Poll Positions: Off the Butler Bandwagon

February 7th, 2007
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Off the Bulldog Bandwagon

It has been fun witnessing the amazing rise of the Butler Bulldogs this season. With each passing week, more and more people have been pushing their way onto the Butler bandwagon. However, now that they have been rated among the top 10 teams in America by AP voters and coaches, it’s time to hit the brakes. It’s time to get off.

Yes, the Bulldogs were once ranked #106 on this website and were picked to finish sixth in the Horizon League in the preseason. Yes, I called them the Team Nobody Wants to Play in March and the biggest surprise of the year. Yes, I was happy and excited about how they shocked the country, beat three ranked teams, and won the NIT. But that was a long time ago.

Beating a team in November is a heck of a lot different than beating them in February. Teams in November are still working out the kinks of playing with a new lineup, still trying to get their freshmen and JUCOs acclimated to the college game. Oral Roberts beat Kansas in November. Missouri State beat Wisconsin in November. North Dakota State beat Marquette (granted, that was on Dec 2, but you get the idea). If those schools were all to have rematches today, is there any doubt about how those games would turn out?

Since the day after Thanksgiving the Bulldogs have beaten exactly one team (Purdue) currently rated in the Top 50. Every other team they have defeated in that time is outside the RPI 100. In fact, as of this writing, no other Horizon League team has an RPI cracking the Top 100. They have one “quality” opponent left on their schedule (as the NCAA Selection Committee would put it) – their Feb 17th match-up with Southern Illinois – part of ESPN’s hokey “BracketBusters” series. Their tune-up for that game – less than one month from Selection Sunday – will be against Division II Florida Gulf College.

In fairness, the Bulldogs’ high ranking is obviously not a conspiracy, or really even within the control of voters and coaches. In college basketball, unlike college football, a team very rarely drops in the rankings without losing. So Butler’s rise was mostly ordained by the teams ranked above them who played much tougher competition and lost games. It’s also not Butler’s fault they play in a weak conference.

However, a top 10 ranking still means you are no longer a feel good story, a dangerous underdog, a Cinderella, or whatever. It is supposed to mean that you are one of the very best teams in all of college basketball, and are contending for the national championship.

Is Butler really a better team than Marquette, Memphis, Nevada, Oregon, or even Duke and Oklahoma State.?

Could Butler beat Pitt on the road like Marquette has done? Or upend UCLA like Oregon? Are we to believe a team, who doesn’t have a single player on the roster over 6-7, would have any chance of stopping a Kevin Durant or Nick Fazekas?

I’m a sucker for the feel-good underdog story as the next guy. But I just can’t go along with this. Butler is a potential Sweet Sixteen team, not a potential national champion.

Texas A&M in the Driver’s Seat

After Texas A&M’s huge win at Allen Fieldhouse, the Aggies now control their own destiny for the Big 12 title.

It won’t be easy though. They still have tough road games against Oklahoma State, a surprisingly good Nebraska program, and Texas – who will be out for revenge after getting hung up for 100 points on Monday. The Aggies also have to beat Texas Tech and Missouri in College Station.

Kansas has an easier remaining schedule, although they do have two games against resurgent Kansas State, and road games against Oklahoma and arch rival Missouri. They also have to play Kevin Durant and Texas at home, a very young and talented team that appears ready to break out at any moment.

Can Coach Bob Huggins do the unthinkable and win the Big 12 in his first season with the Wildcats? They have to beat the Jayhawks at least once, and hope Texas A&M stumbles. But it is possible. Tonight’s huge game in Lawrence will tell us a lot.

Still, it is remarkable that Texas A&M is even in this position, not to mention ranked in the Top 10 in the nation. Keep in mind that, prior to Coach Gillespie’s arrival, the Aggies had only been to the NCAA Tournament twice since 1980 and suffered through an embarrassing 0-16 record in Big 12 play just three years ago.

Since then Billy Gillespie has guided the Aggies to three straight 20 win seasons. In fact, Coach Gillespie is the only coach in NCAA history to have the most improved team in the nation in back-to-back seasons (he turned UTEP from a 6-24 cellar dweller to a WAC co-champion).

He is clearly cementing his status as one of the top college coaches in America.

Random Thoughts

• Duke dropped 8 spots in the polls after losing to Virginia and Florida State by a combined 3 points. This is a Florida State team that has also beaten top ranked Florida and nationally ranked Virginia Tech. Is the Duke aura starting to lose its shine?

• Six of the ten teams in the Pac 10 are now ranked in the top 25. That’s like, um, 60% of the conference.

• Syracuse and Connecticut – two of the three most dominant programs in the history of the Big East Conference (the other being Georgetown) – are more than likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament this year. Depending on how a huge match-up with Pittsburgh plays out, the Big East regular season title could go to Marquette (campus – Milwaukee, WI). Times, they have changed.

• Arizona State is 0-11 in Pac 10 play, with five of their last seven games being against ranked opponents. Meaning of course, Herb Sendek could go oh-fer in his first season with the Sun Devils. But fans in the Valley of the Sun shouldn’t panic just yet. Better days are ahead.