Interesting note: Discovered that four years ago today (Jan. 9) I released my first Top 25 ballot as an experiment. Here we are today blogging nearly every ballot. Still enjoying it? 🙂
That noise you heard was my, and I suspect a number of other, Top 25 ballots being blown up. It was inevitable. Most of you who read my blog even occasionally know I do it at least once a year. I just think all of us voters were heading to this day thanks to more and more losses happening around the country. However, the tipping point was probably Wednesday, January 3 when nearly the entire Top 10 of the D3hoops.com Top 25 lost not to mention the losses in the rest of the poll and those receiving votes.
Personally, I had 14 losses amongst 13 teams on my ballot from last week. Ten of those losses came from ten teams in my previous Top 15!
Looking at this week’s poll it is clear that the voters decided to make some drastic changes. It is just so hard to truly get a sense of what teams should be ranked where. There are a lot of good teams in Division III basketball. Not a lot of great ones. It is hard to grasp who stands out when there are losses in games that seem like givens. Further complicating things are the teams one thinks are going to be special getting tripped up. That just makes one scratch their head. Here is the thing: those teams may still be special, but by a completely different standard.
I would be repetitive if I started talking about parity in recent years and this year in particular. However, one thing I have noticed is more and more signs of it being recognized by others.
One of the privileges that comes with this “job” covering Division III basketball is that there are many people around the country who are willing to reach out and chat about what they are seeing, what teams they like (or don’t like), or questions they have for me about what is going on. I value these conversations from coaches, assistant coaches, administrators, media members, and fans. It helps me get a sense of what I can’t see or grasp. In most years, many of those conversations are similar in nature. Same teams, same thoughts, same reasoning. Not now-a-days. Each conversation has different teams and conferences discussed and not because of where those individuals are from.
It was fun to be in Las Vegas this past December and talking to Eric Bridgeland, Mike DeWitt, and others and hear their thoughts on who is good, who is flying under the radar, etc. Our conversations would just go on and on, eventually having to be stopped due to time and usually in mid-conversation with plenty more to talk about.
This is fun! There is so much to talk about and that translates into chaotic Top 25s. That really isn’t something to complain about.
I did blow up my ballot this week. I just couldn’t keep any sense of order and thought to where I was on my ballot. I had teams that I felt was not buying enough into while I was also holding onto teams that just didn’t seem to be living up to any expectations. I could argue parity until the cows come home (and in some, I probably am), but at some point others, many unexpected, where the ones living up to the expectations and not the others.
I ended up diving in to just about every team as far as I could get in a reasonable amount of time. I went through each and every game and gave it a simple grade (see side panel). I then determined each team’s overall opponent win-loss percentage (for Division III opponents only) and a team’s record against better than .500 opponents (also noting where the game was played). I also took my first serious look at the Massey and Bennett Rankings. I don’t put much stock in those ranking systems until a little later in a season, but this is usually the time when I glance at Massey and Bennet to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
In total, I had 47 teams on my “radar” and researched 46. Only one team being considered for my ballot didn’t get that scrutiny. My top team: Whitman.
I won’t go into my thoughts on everything since I hope to supply ideas for each team below (sheesh, that’s a lot of typing). However, I can say that that while I dove pretty deep into each team, I didn’t necessarily find the answers I was looking for with teams. It kind of helped. It also kind of made things more confusing. I ended up just going with my gut, using a lot of eraser (I still use pencil and paper when working on my ballot), and knowingly left some teams off that had just as strong, or flawed, an argument as those I included.
I also did NOT include some teams that continue to get a lot of love from other voters. I mentioned in last week’s blog some of those and why I wasn’t voting for them. For at least one of those teams I didn’t include, I knew there was a BIG game coming up this week (tonight, actually) that would allow me to make a better judgement next week – win or lose.
Okay… enough… let’s get to the ballot. If you missed last week’s, you can find it here. Now time for those who survived the explosion.
1 – Whitman (Unchanged)
I have said on air on Hoopsville or during the D3hoops.com Classic that I do not expect the Blues to go undefeated through the regular season this year. However, they are the best equipped to face all challenges. Despite missing two starters from last season (and not expected to return this year), they are a dangerous team. While we all know about Howell and his abilities (and faults), it is players like Butler, Hewitt, Stewart, Beattie, and Jacobs-Jones that make this team click. Whitman is by top team not until they lose, but until they prove they have lost something or have been exposed. Another big test comes Tuesday night against No. 3 Whitworth … in Walla Walla (yes, I will be watching on the big screen!).
2 – Augustana (Unchanged)
I wanted to move the Vikings. I really, really wanted to. Their loss to Illinois Wesleyan made me feel they should come down a bit, but to where? I still think they they are better than a vast majority of teams in Division III even if they are still trying to figure out how to play without Pierson Wofford, but there are still guys like Christian Orange, Nolan Ebell, and others who have helped
Augsburg Augustana excel. What I am watching for next is if IWU exposed some stuff that other CCIW teams may try to exploit. If that is the case, Augustana will fall. If not, I don’t have any reason to drop the stalwarts from Rock Island.
3 – WashU (Up 2)
I actually thought about putting the Bears second, but then remember they had lost to Augustana. Yep, the same team that lost to Illinois Wesleyan. To add to the confusion, WashU had beaten IWU. Yes. With that circular result, I could have gotten away with putting the Bears second, but in reality I decided to respect at least the head-to-head result especially since the Vikings had beaten WashU in St. Louis. WashU is good, but they are as susceptible as any other team in the country. This isn’t the same type of team that dominated to back-to-back championships, but they are also better than the WashU teams of the last few years.
4 – Williams (Up 5)
No, I am not confident with this, but this is where the first gap exists in my ballot. Williams was ninth in my last ballot and the win over Wesleyan at least made me take note. Does that mean they are good enough to be the fourth-best team in the country? Not sure. They are still looking to replace the output and intangibles that Scadlock brought to the table. They won’t survive NESCAC (and Little Three) play without taking a couple of hits I am sure. So, they are fourth on my ballot, but I would feel better if they were somewhere between 7 and 10… there just isn’t any teams behind them I think absolutely deserve to be above them.
5 – UW-River Falls (Up 2)
Yes. I moved the Falcons up two spots despite going 1-and-1 for the week. Their win over Whitewater was note-worthy considering what UWW did later in the week. Yes, UWRF lost to Stevens Point, but let’s not pretend the Pointers aren’t good especially defensively. They are going to get some top-notch victories this season, so it didn’t surprise me to see UWRF lose to UWSP. The WIAC race is going to be one of the best in the country this year and right now I think UWRF is the class of the group.
6 – York (Pa.) (Up 10)
Big … BIG jump for the Spartans. I wasn’t sure I was ready to buy in this much, but I know that York is higher on some ballots (and lower on others). What I finally allowed myself to lean on was that I love that York has two big-men they can play off and who can step out and extend defenses. Their win over Salisbury impressed me. The Sea Gulls are a tough squad and for York to get past them after one of their more memorable stretches in program history told me they are a focused group. Yes, wins over Swarthmore, Dickinson, and then Middlebury (in overtime) had me buying in, but getting past Salisbury without getting “trapped” told me enough to make a leap. Plus, no one else is winning games they should. York appears to be. Now, this Saturday they have Christopher Newport coming to Grumbacher Center. That game will tell us a lot of how the CAC, Mid-Atlantic, and York’s seasons will be shaped the rest of the way.
7 – Wittenberg (Up 12)
Another big jump for a team, but like York the Tigers are undefeated and winning games others are losing. I didn’t expect much out of Coach Croci’s team this season. Boy was I wrong. Maybe everyone was wrong. Wittenberg appears to be a beast. I honestly didn’t want to move them too far up because they haven’t played Ohio Wesleyan or Wooster as of yet. Those games are coming up starting this weekend. They will tell me if Witt is for real or a pretender.
8 – St. John’s (Unchanged)
I might be the only one one who thinks this highly of the Johnnies. They are slowly working their way up the poll probably because of their loss to UW-Lacrosse and close wins like Hamline. However, I feel St. John’s is the class of the MIAC this year and their results against most of the conference so far are rather telling. As with a lot of teams at this point in the season, two of the Johnnies’ big tests are upcoming in the next week. Augsburg and St. Thomas in the next three games. As with Wittenberg, this is going to end up being the litmus test.
9 – UW-Whitewater (Up 6)
The Warhawks are Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde on my ballot. I have lower and dropped UWW a lot so far. I just struggle to get a read on them. I bought in early maybe on a false reading (forgetting for some reason how much they lost; trusting their transfers too much early on) and then dropped them significantly when I decided to walk away from those readings. This week they added to the chaotic race in the WIAC by beating Oshkosh and losing to River Falls. It was the fact they beat Oshkosh after losing to River Falls that made me take note. To bounce back and take out the early-season conference favorite told me more than their loss to UWRF (their first to a +.500 team this season).
10 – UW-Oshkosh (Down 6)
Yep. Three WIAC teams in my Top 10. For as much parity as there is in Division III and for as much chaos in the WIAC this surprised me as well. However, I’ve said I like the race in the WIAC and I think we have not seen this strength at the top of the conference in a few years and I don’t know when we have seen that coupled by incredible depth (the conference is always deep, but not with this much strength in my opinion). Oshkosh is still a dangerous team. The biggest challenge is going to probably come for the NCAA men’s committee to separate all these top-squads as much as possible to balance the NCAA bracket to the best of their abilities. Read this now, remember it later: One or two WIAC teams are going to have to hit the road early in the NCAA tournament if anyone wants to see this conference and region get any balance and “respect.”
11 – Wesleyan (Unchanged)
I might be buying too much into the Cardinals. They numbers won’t blow anyone away, but they have stayed relatively unblemished and their win over Middlebury, granted at home, gave voters a lot of insight. (More on why it could be a false-positive later in the blog.) The NESCAC race is also wide-open this season and Wesleyan has at least proven that they will be a factor. Like a lot of teams, I don’t think they are as good as where I have them ranked, but if you take into account for the “gap” I have in my head and Wesleyan is really more like a 15 or so ranked squad.
12 – MIT (Unchanged)
The Engineers may not have had any terrific results this week, but their win over Coast Guard showed they aren’t going to just roll over when challenged. The NEWMAC race is also wide-open, but I think it goes through Cambridge, not Babson Park this season.
13 – Ohio Wesleyan (Down 7)
This is a big drop for the Battling Bishops who I have a ton of confidence in. However, a couple of things were factors in this decision. The first was when deep-diving into all teams on my ballot I found teams I felt needed to be higher. They moved up (as you have seen) and space needed to be made. OWU allowed for some of that space to be created thanks to a loss to Wooster. While the Scots are playing far better than I expected, if OWU was a Top 10 team they should have won that game (and maybe would have despite a possible missed call at the end on Wooster; however OWU shouldn’t have been in that situation). The one thing that makes me nervous about the Bishops is their reliance on the three-point shot. That is who they are and that is how they will succeed or fail. I really like what OWU has for a team and when they are on, they are one of the toughest to stop. It is when they are off is when I get nervous.
14 – New Jersey City (Down 4)
I considered dropping the Gothic Knights even further because if they are as good as they say they are… they can’t let a team like Montclair State beat them. Yes, MSU is good. I am not taking anything away from Montclair, but NJCU supposedly has the best played in the NJAC and more talent possibly being added and thus they have to dominate all opponents. If they do not, they aren’t a Top 25 team and they are in risk of not playing in March.
15 – Wartburg (Down 2)
I like the Knights (huh, back-to-back Knights teams!), but they have now lost two games in three including a loss to Coe after a 15-point win over Central. If Wartburg wants to control what could be a controllable IIAC, they can’t let teams like Coe upend them. The difference between the IIAC being a conference that is wide-open or not will be if Wartburg can wrangle back control of the conference. BTW, there is still Buena Vista, Nebraska Wesleyan, Loras (a second time) to play… starting next week.
16 – Baldwin Wallace (Up 4)
The Yellow Jackets are are popular team for people to bring up in conversation that no one seems to be talking about publicly. Yes, losses to Wheaton (Ill.) and Muskingum will give voters pause. They have for me until this week. Wins over Hope and Mount Union gave me confidence the once-hyphenated program is for real – along with those individuals who keep mentioning them to me. However, Ohio Northern and John Carroll are coming up in the next three games … hold your breathe in the OAC because it could be a free-for-all if it isn’t already.
17 – John Carroll (Up 6)
Did I mention John Carroll? The Blue Streaks are certainly good. They have proven that under first-year coach, but long-time coaching pupil, Pete Moran. However, I think they need to tighten up the defense a bit to be a serious threat. Allowing 100+ points to Hope in a loss, which I think I have mentioned before, is not good enough. I get that JCU can put up points with their offense. Good. That’s fine. But if they can’t shut down teams even slightly, they are going to get bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament … if not the first round of the OAC tournament.
18 – St. Norbert (Up 3)
The Green Knights (what is up with the Knights?!) are done with any games that can actually answer questions for voters. The rest of the way is MWC games and we already know that leaves more questions than anything. A win in a relatively low-scoring game against Grinnell was a decent sign. However, I am nervous SNC is going to leave us wanting more, like most seasons, because they didn’t accomplish enough in their out-of-conference schedule to better position themselves for March – as long as they win the MWC bid. By the way, St. Nobert moved up three spots strictly because there was room and I needed to slot teams in. This are of the ballot is the second “gap” that exists.
19 – Skidmore (Up 4)
I am a fan of the Thoroughbreds. I have stated that several times. However, their losses that bookended the holidays still make me concerned. They have to stay focused on Liberty League games and not let their resume take any unneeded hits if they want to control things in March.
20 – Hamilton (Up 5)
I am starting to buy into the Continentals, but I am not completely sold. Massey and Bennett loves them, but in my opinion they don’t have any significant wins, only one I marked with a ‘+’ (Trinity). They are still undefeated and especially in a season like this that isn’t something to be discounted. Their win over Lebanon Valley was probably better than I have given them credit, but the questions I am looking to be answered will come slowly over time. Next up is Wesleyan, but Amherst isn’t until Jan. 20 and Middlebury and Williams aren’t for another month. The trick will be if Hamilton can avoid unnecessary losses between now and early February.
21 – Whitworth (Unranked)
Ok. I’m voting for the Pirates, now. I still don’t see a lot that makes me feel comfortable. Their opponents’ combined record is 77-87, they are 4-1 against teams above .500 – though no one of significance other than Wheaton (Ill.) for now – and even Bennett and Massey are mixed. However, I felt I needed to put Whitworth on my ballot before their game against Whitman. The reason: If I was impressed with Whitworth, but they lost (as I predict with my ballot), it might be an odd argument to suddenly put them on my ballot. Yes, I could easily make the argument (like I did in bringing Ohio Wesleyan up my ballot last week). I just feel more comfortable if they are already on my ballot.
22 – Swarthmore (Unranked)
I realize the Garnet may be better than I think they are. This is one of a handful of teams (along with Whitworth) that other voters have put them high in the poll which I have not voted for or just started voting. I know Swat has some good talent, but results have caused me to be cautious. I’m buying in right now because their loss to York continues to look better and better (especially in overtime) and their win over Middlebury looks pretty solid (though, could lose traction). The Mid-Atlantic Region is going to be fascinating to watch especially when it comes to Regional Rankings and Swat is certainly going to be part of that conversation.
23 – UW-Platteville (Unranked)
Ha. A fourth team from the WIAC in my Top 25. It isn’t rare, but it feels strange. Ryan Scott was the first to get me to focus on the Pioneers. Their loss earlier in the season to Carleton makes one scratch their head, but their control of Hope and strong start to conference play had me buy in … a little. Like the undefeated teams, having just one loss at this point in the season isn’t something to be ignored. Massey and Bennett love UWP, though that could be because of two games out of Division III. Their DIIIs opponents are 71-67, which gives me some confidence Platteville may be a sleeper in what is already a crazy WIAC race. Oshkosh, Lacrosse, Stevens Point, River Falls, and Whitewater are coming up in the next five games. Buckle up, Pioneer fans!
24 – Nichols (Down 7)
I am holding on to the Bison after their loss to Western New England. They have some of the best talent in New England, but if they truly are a Top 25 team they have to dominate the CCC. I remain confident, but nearly dropped them all together for a host of other teams (more complicated than it sounds).
25 – Middlebury (Down 22)
Significant drop of the Panthers for good reason. I was nervous about their long layoff over the holidays and it might be the reason for their recent slide. Whether it is because Middlebury is struggling to get back in sync or it gave teams plenty of time to figure them out is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Midd has lost two of three and three of five all since they returned to action from the holidays. All three of those losses were to teams I now have on my Top 25 ballot. That is the reason Middlebury is still on my ballot, but they are also behind all three of those teams. My thinking is simple: if a team is a Top 25 squad, they win at least one of those three games showing it. I am riding Middlebury … for now.
Ramapo (Previously 14)
The Roadrunners have lost three of their last four and have me nervous. I think they have tremendous talent, but as I said on Sunday’s Hoopsville I am not sure they know how to utilize it. There are times they go several possessions without getting Bonacum involved. Then they do and he isn’t in sync or they risk getting some one like Moseley out of sync. If they can get all the talent to come together, they are a very dangerous team. If there is a “good” time for a lull in a season, it is right now. They only have lost one conference game and can remain in control of the conference with a win against NJCU coming up. However, things could also unravel just as quickly if the current trend continues – just ask Virginia Wesleyan a few years ago.
Rochester (Previously 18)
I like the Yellow Jackets. I am one who has been touting them this season. Despite what they lost from last year’s squad, I felt they were the class of the East Region and be in the battle for the UAA. While I am still a fan, Rochester has lost two of their last three including at Emory by 18. On top of that, Rochester is only 3-3 against opponents with better than .500 records; all three to 8-3 or better squads. Not sure they are playing Top 25 basketball right now.
Albright (Previously 24)
I might have bought in too soon with the Lions. They had been a group similar to the one I mentioned last week that included Lycoming, Juniata, etc. Albright, like the other two and others, took a loss this past week that didn’t look good. Lebanon Valley (who also beat Lycoming) got the win at Albright. That coupled with confusing overall metrics and I decided I couldn’t keep Albright on my ballot especially over teams who seemed to have a better resume.