry, you’re too tall.” Greg Oden and Kevin Durant are just two examples of recruits that would not be able to attend the Air Force Academy even if they had the grades.

This should help explain why the Falcons are on their third coach in four years, and why service academies as a whole usually don’t come within a mile of the Top 25.

It should also help us all appreciate not only what Coach Bzdelik has done in just his second year on the sidelines, but more importantly, what it means to the men and women of all the Armed Forces around the world for the Falcons to have achieved their highest ranking in program history this week.