Under normal circumstances, college basketball would be tipping off Tuesday night with the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, these aren’t certain times. And because of it, we’re still two full weeks away from college hoops officially tipping off.
The good news however is that we’re finally starting to see signs that the season is in fact right around the corner.
The latest piece of good news came on Monday, when the first AP Poll of the season dropped. It’s no surprise that Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova begin the season ranked No.’s 1-3, as all three teams are coming off highly successful seasons and return most of their rosters.
After that though, it gets a little bit dicey. Which is why it’s time to dig deeper into the polls and ask one simple question: Which teams did pollsters get wrong? Specifically, who is ranked too high and who is ranked too low.
Those teams are below, but first, one note: I thought the pollsters actually did a pretty good job this year. Therefore, if you don’t see your team below, it’s because I think they were largely ranked in the appropriately.
For context, here is my most recent Top 25 – which dropped the day of the NBA Draft deadline in August. Since then, only two real changes have been made – one, I’d move Kentucky up to the Top 5 with Olivier Sarr now eligible, and two, I’d drop Arkansas after Isaiah Joe made a surprising decision in late August to leave school.
Now let’s get to a few teams that are too high and too low.
Too High: No. 5 Iowa
Admittedly, I have Iowa at No. 6 in my most recent poll, so I can’t be too critical of pollsters here. But remember, that was before the Olivier Sarr news, which means I would have dropped them down at least one spot. And after more closely evaluating teams, I’d probably drop them a spot or two further, to somewhere in the 8-12 range.
Still, there is a big difference from “Preseason Top 5 team” to “fringe Top 10 team” which is more where I see the Hawkeyes.
Of course in defense of the pollsters, I do see what the excitement is about. First team All-American Luka Garza returns, with most of the roster right there alongside him. That includes six of their top seven scorers from last year’s team, as well as point guard Jordan Bohanon, who missed almost all the season with injury.
Yet despite the return of Garza, many are overlooking real flaws in this Hawkeye group. One, they finished a respectable 20-11 last season, but just 11-9 in the Big Ten, and lost four of five down the stretch. Still, don’t let Garza’s great play override the fact that this team wasn’t all that good the final month of the season. Considering that Illinois and Wisconsin both return as much talent as the Hawkeyes, off teams that finished with better win-loss records than Iowa in the Big Ten last season, you probably have to slot each above the Hawkeyes as well (something the pollsters didn’t do).
In the end, two things can be true about Iowa: This could be the best Hawkeyes team in 30 years. And they could also be over-ranked at No. 5 in the country.
Too Low: No. 10 Kentucky
No, this isn’t one of those “Well, this is a Kentucky blog so you have to say Kentucky is underrated” kind of things. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t really believe it. But with Sarr now eligible, the Wildcats are the team to beat in the SEC, and in my opinion, a Top 5 squad.
Look, part of this is just betting on John Calipari to figure things out. As mentioned in last week’s SEC preview, Calipari’s team has won the SEC regular season in four of the last six years and finished second once. And well, if you finish No. 1 in the SEC, chances are pretty good you’re better than the No. 10 team in the country. Kentucky has done that more often than not the last few seasons.
The crazy thing is though, Calipari has won a couple of those titles with teams that – I’d argue – have less talent than this one. With no disrespect intended on any other group, I believe this is Calipari’s most talented roster since the 2016-2017 season and probably his deepest since the 2014-2015 team that entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. It also has a chance to be his best defensive team since 2014-2015, as it’s a a roster filled with long and skilled athletes, one that is going to cause major issues on the defensive end both at the rim (with Sarr and Isaiah Jackson) and on the wing with BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, Jacob Toppin, Cam’Ron Fletcher and others.
As mentioned, this is – in my opinion – Kentucky’s most talented roster since the 2016-2017 campaign. If you’ll remember, that year they went 32-6, 16-2 in the SEC and won 11 straight games going into the NCAA Tournament.
If this team can match that, they’ll far exceed their No. 10 preseason ranking.
Too High: No. 19 Texas
Listen, I understand that Texas returns literally everyone off last year’s bubble NCAA Tournament team and adds Greg Brown to the mix. But context matters. And the only context that matters here is that the Longhorns are still being coached by Shaka Smart.
To be blunt, as bad as Shaka has been, I think he’s actually been worse than most people realize. Smart is just 98-70 overall, with an embarrassing 40-50 mark in Big 12 play. He’s also only had two 20-win seasons in that stretch. The first came when he inherited all of Rick Barnes’ players in 2016, and the second in 2019, when the Longhorns won five games in the NIT to go 21-16 overall after finishing the regular season at 16-16. Crap, if “padding your win total in the NIT” doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Smart at this point, I don’t know what would.
In the end, I’m pretty sure that had there been no pandemic Smart wouldn’t even be back at Texas. Why else did it take three weeks after the season for Texas to announce his return?
This team has Top 20 talent, but I’m not buying the coach. There is no justification in ranking them this high, if at all.
Too Low: No. 24 UCLA
I’ll be honest, of everything going on this preseason, the complete and utter lack of UCLA love is the most shocking to me.
Remember, last season UCLA won 10 of its final 11 games to finish second in the Pac-12, and were one shot against USC from winning the league outright. Oh, and they return eight of their top nine scorers off that team, including Chris Smith, who likely would’ve been a first round pick had he decided to stay in the NBA Draft. They also added Johnny Juzang and freshman Jaylen Clark to add depth on the wing.
Let’s put it a different way: If Kansas, Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky returned eight of its top nine scorers off a team that finished second in their league, they’d be almost a unanimous No. 1 team in the country. I’m not saying Mick Cronin’s club should be that, because they don’t have the track record of those four schools mentioned above. But they should be higher.
In the end, any voter who didn’t have UCLA at least somewhere in their Top 15 (if not higher) was basically admitting to the world either 1) They didn’t do their homework or 2) They don’t stay up to watch West Coast basketball last year.
Too High: No. 24 Ohio State
Like Texas, the talent is there at Ohio State. There is absolutely an argument to be made that their core (highlighted by guards, Duane Washington and CJ Walker as well as wing Andre Wesson and big guys EJ Liddell and Kyle Young) are Top 25 material.
Still, like Texas, results have to matter. And we now have a track record of Ohio State starting hot and falling flat on its face. Last year, they began the year 11-1 and reached No. 1 in the country, only to finish 21-10 overall. The year before they were 12-1, yet finished 19-14.
Therefore, what’s to make us think they won’t fall flat again, especially after leading scorer and rebounder Kaleb Wesson went pro?
As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Forgive me, but I’m not going to be fooled by Ohio State a third time.
Too Low: LSU (unranked)
At this point, outside of folks who are 1) LSU fans or 2) Have the last name “Wade,” there really aren’t all that many people in college basketball who like Will Wade.
But an AP Poll isn’t a popularity contest and it isn’t about what you think/know is happening in recruiting. It’s about who are the best teams in the sport. And right now it’s flat out laughable that the Tigers aren’t in the Top 25.
Look, I’ve spent wayyyy too much time discussing the Tigers these last few weeks, so I won’t spend too much time breaking down their team here.
Just know, that LSU has one of the 10 most talented rosters in college basketball.
And unlike Shaka Smart, Will Wade has actually shown an ability to coach them up.
Too High: No. 25 Michigan
Considering that last year was Juwan Howard’s first season as a head coach at any level, and his first time back in the college game since he was a player in the mid-90’s, I thought he was excellent.
Still, even as well as Michigan played, they still only finished 19-12 overall and 10-10 in league play. Part of that was because of an injury to Isaiah Livers, and yes, Isaiah Livers is back. But Michigan also lost arguably its two most important pieces overall – big man Jon Teske and point guard Zavier Simpson, who was one of the nation’s leaders in assists at nearly eight per game.
Howard re-loaded with grad transfers and a highly-ranked recruiting class to fill out this roster.
But not enough focus is on what he lost.
Too Low: UConn (unranked)
Yes, maybe this is my bias showing. But in my opinion, UConn is one of the 25 best teams in the country. I’m not saying they should be Top 10, or even Top 20. But there are at least a handful of teams (Texas, Ohio State, Michigan) I’d put the Huskies in comfortably ahead.
Remember, the Huskies welcome back the majority of their roster after winning eight of 10 and five straight to close the season. That includes arguably the best NBA prospect in the Big East, guard James Bouknight (who averaged 13 points per game as a freshman last year) and the Huskies also bring in a loaded recruiting class.
They are still very clearly the third best team in the Big East behind Villanova and Creighton, but do deserve to be in the Top 25 somewhere.