By Joe Nelson
This week we will take a look at a few teams that may be undervalued or overvalued based on the national rankings. Any handicapper and most informed fans know the polls do not carry a lot of weight or legitimate relevance, but they still can be useful in finding value and knowing where the public perception lies. Look for an adjustment to occur in the results over the next few weeks to get these teams where they deserve to be.
AP #3 North Carolina: The Tar Heels may not be overrated in the polls as the teams surrounding them have not made a strong case to pass them but North Carolina does not deserve to be the odds-on favorite to win the national title, as they are presently and will be once the brackets come out. The loss of Marcus Ginyard may not look like much in the statistics, but he was a key role player and one the best defenders on the team and losing Zeller and Graves also hurts UNC's depth. This is an immensely talented team but there have been too many suspect defensive efforts for this team to be considered a serious championship threat.
AP #5 Louisville: The Big East has no shortage of quality teams but as Marquette and Georgetown have proven the schedule plays a huge role in which teams are considered in the upper-tier at any given moment. Louisville’s ratings are clinging to a few big wins, notably the Pittsburgh win which is a game the Cardinals were incredibly fortunate in. With the lopsided loss in South Bend Thursday night Louisville stands to take a big fall in the polls but most will still call the Cardinals at least the third best team in the Big East. Marquette, Villanova, and West Virginia could end up as stronger teams by the end of the season however.
AP #9 Michigan State: It has been a strong year for the Big Ten but there really is not a clear standout team despite the continual attempt to anoint the Spartans as an elite team. Elite teams do not lose three times at home and Michigan State was crushed in two games against ACC teams. MSU has also not had to face Purdue or Wisconsin yet in the Big Ten so more losses could be on the horizon. Michigan State has been incredibly impressive at times but has been very inconsistent and could be an upset risk on a bigger stage. Injuries are also starting to take a toll and the Spartans will be a tough team to trust in the tournaments.
AP #11 UCLA: The Bruins may be the top team in the Pac-10 but that may not being saying much as the conference is likely fifth best in the nation. The Sagarin ratings have the Bruins pegged at #17 and the Bruins are 1-3 against teams in the top 25 according to those rankings, sorely lacking any high quality wins in non-conference play with last week’s win over Notre Dame counting as its best. Losing both meetings to Arizona State and already 0-1 against Washington makes UCLA look like a team that may not actually be the best in the conference even if they end up with the best record in the league. The Bruins have made three straight Final Four trips, expect that run to surely end this season.
AP #17 Missouri: The Tigers will get a big boost in the next rankings with the huge win over Kansas but it has taken too long to recognize Missouri as the #2 team in the Big 12. The efficiency ratings on both sides of ball grade the Tigers as an elite top ten caliber team and this team owns six wins over top 50 teams. If Missouri had a better hoops tradition, voters might take notice instead of blindly sending votes towards teams like Kansas and Texas that have been elite teams in recent years but are certainly not this season. Oklahoma is still the top dog in the Big 12 but the Sooners have shown some reasons to be skeptical and the Tigers could be a team that takes them to the limit when they meet again in Columbia.
AP #19 Gonzaga: The Bulldogs failed in a big game last week against Memphis but the Tigers are proving they have not fallen far from last year. That was not a true home game and the Bulldogs had tough conference games of more importance sandwiched around that game. The Zags have not been as dominant as expected but should go far in the tourney with three NBA caliber players and good depth. Gonzaga has all but captured the WCC title with the sweep over St. Mary’s and the conference tournament should provide Gonzaga a springboard to a protected seed, ideally in Portland or Boise where Gonzaga could have a huge location advantage to start a tournament run.
NR West Virginia: The Big East schedule is going to pick apart any team, even good teams and the Mountaineers have had some setbacks. By any computer measure however this is a team that should be in the top 20, having played one of the toughest schedules in the nation. With the schedule about to let up, look for a big rise in the standings to commence. The Mountaineers have not been able to earn a marquee win yet but they have lost several competitive games against high quality teams and could emerge as a dangerous team in the Big East tournament and in the NCAA tournament.
NR Utah: Utah State has entered the national rankings but there is still little respect given to their state-rival who they barely beat at home as the Utes also have a very good team. Utah leads the Mountain West at 8-2 and although the conference lacks a dominant national presence the Sagarin ratings have the MWC rated barely behind the SEC as the seventh best in the nation. Utah has won eleven of the last 13 games and owns non-conference wins over Gonzaga, Oregon, Mississippi, and Missouri State. There are two bad losses from early in the year on the resume but Utah has shown it can compete and played tough in close losses to Utah State, California, and Oklahoma for a solid overall strength of schedule.