Most of the hoo-ha over college-basketball rankings Monday had nothing to do with Gonzaga, and maybe that’s fitting. The Zags powered through Kansas in both the AP (media) and coaches polls to No. 1, and gee, what can you say but ho-hum?
This is the third Gonzaga team in school history to crack the No. 1 spot, joining 2013 and 2017. The three appearances were done essentially with distinctly different casts of characters. More on that later.
Most of the noise Monday was made by the initial release of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking, which was developed to replace the controversial Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) computer rankings. No doubt even Ohio State was shocked to learn it’s No. 1 in the first NET rankings. And generally, the part of the world that cares about college hoops was as stunned as if you’d told it no illicit cash ever changes hands in the sport.
A couple of quick thoughts on the NET, which has Gonzaga No. 5: It’s early, and making too much of the rankings would be like trying to project a marathon winner after a mile and a half. But, uh, the Buckeyes indeed seem like an odd choice, notwithstanding road wins at Cincinnati and Creighton, both of which are 5-1. The Bearcats haven’t beaten anyone of renown, while Creighton has one notable victory over Clemson, which was ranked 16th at the time.
But the rankings that really piqued the interest of Zag fans were the media’s and coaches’, each of which, ever so narrowly, allowed heretofore No. 3 Gonzaga to leapfrog Kansas to gain the No. 1 spot after its landmark victory last week over Duke in the Maui Invitational final.
I figured that margin would be razor-thin, and defensible either way. Gonzaga has the big hammer, a victory over a team some were touting as a potential undefeated all the way, while Kansas has already bagged two wins over Top 10 teams, Michigan State and Tennessee. There’s no wrong answer there.
No way to get inside the heads of voters who opted for Kansas, but what wouldn’t be the proper way to assess it is this: Kansas was No. 2, ahead of Gonzaga, and it had a marquee win, so it should naturally get the nod for No. 1. This early in the season, the rankings are something akin to a blank easel – a sketch that may not look anything like rankings once they’ve settled in a couple of months, and teams’ strength can truly be assessed relative to others. For now, it’s more of a guess, which is why it’s dubious to think that the No. 2-rated team a week ago is necessarily better than the No. 3 team.
Again, it’s early, and maybe that’s a rationale for the ballot of Jesse Newell, the AP voter who kept Duke at No. 1 (the only top vote nationally for the Blue Devils), and thus caused some observers to wonder whether he was spelunking in Nepal last week as the Zags were nipping Duke. Newell does work for the Kansas City Star, one of the best newspapers out there, and he explains that he gives heavy consideration to analytics sites like KenPom.com and Torvik and their predictive nature. Both cling to Duke as the No. 1 team; KenPom has Gonzaga No. 6 and Torvik puts it at No. 3.
I appreciate analytics as much as the next guy. But don’t the actual results matter, too?
As for putting into perspective the Zags and their ascent to No. 1 . . .
Since Gonzaga attained its first No. 1 ranking in March of 2013, a total of 13 schools have been ranked at the top in the regular season: Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Villanova and Virginia.
Of the 13, only four – Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan State and Villanova – have been ranked No. 1 as many as three times in that period (four for Kentucky), and only GU, Kentucky and Michigan State have done it with largely separate casts (‘Nova did it the last three years, with a fair amount of overlapping personnel). For the record, the contribution by current Zags on the No. 1-rated 2017 team was by their Nos. 6-8-9 scorers, Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura. Perkins averaged 29 minutes, Tillie 12 and Hachimura a mere 4.6.
College-hoops rankings are, of course, as disposable as the latest from the tweeter-in-chief in Washington. It all comes out in the wash in college basketball, so nobody gets too frothy about rankings. Besides, they’re notoriously fluid, and the Zags, after their game Monday night against North Dakota State, have potential landmines at Creighton Saturday, with Tennessee Dec. 9 in Phoenix and at North Carolina Dec. 15. (My fingers are having trouble typing Washington as a potential landmine.)
Besides that, the Zags are now without guard Geno Crandall for 4-6 weeks with a broken hand. Tillie is already out, and in my memory, I can't recall two key pieces being down for an extended time simultaneously.
I distinctly remember writing for my trusty newspaper back in 2013 that the Zags’ first No. 1 ranking meant nothing, and yet it meant everything. That day, there was a 21-foot sheet cake with blue icing placed on tables in the middle of campus, available to students in a celebratory mood.
I’m guessing there was no sheet cake Monday and only modest revelry. As is increasingly the case at Gonzaga, been there, done that.