The Top 25 matters in college hoops, Q&A with Craig Neal and more

Monday December 16th, 2013

Fans were electric at Iowa-Iowa St. in part because both teams were ranked, reigniting the rivalry.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

In college basketball, the polls are meaningless. Nobody cares about the polls. The polls are not worth our attention.

Bunk. B.S. And balderdash.

If you believe otherwise, then you must have missed that riveting Iowa-Iowa State contest in Ames last Friday night. Both teams entered the game ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1987 and just the second time in history -- and everyone in the building knew it. That's what made it such a big game.

Or maybe you haven't spoken with an Arizona fan, who is well aware that his beloved Wildcats ascended to the No. 1 ranking last week for the first time since 2003. Or a Wisconsin fan who knows that his fourth-ranked Badgers are at their highest perch since the end of the 2006-07 season. The folks in Wichita, Kansas, know full well that the No. 11 Shockers own their highest ranking since December 2006. Villanova fans know their team is ranked for the first time since February 2011. And have you heard that UMass has a number next to its name for the first time since early in the 1998-99 season? Massachusetts natives sure have.

ROSENBERG: Arizona proves its toughness with comeback win over Michigan
GARDNER: McConnell, Johnson restore Arizona's rep as Point Guard U

The significance isn't even limited to the Top 25. When one of those off-the-grid midmajors gets a speck of love in "Others Receiving Votes," it means a great deal, as the people at Saint Mary's, George Washington, Harvard and Toledo can currently attest. I know how much it means to them because as soon as the polls come out each Monday, my inbox is flooded with emails from their p.r. departments touting this very thing.

Most of all, if you think nobody cares about the polls in college hoops, just check my Twitter timeline after I release my AP ballot each Sunday night. As soon as I do, my mentions feed explodes with messages from fans who are outraged that I ranked their team a couple of spots too low. They always try to follow that up by saying "that's why the polls in college basketball are so meaningless." But if that were the case, why get so angry in the first place? Why do we care so much about a silly little ranking?

Because we do. One of the major reasons why we enjoy watching sports is because it allows us to assess and debate. It's hard enough for college hoops to garner attention this time of year with so much football going on. The poll is a weekly news event that gets people talking. As a veteran AP voter, I can tell you that there is no hedging when it comes to making a Top 25. You can't be vague and say a team is "overrated" or "not getting enough love." You make your list, you check it twice, and out it goes. Everyone has different opinions about my ballot, but they can all agree on one thing: I got it wrong.

In fact, I would argue that college basketball is the only major sport that gets this poll thing exactly right. In our sport, the polls mean a lot but decide nothing. That's not the case in college football where, perversely, the rankings can actually help determine who plays for a championship. And of course, there are no national rankings in pro sports. That's no fun.

College hoops rankings do more than just stir debate. They help set narratives like the one that unfolded in Iowa last Friday. Because they have been around for so long (the AP poll began in 1946) they give us historical perspective. In addition, remember that a lot of people who tune into these games are casual fans taking a sneak peek. If they happen to land on, say, the Florida-Memphis game on Tuesday night, they will learn off the bat that Memphis is ranked No. 15 and Florida is No. 16 this week. It will give them a sense of how important the game is, and it might make them more inclined to stick around. And in the end, if the voters get it wrong -- and let's face it, we often do -- then everybody can yak and yak all they want, but they don't have to worry, because the debate will be settled exactly where it should: on the court, in March, during the NCAA tournament. That's where the noise stops.

So let's stop pretending like these polls are meaningless, because they're obviously not. Let them be our guilty pleasure. Whether we want to admit it or not, we live in a poll-arized world. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Arizona, Syracuse remain 1-2 in this week's AP Top 25

Other Hoop Thoughts

  • The NCAA has run the numbers on the season's first month, and the results are clear: The emphasis to limit physical defense is working. Teams are averaging about 5.5 more points per game, and only half of that is due to increased free throws. Field goal percentage is slightly up and turnover average is slightly down. And what is the price we are paying? About four more fouls per game. But beyond the numbers, if you watch a lot of college hoops (and I know you do, bless your heart), then I know you like what you see. The occasional foul fest aside, the games have been much more free flowing and aesthetically pleasing.
  • As I've often said, when you're at home, you can shoot threes. When you're on the road, you gotta shoot free throws. So it's no coincidence that Arizona shot more free throws (15) than three-pointers (10) at Michigan on Saturday -- and won the game. We knew the Wildcats were talented, but it turns out they're even tougher than we thought.
  • As for Michigan, my main takeaway from the loss is that the Wolverines need to get more out of freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr., who only played 14 minutes because coach John Beilein does not yet trust him in a big game. Walton will get better, but it's going to take some time. That's how it usually works with freshmen.
  • Speaking of freshmen, I am going to enjoy watching Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid improve as much as I have any player in a long, long time. Embiid isn't just getting better each game. It seems like he's getting better each possession. He's a beautiful kid, too.
  • And speaking of Kansas, I'm wondering if Tarik Black regrets leaving Memphis to join the Jayhawks. He would have been an important piece for the Tigers, but he played all of two minutes in the Jayhawks' win over New Mexico.
  • It doesn't get mentioned much, but Thad Matta traditionally plays a weak nonconference schedule with a lot of home cooking. Ever notice he rarely enters his teams in the big Thanksgiving week tournaments?
  • That, by the way, is something that will never get said about Bill Self. The guy loses his entire starting five yet still plays a murderous nonconference schedule. Believe me, the last thing the Jayhawks needed is to play a team like New Mexico last weekend, even if the game was nearby Kansas City.
  • I'm not saying Wichita State guard Tekele Cotton is definitely going to be my All-Glue captain, but he's the leader at the first turn.
  • Here's something you don't see every day: Wisconsin freshman forward Nigel Hayes had shot a total of four free throws all season heading into last weekend. He shot 17 against Eastern Kentucky. Made 14 of 'em, by the way.
  • I hope there's enough oxygen in Stillwater to give Le'Bryan Nash his due. The 6-foot-7 junior swingman came to Oklahoma State with a lot of expectations and hasn't met them, but he has done well to steadily improve each year. Nash's scoring average may be down by a little over a point, but his field goal percentage has shot up from 46.2 last season to 54.9 this year. And I love that he has only shot two three-pointers all season. It's no coincidence that in Oklahoma State's only loss this season (to Memphis), Nash was limited to 17 minutes because of foul trouble.
  • I'm wondering if the light finally turned on for North Carolina junior forward James Michael McAdoo. He played arguably the best game of his career in the win over Kentucky because he repeatedly attacked the rim, which resulted in 19 free throw attempts. (Although he only made 12. This team has a serious free-throw shooting problem.)
  • Here's the deal, VCU: Havoc is good and all that, but if you can't score in the halfcourt, you won't beat good teams -- especially on the road. This deficiency is why the Rams lost on the road to a pretty middling Northern Iowa team on Saturday. Looks like the Rams will have to make their hay in the A-10 if they're going to get back to the NCAA tournament.
  • I know I say it every week, but I'll say it again: I truly cannot get over how weak Pittsburgh's nonconference schedule is. I mean, Youngstown State? Really?
  • Looks like Brad Stevens is off to a pretty good start with the Celtics, all things considered. I wouldn't be surprised if the NBA starts mining the college game for coaches more often. Who's up next? My money's on Fred Hoiberg.
  • Meanwhile, Stevens' former school is 8-2 after its win over Purdue on Saturday -- and that's without its best player, Roosevelt Jones, who is shelved for the season because of a broken wrist. Good on ye, Brandon Miller.
  • Freshman forward Chris Walker has enrolled at Florida, but he is not going to play on Tuesday night against Memphis. Normally a freshman who joins the team in mid-December has a hard time finding a role, but Walker's addition will be a bonus because his skills don't require much adjusting. He is a long, dynamic athlete (think Amare' Stoudamire), so if he can give the Gators 15 good minutes of rebounding and shot blocking, it will be a huge plus.
  • I hope Xavier and Cincinnati find a way to keep playing each other. College basketball needs that kind of local rivalry, even if Saturday's game (which Xavier won 64-47) was a stinker.
  • Are you listening, Maryland and Georgetown? The Verizon Center awaits. Stop making me beg.
  • So now that Butler, Creighton and Xavier are in the Big East, I guess that means we can no longer call them mid-majors, huh? I'm down with that.
  • Don't look now, but Utah is 9-1 after a huge win at home over BYU last weekend. The Utes have quite a gem in multitalented 6-6 sophomore forward Jordan Loveridge.
  • I don't have a problem with Willie Cauley-Stein going blonde -- especially if he keeps putting up these defensive numbers -- but I'm generally not crazy about college players becoming fashionistas. I'll never forget when the Arizona Richard Jefferson-Gilbet Arenas team surprised Lute Olson one night by wearing headbands. After they stunk up the joint, Olson cracked, "I think the headbands compressed their brains."
  • Is this going to be another season of nagging injuries at Michigan State? Let's hope not, but it's concerning that Adreian Payne is dealing with plantar fasciitis. That injury can really linger. Even if he doesn't miss games, Payne could be missing a lot of practices.
  • People are overthinking the impact that the return of Dominic Artis and Ben Carter will have on Oregon. Yes, the Ducks have been fabulous playing without those two, who served a nine-game NCAA suspension for selling school-issued shoes, but when you add two good players to a good team, the team should get better, period. It also looks like Oregon will be adding 6-7 freshman forward Jordan Bell, who has been academically ineligible.
  • The accepted narrative is that Villanova lacks size, but that's not really true. Villanova does lack a bona fide center (6-11 sophomore Daniel Ochefu starts but only averages about 18 minutes per game), but it has a slew of big guards: 6-3 Ryan Arcidiacano, 6-6 James Bell, 6-6 Darrun Hilliard, 6-2 Dylan Ennis, 6-5 Josh Hart and 6-6 Kris Jenkins. The smallest guard in the rotation is senior Tony Chennault, and he's still 6-2. That's a tremendous asset.
  • The most frustrating part of this P.J. Hairston-Leslie McDonald mess at North Carolina is that we don't even know where we are in the process. NCAA president Mark Emmert has talked about allowing the enforcement division to be more transparent, but it's the schools, not the NCAA office, that have been reluctant to allow that. Maybe they realize that the less people actually know about what is going on, the more likely they are to blame "the NCAA" for the delay.
  • Did you see Iowa State's DeAndre Kane throw the ball inbounds off the back of Iowa forward Adam Woodbury, then catch it and drop in a layup? Where I come from, we call that a "Gatlin" in honor of Maryland guard Keith Gatlin, who bounced the ball off North Carolina guard Kenny Smith's back and sealed an overtime win back in 1986. That was the night Len Bias scored 36 points. Here's the YouTube Clip:

Read more: Five Games I'm Psyched To See, AP Top 25

Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week

Craig Neal's nickname is "Noodles," but he won't let his players call him that.
Craig Frit/AP

Wichita State at Alabama, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU

Frankly, anytime Wichita State plays, I'm psyched to watch. The Tide is off to a shaky start, but Alabama is an athletic team playing at home with a chance to notch a statement win. The Shockers better be ready.

Wichita State 76, Alabama 70

Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati at Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

This will be Pittsburgh's first game against a high-caliber opponent, although given how much difficulty the Bearcats have had scoring, it may be an ugly contest.

Pittsburgh 67, Cincinnati 59

Florida vs. Memphis at Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN

Florida point guard Scott Wilbekin may be a problem child, but he is a mighty tough and effective point guard. Now that he's healthy and back in the fold -- hopefully for good -- the Gators should establish themselves as firmly among the nation's elite.

Florida 78, Memphis 72

UMass at Ohio, Wednesday, 7 p.m.

This is a classic trap game, but I'm guessing the Minutemen are too talented and experienced to fall into it.

UMass 81, Ohio 75

Duke vs. UCLA at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

The Blue Devils will have nearly two weeks between their win over Michigan and their next game against Gardener-Webb on Monday night. That's a lot of time for Mike Krzyzewski to work on his team's shortcomings.

Duke 75, UCLA 65

A Few Minutes With ... New Mexico Coach Craig Neal You were an assistant coach at New Mexico for six years before taking over in the spring for Steve Alford. What part of being a head coach has surprised you the most?

Neal: I think the biggest surprise was the relationship with the players. It's a different relationship because now you're the one making the decisions. You're still there for them, but you're not the sounding board anymore. It was a little bit of a transition for all of us. Your big Aussie, senior forward Cameron Bairstow, might be the most improved player in the country. How did he get so much better?

Neal: He's just a tireless worker. He came here at 6-9, 205 pounds, maybe 210. Now he's 6-9, 250. We beat Cincinnati the other night, and before he went in for the press conference he was in our weight room lifting. He does that after every game. He got a lot of confidence this summer playing for the Australian national team at the World University Games. I'll tell you what, if you can find a power forward better than him right now, I'd like to see it. How did you get your nickname "Noodles"?

Neal: In high school, I played about 6-4, 145 pounds. I looked like a bunch of noodles running up the floor. My high school teammates starting calling me that. Then when I got to Georgia Tech and Dick Vitale got a hold of it, that's when it stuck. Do people still call you "Noodles" now that you're a head coach?

Neal: I still hear it because that's what I've been called for so long, but I don't let my players call me that. What was it like playing for Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech?

Neal: He wasn't big on scouting reports. I don't think we ever did a scouting report. But he taught me how to be a man, and I think that has helped me. You always wanted to run through a brick wall for him because you knew he cared so much about you. You were a third-round NBA draft pick with the Portland Trail Blazers and then you bounced around the minor league circuit for a while. Was it hard when your playing days ended?

Neal: I told myself when I was 26 or 27 that when I got to be 30, if I didn't make it back to the league, I was done. I wasn't going to chase it. A lot of my buddies went overseas, and when you're removed from the States for eight, nine, 10 years, it's not easy to come back and get into the real world. You spent several years working for the Toronto Raptors as a scout and assistant coach. Why the move back to college?

Neal: When Lenny Wilkens resigned, I had a year off to go home. My kids were young. The league is awesome, but you're working all the time, year round. Even in the offseason, I was always working guys out or getting ready for the draft. We still work hard in college, but because of the NCAA rules, you can only work so much. It's more conducive to raising a family. You have a well known affinity to riding Harley Davidsons. Do you get to ride them often?

Neal: Oh, yeah. I've got two of 'em now. It's fun to ride them to the office and kind of clear your mind. We've got wonderful weather here and great places to ride. When I really want to get away, I'll get a couple of buddies and we'll take off and go for two or three days. It's just a way for me to relax and go to a place where nobody can get you on the phone. Your son, Cullen, is a freshman guard on your team. You also played for your dad when you were in high school. What's the most important thing you learned from that experience that you are applying to this one?

Neal: Just to spend as much time as I can outside the court than I did with my father. Once we leave the floor, I try to be Dad, and that's not always easy.

This Week's AP Ballot

*(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Ohio State (3)
4. Michigan State (4)
5. Duke (5)
6. Louisville (6)
7. Wisconsin (8)
8. Florida (14)
9. Wichita State (9)
10. Oklahoma State (11)
11. Memphis (12)
12. UConn (13)
13. Iowa State (15)
14. Villanova (16)
15. Baylor (17)
16. North Carolina (23)
17. Kansas (7)
18. Colorado (18)
19. Iowa (19)
20. Oregon (20)
21. Kentucky (10)
22. UMass (21)
23. San Diego State (22)
24. Missouri (NR)
25. Gonzaga (NR)

Dropped out: New Mexico (24), Boise State (25)

Even if you had no idea it was exam week at most colleges, you'd be able to tell by looking at these numbers. There was very little movement on my ballot. My decision to bump Florida up six spots was as much of an eye test as anything else. The Gators looked so good for much of that Kansas win that I really do think they are at the top of the poll to stay, and clearly the team to beat in the SEC.

It might not seem fair to penalize New Mexico for losing to a Kansas team that had been ranked above it, but the Lobos were badly outclassed, and the Jayhawks weren't exactly playing like a Final Four team. And I might have spared Boise State for losing a true road game at Kentucky -- no shame in that -- but when the Broncos followed that up by losing at home to Saint Mary's, that made the decision to drop them out easy.

As you all know, I like to find an unheralded mid-major to plug into the last spot or two on my ballot (John Feinstein started this tradition with the AP poll), but there just weren't any legitimate candidates. So I settled on Missouri and Gonzaga to round things out. I took a look at Saint Mary's, but that win over Boise State was by far the Gaels' most impressive of the season. (For the life of me, I'll never understand why Randy Bennett schedules so weakly every year.) SMU clocks in at a respectable 8-2, but the Mustangs also don't have anything resembling a signature win.

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