With Purdue and Auburn in the Elite Eight, there’s a lot of talk about how far they’ve come from the depths of their season. But those depths are fabrications of the AP poll. To illustrate let’s look at each of the teams in the Elite Eight by their worst ranking in the AP poll since 12/31 and compare that to the worst ranking in my system on the same days that the AP poll was released. (I’m using my ratings by any respectable power rating will do.)
KP AP Virginia 2 4 (Feb 11) Duke 3 5 (Mar 11) Gonzaga 4 5 (Jan 4) Michigan St. 5 11 (Feb 11) Kentucky 13 18 (Jan 7) Texas Tech 16 18 (Feb 4) Purdue 19 NR (Jan 21) Auburn 17 NR (Mar 4)
Now, many of these differences aren’t huge, but they all go in one direction. At each team’s depth the AP poll was more pessimistic than my ratings. And in the case of Purdue and Auburn that means people can talk about how those teams resurrected their respective seasons in somewhat exaggerated terms.
They were ranked #17 in both @TeamRankings and @kenpomeroy on December 19 (the date mentioned in the article intro). They beat then-#10/11 Tennessee in overtime to reach the Elite Eight. They’ve improved some, yeah. They didn’t come out of nowhere. https://t.co/6GpEm2rNCj
— David Hess (@AudacityOfHoops) March 30, 2019
As late as February 25, just two AP voters were giving Auburn top 25 votes (shouts to Jesse Newell and Theo Lawson). As late as January 14, just five AP voters gave Purdue a top 25 vote and only one of those was better than 24th (Jesse Newell).
I’ve made the cut-off December 31st for this analysis so preseason ratings don’t unduly influence the analysis, but going back before then there are additional useful examples. In the AP poll of December 17, a mere two weeks after everyone insisted Gonzaga had to be the best team in the country, just two people – Jesse Newell and Graham Couch – had Gonzaga in the top five.
And in the preseason poll, just one voter (Luke DeCock) had Texas Tech in the top 25, which has enhanced the narrative that the Red Raiders came out of nowhere. However, a few computer ratings had Texas Tech in or near the top 25 to the start the season. I mean, I will vouch for Chris Beard as the best coach in the country, but just because almost no AP voters recognized it doesn’t mean he had nothing to work with to start the season.
The AP poll is fine as far as it goes. Like, I’d prefer not to tie myself into logical knots all season by not ranking Duke #1 when we knew they would be the favorite to win the title when the tournament started. But to each his or her own. I get that people prefer a horse race to giving teams credit when they lose a close game to a highly-ranked team. And it does have the side benefit of making it easier to create narratives in a business where it’s not always easy to do that.
In fairness, Matt Norlander’s piece referenced in David Hess’s tweet was pretty measured regarding Purdue’s trajectory since that 6-5 start. If anything, that start served as evidence that Purdue would be able to compete for a high finish in the Big Ten, and given a break or two, make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
But if you wonder why teams increasingly avoid scheduling interesting non-conference games I suspect it has more to do with the horse-race mentality of the AP poll and less to do with any incentives the NCAA basketball committee is putting on them. During Purdue’s 6-5 start they lost at a neutral site to Virginia Tech (by 6), at Florida State (by 1), at Michigan (by 19), and at Texas (by 4). Their neutral site loss to Notre Dame by 8 wasn’t a great loss, but the Irish were also fully healthy at that point and not the team that cratered during ACC play.
Naturally just two people (Brian Holland and Jesse Newell) willingly voted for Purdue in the AP top 25 the following week. (I say willingly because Scott Wood, a third voter, had Purdue 18th but dropped them out the following week despite winning their only game by 28 points. I assume Mr. Wood did not intend to have Purdue in the poll in the first place.) As you might imagine, Gary Parrish did not approve of the Purdue votes.
When media and fans alike insist on punishing teams for losing regardless of context or quality of opponent the natural reaction for coaches is to avoid scheduling losses. As schedules are released in the coming months, keep that in mind. There is no glory in losing to great teams. Though if you happen to make a run in the tournament, you’ll get a great story out of it.