The first NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings of the 2021-22 men's college basketball season were released Monday morning, and we have some thoughts about this edition of the primary sorting tool used in the NCAA tournament selection process.
The main takeaway is that the rankings look...surprisingly good?
There's one major outlier in the top 20 that we'll touch on in a bit. LSU is probably a bit too high at No. 2. Gonzaga and Duke feel a bit too low at No. 8 and No. 10, respectively. UCLA is way too low at No. 33. But for not even having a full month's worth of data yet, these rankings aren't bad.
If nothing else, at least Purdue is No. 1 in the NET. That's a credible starting point.
By comparison, if we were still using RPI, Alabama would be No. 1, Providence would be No. 4, neither Purdue nor Duke would be in the top 10 and Gonzaga would be at No. 43.
The NET formula may not be perfect, but it's always good to remember how much better it is than what we used to have.
With that in mind, here are a few other takeaways from the initial NET rankings.
True Road Games Aren't Necessary
Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim figured this out a long time ago, but the initial NET rankings provided an early reminder that true road games played in the first month of the season are an unnecessary risk.
They can help if you win them. NET No. 5 Villanova has gone 2-1 on the road, stomping Penn and La Salle and taking UCLA to overtime. NET No. 7 USC is 3-0 with wins at Temple, Florida Gulf Coast and Washington State. Chattanooga is all the way up at No. 29 in the NET rankings largely because of its 4-0 record in true road games.
But five of the top eight teams—No. 1 Purdue, No. 2 LSU, No. 4 Houston, No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 Gonzaga—have yet to play a road game. They do each have multiple neutral-site victories, most of which were of the Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 variety. However, they have been able to work out any early-season kinks without playing in a hostile environment and without it negatively impacting their ranking.
It is what it is, but it's also a shame that there isn't more of an incentive to schedule games like Texas at Gonzaga and Villanova at UCLA, because those were awesome early treats on the calendar.
Wyoming Is This Year's Colgate
Colgate didn't play its first game of the 2020-21 season until early January and faced only three unique opponents during the regular season—Army, Boston and Holy Cross. After winning their first game by 44 points, the Raiders were in the top 15 of the initial NET rankings.
By Selection Sunday, they were the 14-1 Patriot League champions and had climbed all the way to No. 9 in the NET rankings, even though no one truly believed they were a Top 25 team.
Trying to learn anything meaningful from last year's NET rankings was a waste of time and energy because of how much the pandemic impacted scheduling. But Colgate ranking that high throughout the season was a reminder that blowing out bad teams is a great way to trick the computers into believing you're better than you are.
Enter: 2021-22 Wyoming.
The Cowboys are 8-0 and have climbed from No. 183 to No. 108 on KenPom.com, but that's nothing compared to their 12th-place start in the NET rankings. They're two spots behind Duke and two spots ahead of Kansas.
The Cowboys have yet to face a KenPom top-125 opponent, and they needed late comebacks to win their road games against Washington and Grand Canyon. But because they have not lost and because their wins against Detroit, McNeese State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff came by a combined margin of 99 points, they're the third-highest-ranked team from outside the Power Five conferences.
No one expects it to last the entire season. In fact, it probably won't last for 72 hours, because Wyoming is likely going to get pummeled at Arizona on Wednesday night. But it's always interesting to look at the biggest outliers to try to get a sense of what's going on.
Also worth noting: Wagner is sitting at No. 23 in the NET rankings with a 3-1 record and a 22-point loss to Seton Hall. The Seahawks have only one more game this season (at Penn State this Wednesday) against a team ranked higher than 195th on KenPom, so they might hang around in the top 25 for a while en route to a 23-3 type of season. Just don't expect them to ever legitimately enter the at-large conversation.
Scoring Margin Is Huge, But It Can Only Carry You So Far
I woke up this morning ready to write a scathing review of Texas Tech debuting as a Top 10 team in the NET.
The Red Raiders won their first six games against North Florida, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Incarnate Word, Nebraska-Omaha and Lamar by a combined margin of 186 points (31.0 per game), and we've seen teams (most memorably North Carolina State in 2018-19) benefit to a ridiculous degree from repeatedly destroying hopelessly overmatched opponents.
But much to my surprise, Texas Tech is down in 38th place, one spot behind a Providence team to which it lost a 72-68 road game last week.
If the Red Raiders beat Tennessee on Tuesday night or knock off Gonzaga next weekend, they will likely skyrocket up the NET rankings with a statement win to go along with their average margin of victory. After all, every other team currently in the top six in scoring margin is also in the top six in the NET.
However, it's refreshing in this case that the NET is waiting for at least one quality win before crowning Texas Tech as a legitimate contender.
Kentucky is in a similar boat. The Wildcats are 6-1 with an average scoring margin of 23.2 points per game, but they are No. 39 in the NET with nothing better than a home win over Ohio on their resume.
The West Coast Conference Is in Great Shape
On the morning of Nov. 24, Gonzaga, BYU, San Francisco, Saint Mary's and Santa Clara had a combined record of 27-0, each boasting multiple wins over current KenPom top-100 foes.
Since then, the top half of the WCC has gone just 10-8, including BYU's shocking loss to Utah Valley, Gonzaga slipping up against both Duke and Alabama and Santa Clara dropping a trio of games.
But the possibility of a three-bid or even four-bid WCC still feels plausible with all five of those teams ranked in the NET top 75. Gonzaga is No. 8, BYU is No. 24, San Francisco is No. 32, Saint Mary's is No. 55 and Santa Clara is No. 71.
When the first NET rankings dropped last season, Gonzaga was No. 1, but it was the only WCC team in the top 50. And even from there, BYU easily made the tournament as a No. 6 seed and Saint Mary's (a No. 2 seed in the NIT) probably would have gotten in if it hadn't gotten blown out in all seven games it played against quality opponents.
We'll see where things go from here, but these first rankings back up something we had already determined: The WCC is clearly better than the AAC and arguably better than both the ACC and Pac-12.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.