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Overrated & Underrated
February 4, 2013
By Joe Nelson
Gonzaga (AP #6): Based on many of the top 10 teams picking up losses in recent weeks through grueling major conference schedules, Gonzaga continues to rise in the rankings. The Bulldogs are up to #6 in this week's AP poll with a 21-2 record but the West Coast Conference does not look that strong this season. Gonzaga is 8-0 in league play but road games against the best competition, St. Mary's and BYU, are yet to come. With five wins over Big XII teams there is some weight behind the overall record. The two losses for Gonzaga are a bit surprising however, losing by one at Butler despite Rotnei Clarke not playing and losing early in the year at home against an Illinois team that has since fallen completely off the map. None of the non-conference wins elevate the Bulldogs to being a top 10 caliber squad and winning on the road has not come easily for this team with three road wins against far lesser foes coming by two points or less. This is a team that has not had great recent NCAA Tournament success, losing in the round of 32 each of the last three seasons and lining up a great seed in the tournament has not been a predictor of success for this program with several notable early exits. In 2009 as a #4 seed Gonzaga did make it to the sweet 16 but this program has not defeated a team better than a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2001. No other team from the West Coast Conference would likely make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team and running into a quality major conference foe in the postseason after two-plus months of lesser match-ups could once again be a problem for this team.
Arizona (AP #7): After a couple of truly awful seasons for the Pac-12 the league looks a bit stronger with some separation at the top this season led by Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA. While the conference looks worthy of at least three NCAA Tournament bids this season and perhaps one or two more depending on how things shake out, the league may not be as substantially improved as it looks. Arizona opened the year 14-0 and wins over Florida and Miami certainly carry serious weight at this point in the season. Both of those wins, as well as other solid wins over Southern Miss and San Diego State came at home however. Arizona seems to be holding its own in conference play but the 7-2 mark is misleading. They lost to both Oregon and UCLA and they have not yet played Stanford or California as the schedule will get more difficult. Narrow wins over Colorado (a game Arizona won on a botched call) and Washington, are not enough to build great credibility. Arizona could end up winning the Pac-12 regular season title but it will be without many impressive wins and the Wildcats will likely enter the Pac-12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament with an inflated record. Arizona has just four wins against the top 50 teams in the country according to the Sagarin ratings and the one-point win over Florida at home in a game they trailed most of the way is boosting the numbers for the Wildcats too significantly.
Kansas State (AP #13): Under Bruce Weber the Wildcats have moved to 17-4 on the season and this is another team getting too much benefit from beating Florida in the non-conference season. Right before Christmas the Wildcats stunned the Gators in Kansas City, getting a big edge at the foul line and holding on after a great start to the game while catching the Gators in a tough travel spot. Take away that win and there is nothing left holding up the resume for Kansas State. They played Gonzaga and Michigan in non-conference play but lost badly in both games and nothing so far in the Big XII season has suggested this is an elite team. Kansas State played a solid game against Kansas at home but still lost and there are question marks with the resume for the Jayhawks as well despite the great record for Kansas leading Big XII. Sweeping Oklahoma keeps Kansas State towards the top of the league but the Wildcats have to play Baylor twice as well as facing Kansas again and second meetings with Oklahoma State and Iowa State. The closing schedule is tough for Kansas State and while the big win over Florida likely locks Kansas State into the NCAA Tournament, this is a team that could be out of the top 25 by mid-February and could fall closer to the bubble by season's end. Kansas State is just 4-4 against the top 50 and 2-3 vs. the top 25 and the Wildcats will have a hard time staying near top of the Big XII standings with the schedule ahead.
Louisville (AP #11): Every team goes through some ups and downs over the course of the season and Louisville got caught with three straight losses, going from being the #1 team in polls to outside of the top 10. With wins over Pittsburgh and Marquette the Cardinals appear to be back on track and that difficult stretch may provide the challenge that this team needs to make a run back to the Final Four. Louisville did not get a lot done in non-conference play, losing narrowly in the big game with Duke and having wins over Missouri, Memphis, and Kentucky lose some luster as those teams have faded from the national conversation. Big East play has taken its toll but the schedule the rest of the way is very favorable and the Cardinals still look like a championship contender. Louisville will get a chance to face Syracuse again and they do play Notre Dame twice, but remaining difficult games with St. John's and Cincinnati will be at home. Statistically Louisville has some of the best efficiency numbers in the nation and this is a veteran team that is tournament tested. This team should be back in the top 10 in the coming weeks and this is a team that could still get back in the picture for a #1 seed in the Big Dance. The remaining schedule is favorable and there may be some short term value on Louisville as they are not getting the respect they had a few weeks ago.
Minnesota (AP #18): The Gophers went through a difficult four-game losing streak in mid-January but this is a formidable team that can make noise in March. The Big Ten is obviously very tough this season and with four conference losses the Gophers are likely out of the running for a conference championship but this team has been penalized too severely in the polls for the losing streak. The losses came having to play Indiana and Michigan in back-to-back big games, setting up the letdown spot at Northwestern, and then losing in a one-point game at Wisconsin. Minnesota has rebounded with home wins over Nebraska and Iowa and while there are challenging games ahead, this is a team capable of getting on a great late season run. Minnesota still has to play at Michigan State and at Ohio State but they will draw a favorable closing schedule in the final two weeks. With the schedule ahead it will not be easy for Minnesota to climb significantly higher in the polls but this Gophers team will have battled through one of the toughest schedules in the nation by season's end. Minnesota has picked up impressive wins away from home this season and the opportunity for more marquee wins will be available in the Big Ten schedule with home games against Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana in February. Minnesota is also capable of winning on the road and they will have big opportunities against Michigan State and Ohio State coming up, two teams that might be sitting a little too high in the standings with back-loaded conference schedules.
Pittsburgh (AP #23): The Panthers are starting to get a little attention after beating Syracuse last weekend but this is a team with a misleading 6-4 Big East mark. The lone loss in non-conference play came by five points against Michigan in New York and four conference losses have come by a combined total of 23 points, with one of those losses in overtime. Games with Louisville, Syracuse, and Georgetown are out of the way as the closing schedule for the Panthers in the Big East is very favorable and this is a team that has shown improvement as the season has gone on. By the Sagarin or the Pomeroy rankings, Pittsburgh is a top 10 team despite just barely cracking the AP poll this week and while the NCAA Tournament has not often treated the Panthers well, this is a team to keep an eye on. Pittsburgh did not pick up any notable wins in the non-conference schedule so the Panthers have some work to do to jump off the bubble but among the group of teams in the middle-of-the-pack in the Big East, counting teams like Marquette, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Georgetown, and St. John's, Pittsburgh may have the highest ceiling. After missing the NCAA Tournament last season this Panthers team is coming together at the right time and this will be a team no one will want to draw in the Big East tournament or in a 7-10 or 8-9 match-up in the Big Dance.