Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Being Ranked in the Top 25

With Marquette being ranked 11th in the country at the moment, it seems like a good time to give a few thoughts on what that ranking actually means.  Rankings come out every week and tell the viewing public who the best teams are in college basketball.  But what do they really mean?  Should I feel good about seeing my team in the top 25, or is it a false sense of security?  And most importantly (as Yogi Berra might ask): if you're in the top 25, are you really in the top 25?

Let's start with how the rankings are done.  There are two main rankings these days, the Associated Press poll and the Coaches poll.  Each week, basketball writers for the AP rank who they feel are the top 25 teams in the country.  The same is done from a handful of coaches for their respective poll.  The polls usually come out around Monday at noon each week.  And of course, it is done to begin each season as well.

How do teams get voted into the top 25?  While there is no secret formula for the voting (and I suspect there is often a lack of care put into it since it's pretty much impossible to watch all 50-100 of the top teams regularly to see who should be in the top 25), I think there are two main factors that put a team in the top 25.

Number one: is the team good enough overall to merit being in the top 25?  I know this sounds vague so let me explain.  Being "good enough" to be in the top 25 is based on a few factors: talent, record, and strength of schedule.  Talent is easy to figure out.  Do they shoot a high percentage from the floor?  Do they play tough on defense?  Do they generate turnovers?  Do they play well as a team?  How efficient are they offensively and defensively?  This is usually determined through a team's stats as well as the all-important eye-test (did they look good when I watched them?).  Record helps take the grey area out of judging based on talent (sure they looked good when I watched them, but did they win the game?).  As the season progresses, teams can accumulate more losses and still be in the top 25, but usually teams with the best records will be in the top 25.  Scheduling gives teams a break that play really tough teams, so that a team isn't penalized too much if they lose to another tough team, or lose on the road.

Number two: how hot is this team right now?  Every season you'll see a handful of teams make their way into the top 25 for a couple weeks after winning 6 or 7 games in a row, only to drop out of the rankings after falling back to earth with a couple losses.  A lot of the time it happens with teams from mid-major or high-major conferences.  Harvard cracked the top 25 this season for the first time in school history and then lost to UConn, so we'll have to see if they end up getting back in the list or if it was just a fluke.  The reverse can also apply, with a team who should be in the top 25 being knocked out for a week or two because of a losing streak.

Connecticut.  The 2010-11 UConn Huskies provide a good example of both of these scenarios.  Preseason, UConn was unranked.  After storming through the Maui Invitational with wins over #2 Michigan State and #9 Kentucky, the huskies jumped to #7 in the AP Poll, and 9 in the Coaches Poll.  They stayed in the top 25 for the rest of the year, but limped into the Big East tournament going 4-7 down the stretch and finishing 9-9 in conference play.  UConn was ranked at the end of the regular season, but after being in the top 10 for most of the season, they had now fallen to 21 in the AP Poll, and 19 in the Coaches Poll.  Of course, the rest is history.  They rolled through the Big East Tournament with a 5-0 record, and won it all in the NCAA Tourney with a win over Butler in the championship.  Winning it all of course gets you a #1 ranking at the end of the post-season, as it should.

So which team did we see in 2010-11?  Was it a team that was good enough to merit being in the top 25?  Or was it just a team that got hot at the right times and did just enough to stay in the top 25 for most of the season?  Like it or not, the answer is both.  UConn started out on a hot stretch in the beginning of the season which got them in the top 25.  Throughout the season, they had wins over Texas, Villanova, Georgetown, and Marquette (I know, shameless plug putting MU into the "quality win" category), enough to keep them high in the rankings.  Once they slid at the end, their cold streak nearly knocked them out of the rankings, as one more loss probably would've taken away the number next to their name (they may had been knocked out anyways if a couple of their losses weren't quality losses).  Come tournament time, winning the BE tournament showed they were on a hot streak.  What we'd eventually see though is that they were playing their best basketball of the season at that point.  In the NCAA Tournament, it could be interpreted as an extension of the hot streak, but I think it was at this point the huskies were just playing better as a team, and no longer riding a streak of exceptionally good basketball.  Based on how the tournament is set up, whoever wins the championship will have to beat multiple styles of teams, and the huskies did just that.  Being able to beat different styles of teams (and very good teams at that) isn't just the mark of a good team, it's the mark of a great team.  That top 25 team was good enough all along to be in the list, it was just inconsistent at times, that's all.

Do these polls matter at all?  For a poll to matter, I think it should mean that it has some type of effect on a team's post-season.  And in this case, the answer is no.  In the case of college football, the polls matter greatly, as a team's ranking at the end of the regular season determines whether or not they make a BCS bowl game.

So what benefit is there to having the polls at all?  The benefit to having these polls is purely for the media and conversational purposes.  It gives people a sense of who is relevant during the season, and makes for water cooler talk at the office.  Have I missed seeing a number next to MU whenever they're on a schedule or a scoreboard or a bottom line on ESPN?  Absolutely.  Seeing that "Marq 11" on my tv lets me know that people besides myself think MU is relevant and that there will be an abundant amount of articles written about them for me to read throughout the season.  "Hey will there be highlights of the Marquette game on Sportscenter tonight?"  "I don't know, are they ranked?"  If the answer is yes, then you along with millions of other people will likely see the exposure the team is getting from the media.  And if not, only the die-hard college basketball fans will know what you've done on a weekly basis.

Let me finish by saying this.  Sure, worrying about whether or not your team is ranked is purely emotional.  But then again, isn't following your team, and sports in general, purely emotional anyways?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

5 Things We Learned about these Eagles in November

After a long hiatus, Stuck in 1977 is back for the season.  And on this gameday against evil Wisconsin, it's time to look back on what this team has shown us over the last 30 days.  So far we've seen flashes of greatness from this team, and proof of why they're ranked 16th in the country.  But every team has their faults, and MU is no different.  Enjoy.

1. This team is very fast and can score in bunches

Buzz's eagles have shown they are a team that loves to get out into transition and score quickly.  The transition game is lead by DJO, Junior Cadougan, and Vander Blue.  This team has struggled with the transition game in recent years, but that is no more.  And the numbers show.  Marquette has scored over 90 points in 4 of their 6 contests (88 against Jacksonville) and is averaging over 70 possessions per game.  Part of what makes this team so dangerous is that the transition game can turn a close game into a blowout.  Marquette was up by 9 points going into the half against Jacksonville, and after a couple 3-balls by Jae Crowder and a couple buckets in transition, they were up 20 points and never looked back.  This team is going to be a ton of fun to watch all season long.

2. Darius Johnson-Odom has answered the call of being this team's undisputed leader

A preseason All-Big East selection, DJO has shown in the first six games why he has deserved that honor.  So far he leads the team in nearly every offensive category: PPG (20), 3-pt FG made and % (14 and 47%), and free throws made and attempted (33 and 43).  Not to mention, he leads the team in one of the most important overall stats: minutes played (28 per game).  He also won the MVP of the Paradise Jam for his stellar play throughout the entire tournament  After Jimmy Butler's departure last year, there were concerns amongst the MU faithful about who would be the guy to step up and take over the team, no more.  The kid pretty much does everything you want out of a 2-guard: plays great in transition, can drive to the rack, shoots a high percentage from around the floor, and most importantly is the guy you want to feed the rock to when the game is on the line (see Marquette vs. Syracuse, circa 2011 of the NCAA Tournament).  Look for DJO to make a run at first team All-American if he takes the golden eagles deep into the post-season.

3. Jae Crowder has managed to get even better than he was last year

MU fans were pleasantly surprised to see JUCO transfer Jae Crowder's production last year.  He seemed to be everywhere on the floor, hitting threes, scoring in the post, and cleaning up on putback shots.  This year, he's added an important facet to his game: speed.  Yes, I mentioned DJO, Blue, and Cadougan as the leaders in transition offense, but who are they feeding the ball to?  If they're not taking it to the hole themselves, Crowder is often the guy with them on that end of the floor helping create mis-matches in numbers.  Crowder's offensive production is way up at this point compared to last year (partly due to Jimmy MF Butler's departure), but he's also putting himself in a position to score a lot more often.  Last year a 25-point performance from Crowder was a shocker and a marvel.  This year it'll be just another game for this kid.

4. The newbies are already showing there is room for growth

This season has a cast of 4 newcomers: Todd Mayo, Jamil Wilson (sat out last season due to transferring), Derrick Wilson, and Juan Anderson.  While the roster is top-heavy with experience from guys like DJO, Crowder, Cadougan, and Blue, these kids are still making an impact with the time they've had on the floor.  Todd Mayo has looked sloppy at times handling the ball on offense, but he can score in the transition game and plays good on-the-ball defense.  Jamil Wilson has shown he can do a bit of everything, from grabbing boards to making the two-point jumper to feeding the open man under the basket.  Even though Juan Anderson has so far only played in garbage time against Jacksonville, the kid was diving all over the floor for loose balls and didn't have the "Oh my God I have the ball I need to score to impress my coaches!" mentality.  The newcomers give this team added depth that could prove to be crucial down the stretch, as well as hope that this team will continue to be very talented in the future.

5. We STILL struggle against the 2-3 zone

AAAHHH!!!  What is it about the 2-3 zone that we can't figure out?  Did we forget about beating Syracuse twice last year?  This issue somehow has stuck around with the team since the Tom Crean days, likely due to lake of size in the paint.  In the championship in the Virgin Islands against Norfolk State (who we had beaten by 31 points the week before, by the way), MU quickly got up to a 16-point lead, and it looked as though the game was already in the bag.  6 minutes into the game, the spartans switched from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone, and the golden eagles just looked lost and confused against it.  There was virtually zero penetration in the paint, and no type of strategy on how to stop it.  Buzz also refused to call a timeout because he wanted to let his team figure it out on their own, and they struggled mightily because of it.  Eventually they began to feed the ball inside to Davante Gardner, but by that point in the second half the game was already so tight they couldn't get enough momentum to pull away.  MU managed to do just enough to win by 2 points, but the W certainly felt like a L.  Soon they'll realize that you need to play inside-out to attack this zone (feed it inside to Gardner or Otule, collapse the defense, and either go up for the bucket or kick it back out to an open man), and hopefully they'll learn soon.  MU better learn how to beat this zone quickly, because they'll certainly have to face a zone defense against Syracuse, Louisville, and West Virginia, and may have to face it at other points in the season too.

Marquette storms into Mad-town today with their perfect 6-0 record on the line in hopes of taking down the #7-ranked Badgers before they head to MSG to take on Washington.  Previews of the game can be found here:

Cracked Sidewalks
Anonymous Eagle
JS Online