Illusions Abound During The Holiday Break
We'll see what Tuesday brings and then we'll toss another quick link late in the day because we won't be near a computer until then.
Now, on with the inspired commentary.
By Mel Greenberg
Well that time has arrived during the shutdown period when we try to get some idea how things are shaping up heading into conference competition.
In the good old days where everything seemed to exist in layers, we could quickly spot who had earned insurance policies worth holding when March Madness rolls around and just needs to avoid serious stumbles the rest of the way.
Conversely, this is when we can notice who needs to step it up quickly and get back in the hunt, not only for a ticket to the ball in March but also for the better seats in the house.
Well, folks, it is quite foggy out there right now and not just because we're experiencing some above-normal temperatures outside here in the Northeast with the official recent arrival of winter.
There is a belief that some of this uncertainty has been caused by what teams did with those two extra games the NCAA added to regular-season schedules.
Some people added some meat to their plate. Others stayed on snack side of things. And still others stayed away period, in part because they couldn't scramble fast enough to produce the right navigational charts in the front part of the season.
Thus those Ratings Percentage Index numbers (RPI) are good for pre-game notes, but this time the NCAA committee might be right in terms of limiting the previous high importance of those rankings.
Looking at standings, the numbers and what actually is in uniform on the floor seem to be more out of synch than in the past.
This week's poll produced a rarity with the Atlantic Coast Conference going 1-2-3 at the top, which only occured twice before in the 31-year history of the rankings, and both times by Southeastern Conference squads.
However, it is difficult to determine how much weight that kind of power can add to the rest of the ACC.
The Big East also is interesting in that the conference has five schools represented. But look a little closer. Three of those schools, which arrived last season, are actually former competitors in Conference-USA.
Among the traditional members, Connecticut is making a move to be among the best in the nation. We'll know more beginning Jan. 6 when Tennessee visits Hartford. Pittsburgh, a former longtime doormat, is having its best season to date. The lone loss was to Duke. A double-test involving Rutgers and Pittsburgh will occur on Jan. 6 when the two meet in Piscataway.
Rutgers, off injuries, a young roster and a rugged nonconference schedule, recently fell out of the rankings. Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer recently talked about the need to return soon to be in the NCAA discussion down the stretch.
But the poll, which is actually meaningless to the NCAA committee when it deliberates, reflects the action most times. Thus, Rutgers has the tools through the Big East to succeed if it gets to the upper group by late January.
Meanwhile, those other three Big East members - DePaul, Marquette, and Louisville _ all were once NCAA contenders out of Conference USA.
Here's quick thoughts at the conferences off the CollegeRPI site.
The Atlantic Coast. Someone could make a name for themselves by upsetting one or more of the top three -- defending NCAA champion Maryland, North Carolina, and Duke. The next thing will be to see who can dominate everyone else. It's very difficult now to project total numbers.
America East. It looks like a one-team deal but Hartford might be considered at-large material if it dominates the regular season and falls short in the tournament.
Atlantic Ten. Pre-season favorite George Washington is holding an NCAA ticket right now barring some startling upset losses to conference teams not considered in the hunt. Three-time defending NCAA champion Temple has a competitive RPI number off playing four ACC teams but will need to be in the top three heading into March. Xavier has been on a roller-coaster. La Salle has the best record in the league in terms of wins and losses, but the Explorers will have to pass those conference tests ahead to be in the hunt. Others will have to put together some kind of streak to start catching attention.
Big 12. Here's an illusion for you and the kind of dilemma that would exist if it were later in the season. Oklahoma has an RPI of 40. Now, off that, we'd be forecasting a seed from fourth to seventh. But when one considers the Sooners' talent, that prediction is out of whack. Of course, another huge conference run can do all the talking. Baylor also seems NCAA-bound. We know more will come from here, but, again, the conference race will determine the pecking order.
Big 10. Ohio State and Purdue seem solid and Michigan State could be right there, also, by being in the top three. Others will have to get some wins against that trio and also fight to become the dominate fourth and, if necessary, fifth teams. Yeah, Indiana has a nice RPI number, but the Hoosiers will have to draw some attention within the conference.
Big East. Well, the five poll teams are all in the hunt. Pittsburgh's non-conference RPI is vastly improved. Rutgers has an outside game of interest, Saturday, with a trip to Old Dominion.
Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and South Florida need to cause a free-for-all in the upper group. Providence and Georgetown have improvement but bad numbers. Some conference upsets could improve things.
Colonial. Old Dominion, an overwhelming preseason favorite it 3-7, which is why the Rutgers visit is huge in long-range terms for the Monarchs. If Hofstra and Delaware, with impressive non-conference wins, could keep it up, this could be a time that the CAA will get multiples at the expense of some other conference. Keep an eye on James Madison. Towson has a nice record but needs to make some conference noise, judging by its RPI number.
Conference USA. The best C-USA teams are alumni now in the Big East, but we'll cause a discussion here to say we don't know if multiples are possible. Tulane and Rice need to run a 1-2 race. Everyone else needs to get after the duo we just mentioned.
Mid-American. Bowling Green could get an at-large bid if it doesn't prevail in March. But it will have to avoid upset losses to weaker teams.
Missouri Valley. We're giving them a paragraph to just to say hard times have occurred here. Normally a multiple representative conference, it's hard to imagine an at-large bid given to anyone now. But, we'll see.
Mountain West. Some nice computer numbers but not a bunch of standout non-conference wins. But this is a place to always seems to surprise with an at-large bid or two beyond the projection. We'll focus more once the first half of the conference race is run. Obviously, New Mexico, BYU and TCU have potential. Wyoming needs to beat a few of these. And some teams with weaker nonconference records can be disruptive.
PAC-10. Here's what we mean about the AP poll being a non-factor. Stanford is below the Top 10 in the rankings but can still finishing shining in March on selection day. Arizona State and Cal, and how far Cal has come, seem capable of a Selection Monday mention. There are other possibilities but we'll wait for the sorting to occur over the first half of the race.
Patriot. The Guru is using this space to say it's great to see Army performing up to the standards set by the late Maggie Dixon a year ago before her tragic passing. We'll wait until the race comes down the stretch to say more. However, in a few weeks, look for the United States Basketball Writers Association to add their name to the groups honoring Dixon with special awards and other tributes in her name.
Southeastern. Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt should have their names called, perhaps prominently in many cases. Everyone else, get after those teams to get into the discussion.
Sun Belt. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky could both earn bids by getting to the conference title game. This is another place we need to see how the race developes.
Western Athletic. Louisiana Tech needs to make up a lot of lost ground quickly. Could become a one-team conference.
The Others. Those not yet mentioned -- Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Horizon, Ivy, Metro Atlantic, Mid-Continent, Mid-Eastern, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Southern, Southland, SWAC, and West Coast all seem likely to be in the category of conference winners-only, for now.