Poll Positions: Will Butler/Nevada Get Screwed?

January 31st, 2007

Badgers are For Real

It’s not a stretch to say that Wisconsin (# 2 AP / Coaches) is playing the best basketball of anyone nowadays. Starting four seniors (three of which have scored at least 25 points against top 10 competition this year), the Badgers are 21-1, haven’t lost since before Thanksgiving, and have already beaten the likes of Pittsburgh, Marquette, and Ohio State.

Wisconsin is also maintaining one of the stingiest defenses in the conference while only committing less than 12 turnovers a game themselves. Granted, the Big Ten has been a disappointment this year, but that should not diminish how good this Wisconsin team is.

Besides, they have Alando Tucker, who should be the Naismith Player of the Year.

Yes, Tyler Hansbrough is once again having a great year. Kevin Durant is a ridiculously good player, and the fact that he is only a freshman shouldn’t count against him when the Player of the Year votes are cast. The phenom is one of the top scorers in the nation and is averaging a double-double.

However, Tucker is not too shabby in the scoring department either, averaging almost 20 points per game along with about 5 rebounds. He has almost twice as many field goals as anyone else on the roster.

But he also does things that don’t show up in the stat sheets that are just as critical to his team’s success. Like play excellent defense and force turnovers.

More importantly, he is a leader on the court, a senior who not only carries his team when they need him (like he did recently against Iowa, scoring 27 of the Badgers’ 57 points) but who makes those around him play better. He is indispensable to his team, and by far the biggest reason the Badgers are having their best season in over 65 years.

Will Butler or Nevada get Hosed?

“It's all about who you've played.”

Those are the words of Virginia AD and NCAA Selection Committee member Craig Littlepage, last year in a teleconference just before Selection Sunday. He was Chair of the Committee at the time.

They are also words that all college basketball fans should keep in mind on March 11th.

Gonzaga fans know the story all too well. It was 2002, a Bulldog team ranked #6 in the nation waited patiently on Selection Sunday to find out where they were headed in the NCAA Tournament. They were holding out hope for a top billing, but were more realistically preparing for a # 2 seed. Instead, they were handed a stunning 6 seed. The reason the NCAA gave was simple: They didn’t play anybody.

The Zags went on to lose in the first round to Wyoming, a loss some of their fans blame to this day on the disappointment of where they ended up.

What are the odds of history repeating itself? Pretty good.

Two teams in particular come to mind: Nevada (# 15 AP, # 13 Coaches) and Butler (#13 AP / # 11Coaches).

Both are ranked in the Top 15 in the nation, both have a couple quality wins, and both only have 2 losses as we enter February.

However both have a Strength of Schedule (SoS) rating that could cause some controversy come Selection Sunday. Nevada has an RPI of 32, but a SoS that ranks them 129th in the country. Butler is just shy of being in the top 20 in the RPI, but has a SoS of 118 weighing them down.

To put this in perspective, last season UAB was nationally ranked and had an RPI of 32 at the end of the season. UNC Wilmington had an RPI of 28. Both ended up as 9 seeds due to the perceived weakness of their schedule.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Nevada and Butler will be stuck playing the 8-9 game in the tournament, but Wolf Pack and Bulldog fans shouldn’t be surprised if their teams don’t get a whole lot of respect from the NCAA Selection Committee, despite their high ranking.

Year of the Conference Doormat

Quick, name the last time Clemson, Virginia Tech, Air Force, Washington State, Butler and Vanderbilt were all ranked in the Top 25. Oh, and also when Kentucky, UConn, Georgetown and Indiana were all unranked as well.

Think about it. The Clemson Tigers (# 25 AP / # 21 Coaches) ended up locked in a three way tie for 7th place in the ACC last season (or 9th, depending on how you look at it). They held the 9th spot on their own a year before. They ended the 2003-04 season at the bottom of the heap in ACC play.

Virginia Tech (# 16 AP / # 18 Coaches) hadn’t fared much better. They finished the season 10th in the ACC last year. Although their first ACC campaign in 2005 was a pleasant surprise, going 8-8, the Hokies were a perennial Big East footrest before that.

Washington State (# 18 AP / # 17 Coaches) was picked to bring up the rear in the Pac 10 this season, which was no surprise considering that’s what they did last year. The season before that they were 7th in the conference, the year before, 7th again. The 2002-03 season they sported a 2-16 Pac 10 record, good enough for 10th place (i.e., last).

Vanderbilt (# 24 AP)? You have to go back 10 years to find a Commodore team with a winning conference record, when they went 9-7 in 1996-97.

Yet, these schools are not just having a “dream season” or playing the kind of miraculous basketball where it seems like everything they throw up in the air goes in. Each one of these teams have made adjustments and continually gotten better as the season progressed, are very talented, very well-coached and are capable of making a deep a tournament run as just about any team out there. More importantly, by the looks of things, they are not going to go back to their place in the cellar anytime soon. They are all programs on the way up.

This is a remarkable development. It should remove any lingering doubts as to whether parity has truly arrived in college basketball.

Watching Butler beat Indiana, or Wichita State upend Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, has simply lost its shock value. We’ve almost grown tired of the “Cinderella” stories, mostly because they happen every March like clockwork.

Up until recently, we marveled at coaches who achieved great success at long-dormant programs, coaches like Jim Calhoun and Billy Gillespie. Now, dramatic turnarounds no longer get the kind of press they once did, simply because they do not seem as rare, and hence, not as compelling a story.

Parity does not mean that the best prep talent is no longer going to the elite college basketball powerhouses (They are. see: Tar Heels, Jayhawks). It is just that with the exploding popularity of the game of basketball, there are more kids playing the game, and getting better at it, than ever before. There’s more talent to recruit, and more and more schools reaping the rewards.

That can only mean that the game’s best days are still ahead.