I tried to get worked up about this week’s college basketball rankings. I really did. After a weekend spent complaining about Connecticut and North Carolina’s undeserved rankings (in the former’s case: oops), I was sure the voters would give me some cause to take up until the beginning of February. But after careful examination of the polls, I’ve decided that there isn’t much wrong besides a few minor issues.
Except for Michigan State.
The Spartans are currently ranked #5 in both the AP and coaches’ poll. They have a 17-3 record overall, including a 7-0 performance in their conference. Obviously, the 17-3 record is a nice and alluring shiny object for the voters, especially when it works in tandem with the “State” that is emblazoned across all Spartans’ chests. Throw in the fiery Tom Izzo and his probably tremendous appeal to fans (read: men over 40, which happens to be the pollsters’ primary demographic) of good, hard-nosed basketball (read: boring slugfests), and it must be downright impossible not to rank Michigan State that high.
A deeper look at their performance, however, reveals that Michigan State is a good but not elite basketball team. Their only three losses – to Florida, North Carolina, and Texas – certainly have the look of respectability. But these name brands don’t (or shouldn’t) carry the reputation that they did in years past. Florida is a decidedly average team this season, as the Gators have a 14-5 record, a 3-2 conference record, and two really bad home losses to Richmond and South Alabama. North Carolina’s schedule has been fairly difficult, but the fact remains that the Tar Heels are 12-7 overall and 1-3 in the ACC. Texas is an elite team, despite its recent and disconcerting loss to UConn, so there’s little shame in losing to them.
Of course, a team’s losses are only a part of the story. It would be unfair to ignore which teams Michigan State has beaten on its way to such a lofty ranking. The Spartans’ best win undoubtedly came at home against Wisconsin, beating the 16-4 Badgers by seven in a good, old-fashioned, 54-47 Big Ten game. After that, the pickings get pretty slim. They beat a decent Gonzaga team by four at home. They beat an average Illinois team by 10 at home. They beat Minnesota twice, which is only impressive if you put unrelenting faith in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (don’t get me wrong: Pomeroy’s website is an incredible tool, but occasionally he has some rankings that simply defy common sense. Yes, I’m still bitter about picking Memphis to win it all last season). But generally speaking, Michigan State’s cupboard is rather bare. And yet, they are ranked fifth nationally.
Michigan State deserves to be no higher than #11 in the country. For my money, the best five teams right now are Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Texas, and Duke (strangely underrated, look at their profile). After that, I’d put Villanova, West Virginia, Purdue, Kansas State, and Wisconsin. I’d listen to a reasonable argument for BYU, but given that they have played absolutely no one, I don’t think such an argument exists. That leaves Michigan State outside the top ten, and in the very-good-but-not-great pool with Georgetown, Tennessee, and Ohio State. Perhaps the Spartans will blast through the rest of their schedule convincingly, making me look like a total fool in the process. But right now, Michigan State has the look of a team that doesn’t really deserve to be anywhere near the top five.
EDIT: Michigan State just beat Michigan by one on the road. The Wolverines were 10-9 entering tonight’s game, and were ranked 61st in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Also, Michigan State shot 49% from the field while Michigan shot 33%… and the Spartans still just barely won. I’m just saying.