College Basketball Talk Top 25: Is Baylor really the No. 1 team in the country?

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After a weekend where the only ranked teams to lose were either playing on the road against another – favored – ranked team or No. 25 USC, there is only going to be so much movement when the top 25 polls come out this week. There will, however, likely end up being movement at the top, as Villanova lost on the road to Butler on Wednesday, the first loss the Wildcats have suffered this season.

And when the polls do come out, don’t be surprised when Baylor ends up being the No. 1 team in the country. They were No. 2 in the AP Poll last week, the only team other than Villanova to receive a first-place vote, but does that mean Baylor is the best team in the country?

In other words, if you’re a voter and you rank Baylor in the top spot, what you’re essentially saying is that you believe the Bears are better than Kansas, a team that hasn’t lost since falling in the season-opener to Indiana in overtime and has won the Big 12 regular season title for 12 years running. There are eighth-graders that were not alive the last time the Jayhawks did not win at least a share of the league title.

But that’s not the way that the polls work these days. I have a theory about why that is and his name is Gary Parrish. Parrish is a columnist and TV analyst for CBS Sports and, in the last five years or so, he’s been writing a popular column every Monday titled “Poll Attacks”. In this column, he publicly shames anyone that does something dumb on their ballot. You want to avoid getting embarrassed on the internet by a nationally-respected writer that literally ranks the top 25 teams in the country every morning when he wakes up, put some effort into you poll.

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And I’m with this. I think it’s brilliant. Rankings don’t mean anything – literally zero, and I’ll get to that – but if you’re going to be one of the 65 AP writers that has a vote in this poll, you should at least be paying enough attention to the sport that you don’t blindly vote every Sunday night half-drunk from watching football all day.

But here’s the catch: Parrish doesn’t let opinion seep into his rankings. His method for ranking teams is logic and results-based – teams that have accomplished the most should be ranked the highest, with head-to-head results being given significant weight – which means that has become the norm.

So the by-product of this trend is that opinion has more or less been taken out of the polls. “It’s definitely getting harder,” Parrish told me last week of the effort it takes for him to find a ballot to expose. “I can still find somebody every week, but it’s harder than it used to be.” And he agrees, the Poll Attacks play a major role in that.

Which brings me back to Baylor.

They’ve certainly earned a No. 1 ranking. Their body of work is as impressive as anyone’s. They’ve beaten Louisville and Michigan State and VCU and Oregon (by 17!) and Xavier (by 15!). They’re 3-0 in the Big 12. They’re 15-0 on the season, one of just two teams without a loss to their name. If you are so inclined to rank them first, that’s totally justified. I’m not going to call you an idiot for it.

But you’ll have a hard time convincing me that every person that slots Baylor at the top of their rankings will believe that Baylor is the best team in the country, better than all of Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, North Carolina, West Virginia, Louisville, Gonzaga, etc.

Which brings us back to an issue that will always be argued about: What is the criteria for ranking teams? Their body of work, or who you actually believe to be the better team?

My take: since these rankings, these polls, mean absolutely nothing beyond the little number you see next to their name on TV, what’s the point of ranking based on the body of work? That’s what Bracketology is for. That’s what those seeding projections are for. That’s what the computer rankings of sites like KenPom and KPI and Sagarin do.

The polls?

That should be for gauging what public opinion is of the top teams in the country, because weird results happen in college basketball all the time and the value of home-court advantage is never factored into the equation enough.

And if your basis for determining who the best team is is strictly results-oriented, are you really going to drop Villanova for losing on the road to a team with a top ten résumé (Butler) on a night when the consensus National Player of the Year favorite shoots 3-for-11 when Baylor beat Iowa State and Oklahoma State at home by a combined six points?

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1. Villanova (15-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (13-2, 4)
3. UCLA (16-1, 2)
4. Kansas (14-1, 3)
5. Baylor (15-0, 7)
6. Gonzaga (15-0, 6)
7. Duke (14-2, 5)
8. Florida State (15-1, 14)
9. Oregon (15-2, 10)
10. North Carolina (14-3, 12)
11. West Virginia (13-2, 11)
12. Louisville (13-3, 9)
13. Creighton (15-1, 13)
14. Purdue (14-3, 21)
15. Wisconsin (13-3, 8)
16. Butler (14-2, 20)
17. Xavier (13-2, 16)
18. Saint Mary’s (14-1, 17)
19. Arizona (16-2, 18)
20. Notre Dame (14-2, 23)
21. Cincinnati (15-2, 19)
22. Virginia (12-3, 15)
23. Florida (12-3, NR)
24. Minnesota (15-2, NR)
25. South Carolina

DROPPED OUT: No. 22 Virginia Tech, No. 24 USC, No. 25 Indiana
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 23 Florida, No. 24 Minnesota, No. 25