I never look forward to three to four times of the year when I have to compile my Top 25 men’s basketball ballot: preseason, week one, and one or two occasions during the season I practically start over. Preseason is a challenge for so many reasons, but in particular because you are guesstimating what a team will be like considering what they have lost, the target on their back, their schedule, coaching changes, etc. And I don’t look forward to the first ballot in the season because I am either looking at my preseason poll and wondering what in the world I was thinking or I am trying to dissect every loss and win and trying to understand what that means for a team that has played between one and five games. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the fact I have data to work with for the first ballot in terms of wins, losses, stats, etc., but it always results in being torn on how to move a team accordingly.
The first ballot after the 2013-14 season tipped off is just as brutal thanks in part to the fact nearly everyone lost at least one game. There aren’t that many undefeated teams to move around, so you are stuck deciding what to do with teams that lost. In fact, some teams moved UP on my ballot even though they lost. Some teams moved down more than others who lost more games. The one thing I can tell you is that despite ten days of volatile action on the hard court, I am not nearly as volatile as clearly some voters were this week. I had the thinking that the more crazy things got as results came in, the more even keeled I had to be when assessing the teams.
I am done with my ballot and will once again provide insight into what I was thinking when it comes to my ballot each week. This is just to give you an idea of how one of the 25 voters is seeing the game and the teams across the country. This is by no means a be-all or end-all to who is the best and not. And especially at this time of the season, I may agree with many points of view because I have probably had those exact same thoughts while spending the hours putting my poll together.
First, let’s start with what my preseason poll looked like:
1 – Amherst
2 – Illinois Wesleyan
3 – UW-Stevens Point
4 – Williams
5 – Wheaton (Ill.)
6 – St. Mary’s (Md.)
7 – WPI
8 – Middlebury
9 – Cabrini
10 – North Central
11 – Randolph-Macon
12 – St. Thomas
13 – UW-Whitewater
14 – Calvin
15 – Mary Hardin-Baylor
16 – Wooster
17 – Whitworth
18 – Catholic
19 – Wittenberg
20 – Hampden-Sydney
21 – Alvernia
22 – Hobart
23 – Wash U.
24 – Augustana
25 – Trinity (Texas)
Now that you have that information… on to this week’s ballot and my thinking on each team:
1 – Amherst – Unchanged
The Lord Jeffs didn’t lose a game, though they didn’t exactly play the most challenging three games to start the season. Certainly, there are valid reasons to start a bit slower out of the game and they did win when others were losing similar games, so there is no reason to move the defending national champions out of the #1 slot.
– UP 1
Not much else you can do here with the Pointers. They won their first three games of the season including to an 0-2 Hope squad, so they move up one spot to #2.
3 – Illinois Wesleyan – DOWN 1
The Titans surprisingly lost a game to start the season, but they also lost to current Top 25 nemecis Loras who also has another Top 25 victim this week. Considering who else lost this week and the opponent IWU lost to I can’t knock them that much, so they are down just one spot to #3.
4 – Williams – Unchanged
Similiar story with Williams as with Illinois Wesleyan. The — lost their first game of the season to Southern Vermont, but it wasn’t like there weren’t some extenuating circumstance: Williams had to move their tournament to MCLA six miles down the road because the women’s volleyball team was hosting an eight-team regional pod. Also, the NESCAC sometimes has these blemishes starting their practices on November 1. Considering all of the factors and the constant fact many teams won… I kept Williams at #4.
5 – Cabrini – UP 4
The Cavaliers couldn’t have had a better start to the season. For a team that has Aaron Walton-Moss (one of the best players in the country) on its roster for the entire season to compliment Fran Rafferty and others, the Cavaliers were already looking like a very good team. However, they beat St. Mary’s (Md.) and Salisbury at the Hoopsville Classic this weekend and did so in battles that showed they are ready to play NCAA tournament quality basketball early on. I can’t help to think Cabrini will be making another trip to Salem this year.
6 – St. Mary’s (Md.) – Unchanged
I am not going to punish the Seahawks for losing to Cabrini – who I had just three spots behind them in the preseason poll unlike the overall poll which had a spread of nine spots. St. Mary’s looked pretty good in both games they played against Top 25 opponents at the Hoopsville Classic which both games were back and forth battles that could go either way depending on how much more time is on the clock. St. Mary’s has more weapons than I think people realize and they are quick. I can’t imagine they can’t make a run for a final four in Salem, either.
7 – UW-Whitewater – UP 6
The Warhawks at least got out of the gate unscathed, which is more than you can say with a lot of the Top 25. They beat up on a Carroll squad and also got the best of a Hope team that faced two Top 25 teams in the opening week. Nothing else jumps out at me, but they do move up thanks to getting the job done when others couldn’t.
8 – Calvin – UP 6
The Knights are up the same number of spots for much the same reason UW-Whitewater is… and thanks to the fact a number of teams in this part of the Top 25 took the biggest losses. Calvin certainly didn’t play anyone as challenging as the Warhawks did, but they are a good team that got the job done.
9 – Wooster – UP 7
Wooster always has a good team and always has high expectations… will they live up to them this year? Who knows at the end of November, but they beat two good teams in the first three games including Wheaton and with all of the other teams not getting the job done… the Scots move up quickly.
10 – Wheaton (Ill.) – DOWN 5
Not a good week for the CCIW to start things and Wheaton wasn’t even the worst offender. Wheaton did lose two games to the already mentioned Loras team and to Wooster. They also barely got past Wittenberg. However, those are really good teams (though, the jury is probably out on Loras) to start their season. I am not going to ding them nearly as hard as others for going after it and seeing where they stand. This start to the season could end up being a major plus come February or March.
11 – Mary Hardin-Baylor – UP 4
UMHB basically moves up because of what happened around them, not because of what they did. They played one team (Schreiner) and beat them easily. That doesn’t tell anyone anything about the national runners up from last year who lost some key parts of that Atlanta team. I need more proof before I feel better for moving the Crusaders this far up my poll.
12 – St. Thomas – Unchanged
The Tommies are a strong team as they have proven year in and year out. Last week they lost to Pomonoa-Pitzer as part of a west coast swing and normally I would ding them for that… but again, stop me if you have heard me say this, lots of teams are losing so I decided to just leave them in the 12-spot and see what happens in the weeks to come.
13 – Middlebury – DOWN 6
After watching the Panthers against Stevenson on Friday at the Hoopsville Classic, I was ready to drop them into the 20’s at best. However, they played completely different on Sunday against St. Mary’s and it had me rethinking things. Yes, they lost over 3,000 career points due to graduation, but they do have some key parts back. One of them is Joey Kizel, though he is pressing a lot in the early part of the season. I like the size they have inside, but they were out-rebounded by both Stevenson and St. Mary’s who are smaller in the paint. I love the play from Coach Jeff Brown’s nephew, but the younger Brown has to contain himself a little bit – but watch for him to be a difference maker in the future. I probably would have moved Middlebury down further, but someone has to ranked in the teens.
14 – Wash U. – UP 9
You can thank all of the losses for a big move up the poll for Wash U. I like this team and I always love Coach Mark Edwards. I do have questions about this team after last season and while I realize a lot of the team is back and they are always in the conversation, I just want to see what they do in the weeks ahead and entering UAA play before I reward them as much as other voters have already.
15 – WPI – DOWN 8
It is one thing to lose one game especially to Castleton State early in the season, but when you have lost arguably your biggest threat due to season-ending ankle surgery before the first game is even played… I take pause. I actually thought about moving WPI even lower in the poll because I don’t think they are the same player without Marco Coppola (16.0 ppg last season), however you see teams all of the time adjust accordingly and sometimes play better when they are forced to go another direction. WPI did in fact win three games this week in the middle of that adjustment, so I will wait to see if they are going to be as dangerous as last year seemed to indicate.
16 – Hobart – UP 6
I love having another Mike Neer team to consider in the national poll, though I admit I am not sure if they are the #16 team in the country. They did beat Rochester and Ithaca to start the season which I consider a pretty good start, but Rochester and Ithaca may not compare to last year’s squads. I am keeping my eye on Hobart and while I don’t think they are Top 15, they deserve to be Top 25.
17 – Hampden-Sydney – UP 3
I have been down this road with Hampden-Sydney before… look good early, I raise them higher in my poll, they disappoint. I am very leary this season of the Tigers who at least got off to a good start. However, they have Wesley looking on Tuesday and before Springfield and another foe on the road in New England this weekend. The Tigers are certainly a top team in the always tough ODAC, but putting them higher in my poll always comes with a tilt of my head.
18 – Whitworth – DOWN 1
Could I just be struck on always assuming Whitworth is going to be good? I know Coach Logie does a great job, but I am starting to get this feeling like I am overrating the Pirates. The loss to Colorado College (who some think may win the SCAC this season) isn’t bad, but it was at home. Whitworth had beaten Trinity (TX) handly a few nights earlier, so this loss makes me wonder what I was thinking in the preseason. That being said, I only moved them down one because Colorado is so highly talked about in the SCAC and … I may be assuming too much.
19 – Wittenberg – Unchanged
The talk surrounding Bill Brown’s team is pretty unbelievable. Wittenberg is always in the conversation, but there are coaches in the conference, in the region and around the country and others who seem eager to watch Wittenberg this season. The early season loss to Wheaton isn’t horrible, but since Loras beat Wheaton I was expecting Wittenberg to do the same. So, I left them where I had them in the poll and wait to see how they do after this… especially since Wooster is also looking really good in the NCAC this season. (By the way, congrats to Coach Brown for his 500th win.)
20 – Alvernia – UP 1
The Crusaders lose to Middlebury… and they move UP 1 spot. Yep… they did in my poll. They took Middlebury to the wire and then beat a hungry, though seemingly desperate, F&M squad to start the season. I like the Crusaders who I think have been underrated for awhile (beating St. Mary’s in the tournament last year could have helped that). They do have Stevenson on the road to open the season (Stevenson of course beat Middlebury), so this isn’t going to be an easy start for Alvernia. However, I think the MAC Commonwealth will still have to go through the Crusaders team and I think they play at a Top 25 level.
21 – New Jersey City – Unranked
The talk surrounding this team is pretty incredible. There are many saying this could be the team to beat in the NJAC, but I was going to wait a few weeks and see what they did. What they did was start the season on a roll which drew up even more talk including from one I trust who says this team is better than even he expected. So welcome to the Top 25, at least on my poll, New Jersey City. Here’s hoping you guys continue to put on a show.
22 – Randolph-Macon – DOWN 11
Last year the Yellow Jackets were the best 0-3 team in the country and proved that true when they rallied to make the NCAA Tournament and were the story of the post season after knocking off WPI before travel and really good Amherst team were too much to deal with. I think Randolph-Macon is a darn good basketball team, but they started 1-2 and nearly dropped out of my poll. And while some may hate “history” playing a roll in Top 25 voters minds, I can’t ignore the fact the Yellow Jackets are very well coached team who proved they will play some of the best teams in the country, take their lumps, and still come out looking good in the end.
23 – Augustana – UP 1
There is plenty of talk in the CCIW about this year’s Viking’s team and I am willing to listen to be sure. They did lose a game in the first week – but it seems the question would be who hasn’t – and it was to a pretty good Platteville squad. So I moved them UP one spot, because they are a Top 25 team I think and there was room at the bottom for other teams I am questioning.
24 – Catholic – DOWN 6
What do I make of this Cardinals team this year? They lost their best player in Kearney which leaves the middle exposed, but they have so many other good players on this squad that stepped up last year often. The loss to Eastern Connecticut is a head-scratcher and there are plenty of people telling me this is not a good CUA team. However, they only lost one game and I know the talent on this squad is good. I am willing to keep watching the Cardinals, but I think they have a lot to prove to other voters.
25 – North Central – DOWN 15
I debated it throughout my process on voting and I am questioning my decision after submitting my ballot. I don’t know if North Central is really a Top 25 team. They lost a lot from last year’s squad and they lost two games to start the season (while beating two teams that any Top 150 team should beat). I love the play of Landon Gamble who I think will carry this team, but maybe I am giving that too much credence. Should North Central be in the Top 25? I really don’t know. So, I put them 25th and the trigger on pulling them from my ballot is hair-thin.