College Basketball Preseason Rankings 2013: Biggest Lessons of AP Poll
In case you didn't know, Kentucky is good again.
"Last year, we learned some very important lessons," Calipari told fans at UK's Big Blue Madness two weeks ago. "We were humbled. I was humbled."
Translation: It's time to move on. Don't worry. That humility stuff is in the past.
The "Kentucky has the greatest class ever and is back" narrative is pretty well established, so what else did we learn from the AP poll?
Well, let's dive in and see.
Kentucky May Not Be as Clear-Cut a No. 1 as Thought
Kentucky is No. 1, but it's not as clear-cut to the voters as it is in most years. You have to go back to 2007-08 for the last time there was this much uncertainty for the top spot.
That year, North Carolina got 29 first-place votes. Kentucky received 27 this year.
It could just be a reluctance by the voters to give the top spot to a team that will depend on mostly freshmen. Two years ago, the eventual champion 'Cats, also freshmen-heavy, were ranked second in the preseason poll and did not receive one first-place vote.
Chane Behanan's Suspension Had Little Effect on Louisville's Ranking
When the coaches poll came out, no one knew that Louisville's Chane Behanan would start the season suspended.
Well, that didn't seem to bother the voters. Louisville is No. 3 in both polls and got first-place votes in both.
The Behanan-less Cardinals are definitely weaker than before, but my guess is the voters believe Behanan when he says he'll be back.
The Media Loves Marcus Smart
Don't get me wrong. Coaches love him too. But the coaches were not quite ready to crown Smart's Cowboys a Top 10 team—they had them 12th—and the media has them eighth.
Smart provides a good narrative—a sure-fire lottery pick who decided to return to school—so it makes sense that the media would talk themselves into buying in on the Cowboys. They want his story to have a happy ending.
North Carolina's Brand Recognition Is Strong
Last year, the Tar Heels opened the season ranked 11th and eventually fell out of the polls. This year, they're back at No. 12.
I'm not saying I don't think they're that good. I believe they have the talent, and a year of experience could go a long way for point guard Marcus Paige in Roy Williams' system. But it would be justified for the Heels to be around No. 20 or even out of the polls after last season's struggles and the offseason drama surrounding P.J. Hairston, who will start the year suspended.
Be Wary of the Next North Carolina State
There's usually one team that looks really good on paper but hasn't exactly achieved anything yet.
Last season, that was North Carolina State, a team that had underachieved the previous year until a March run. The Wolfpack opened last year ranked No. 6 and were one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball. (Last year's Kentucky team also fits the bill, but I'm talking more about a team that had the pieces in place already.)
Arizona could be that team. The Wildcats underachieved last year during the Pac-12 season, going 12-6 in league play. Sure, that's a decent season, but they were the most talented team in that league and didn't perform like it.
Everyone Is Buying These Freshmen
So Kentucky wasn't a clear-cut No. 1, but it was still No. 1. Kansas lost five starters, and Andrew Wiggins and company are still ranked fifth. Duke lost three starters, and it's a good bet Jabari Parker is a big reason for the Devils being fourth. Freshman Aaron Gordon is the star at Arizona, and his team is sixth.
You get the narrative... The expectation is that the best teams in the country will be the teams with the best freshmen. We knew that already, but the polls confirmed it.
Put Your Money on Michigan State
Why? The voters usually don't get these things right, and previous success has mattered in recent years.
Five of the last six champions did not start the year off No. 1—North Carolina in 2008-09 is the lone exception. Five of the last six champs also made it to at least the Sweet 16 the year before their title—Connecticut in 2010-11 is the one exception there.
A majority of those teams returned their core from the year before. So going off that formula, maybe Michigan State is the team to beat this year.
March Success Mattered to the Voters
After Kentucky, you don't find another team that missed the NCAA tournament until Connecticut at No. 18, and UConn was banned from the postseason last year.
Baylor, which debuts at No. 25, missed the tournament, but Scott Drew's team was dominant in winning the postseason NIT. Virginia is the only other team in the poll that didn't make the tourney, and the Cavaliers also had a decent NIT run.
Voters Like the Mid-Majors, but Not for the Top 10
We're at the point where everyone has accepted that mid-major programs belong in the Top 25, so the voters usually throw them somewhere in the middle. It's like Academy Awards voters making sure to include some small-budget films to show they support the indies.
This poll has VCU, Gonzaga and Wichita State at Nos. 14-16.
I'll take you into the mind of a voter...
Oh yeah, I better include some mid-majors in here so people don't scream at me for being an elitist. Let's just sprinkle them in the middle here.
Some day, my mid-major friends, you'll work your way into a preseason Top 10.
The SEC Will Be Fighting for Respect
If two big conferences are to feel disrespected this preseason, it's the SEC and the Big 12.
Both conferences had only two teams in the coaches poll, and the SEC once again has only two in the AP poll. (Baylor became the third Big 12 team to make it in.)
The voters certainly respect Kentucky and Florida, but after that there's a big drop-off. Last year was a down year for the league, and it showed when Florida had a really good regular season and ended up with a No. 3 seed.
It helps that Kentucky is back (we assume), but the SEC could definitely use another team or two to work its way into the Top 25 and help the perception of the league.