Dave’s Top 25 ballot: Week 8

BOOM! That sound you heard was my ballot pretty much getting blown up. I have been tempted for weeks, but after the results of the last seven days plus what I saw in person the time was now.

I should mention that blowing up my ballot doesn’t mean I make whole-sale changes or completely change my mind on things. Rather, I start from a new base and reexamine all teams I am voting for, those I am considering, and those who maybe aren’t on my radar. It takes a lot more time than I usually spend on my ballot (which is probably too much time to begin with) and has mixed results.

This one has mixed results.

I am just not satisfied I have a pulse on what is going on nationally. There are so many losses. There are no great teams. There are a lot of good teams I can’t figure out. I could have spent countless more hours debating teams but eventually went with my gut on a couple of them (whether on or off my ballot) and decided to see where the chips lie in a week.

It was another rough week for my ballot: 15 losses most of them at the bottom half. As a result, I made some bold moves. I reconsidered some teams and I decided to cut bait with others.

Many wonder how Top 25 voters think and I don’t think there is an easy answer mainly because when one argument works for one example it may not work for a dozen others. There is no set criteria – which is a good thing – which makes dissecting results difficult and thus why there are 25 different opinions tallied together for one overall poll.

Here’s what I can tell you about my thinking:

  • A game that happens in November can be as important as a game in February unless more current results are telling a different story (I will point those out when necessary).
  • A head-to-head result is going to trump a lot of items, unless it is about the only item that is going in favor of a team (again, I will point out when necessary).
  • I do look at SOS numbers (albeit somewhat inflated right now) to better understand a team’s schedule, but I won’t make a decision based on those numbers. I will instead look at the team’s schedule a bit more to understand why the SOS is high or low compared to others and make the decision based on that information.
  • At this point in the season, ignoring an undefeated record is getting harder and harder to do, so I made moves accordingly.
  • Winning streaks start to weigh more this time of the season. This is where items like games in November and head-to-head results may take a back seat.
  • Ugly or tough wins over teams that should be easy wins are judged on a case-by-case basis. What looks bad for one team I may dismiss with another based on other data. Again, what works for one example may not work for the rest.

I could go on and on with other examples, but this blog is going to be long enough anyway. Remember, I am just one voter with one opinion. This is one of the toughest years in a long time to be a Top 25 voter on the men’s side and I promise you that even in discussions with other voters everyone is reading the tea leaves differently.

As always before we begin, here is a look at last week’s ballot:

1 – St. Thomas
2 – Augustana
3 – UW-Whitewater
4 – Washington U.
5 – Randolph-Macon
6 – WPI
7 – Babson
8 – Wooster
9 – Marietta
10 – Virginia Wesleyan
11 – Dickinson
12 – Albertus Magnus
13 – Chicago
14 – Emory
15 – North Central (Ill.)
16 – St. Olaf
17 – St. Norbert
18 – Chapman
19 – Ohio Wesleyan
20 – UW-Stevens Point
21 – Franklin & Marshall
22 – Husson
23 – Illinois Wesleyan
24 – St. John Fisher
25 – Case Western Reserve

And now on to this week’s ballot with some explanations for some of the moves:

1 – St. Thomas (Unchanged)
Sometimes when I blow a ballot up I actually go a different direction with my number one vote – not this time. The Tommies have beaten Bethel, St. Olaf, and St. John’s in the last three games – their biggest rivals in the MIAC standings this season – and beat two of them on the road. Sure, games were close, but you have to expect that in a much more challenging MIAC this season and in a rivalry game (St. John’s). St. Thomas has lost once back in early December to Gustavus Adolphus who they have a rematch with on Wednesday. I like how St. Thomas is playing in a season where everyone is flawed.

2 – UW-Whitewater (Up 1)
I actually thought about going back to the Warhawks as my number one team, but that loss to Cardinal Stritch bugs me. I know that it was the very first game of the season and not against a Division III team, but something about that and other games makes me scratch my head. Granted, UWW has rolled through teams recently including UW-Stevens Point this week and that is encouraging. So I moved them up to #2 and will watch how the rest of the season progresses.

3 – Augustana (Down 1)
I expected to move the Vikings down more than one spot after losing to Illinois Wesleyan at home this week, but I didn’t know how far I could really move them down! They bounced back with a win they had to battle for against a resurgent Millikin squad on the road (remember, Millikin destroyed Wheaton a couple of games prior) and sometimes that is more important to note than the loss. It won’t get easier for the Vikings as they are on the road at Elmhurst and North Park (who handled North Central) this week before then seeing North Central and Carthage the next week – and yes, the IWU game is looming.

4 – Marietta (Up 5)
Here is the first big move of the ballot. I can’t ignore the fact the Pioneers are undefeated despite a low SOS (relatively speaking – it’s above .500 but with more conference games to play). Marietta beat Mount Union this week who is maybe their biggest test in the conference and have beaten some pretty good teams this season. As a team stays undefeated longer and longer, the target gets bigger and the pressure grows. So far, the Pioneers are still winning so why not move them up.

5 – Randolph-Macon* (Unchanged)
Here’s another example of a team that seems to be playing very well but has a blemish I can’t wrap my head around. The Yellow Jackets beat Virginia Wesleyan this week and have been taking care of everyone else… except when you remember they lost at home to Frostburg State (8-9) in what one person told me might have been the worst loss in Crenshaw Gymnasium history. I like how RMC is playing and with eight seniors; Nate Davis has a wealth of experience to work with. They just can’t peak too early like they did last year or things will unravel very easily in tough ODAC play.

6 – Chapman (Up 12)
To paraphrase a coach I respect quite a lot: Chapman is a really, really good team. He should know, he coaches a perennially good team and as seen Chapman in action. And Chapman, like Marietta, is undefeated – you just can’t ignore that point in late January. Yes, their SOS hurts them (below .500), but they continue to get the job done with a large target on their back. There are a lot of things I like about this team when looking at them on paper, so I moved them up. Now to dedicate some late nights to watching more of their games especially the next five!

7 – WPI* (Down 1)
The Engineers moved down a slot just to make room for Marietta and Chapman. I still like what WPI brings to the floor and they have recovered nicely from their loss to MIT. Next up: Springfield and Emerson on the road before Babson and MIT at home (not sure where Coast Guard will be slotted in, right now) – good test of games for WPI.

8 – Babson (Down 1)
As with WPI, I needed to make room for other teams, so Babson moved down. I clearly think higher of the Beavers than many other voters, but they beat a much improved MIT squad handily this week which makes me more comfortable with where I have them slotted.

9 – Wooster (Down 1)
Again… making room above the Scots. However, I will say I think this is the ceiling for me with Wooster. The Scots aren’t exactly world beaters this season and have had to really fight for some victories after blowing other teams out. I am not sure Wooster is better than a number nine team and really would feel more comfortable with them in the 10-15 range. However, there are a lot of teams in this year’s ballot probably higher than they would in a “normal” year. Big games this week with Ohio Wesleyan and Wabash on the road.

10 – Dickinson (Up 1)
I initially thought I might move the Red Devils further up after they dismantled Franklin & Marshall*, but thinking more about it the win was more a testament of where F&M is in reality than Dickinson. As with Wooster, I think Dickinson is at their ceiling. I like their team and they are clearly playing well this season, but I don’t think they are better than number ten in the country. Tough games with Muhlenberg*, Gettysburg, McDaniel*, and a rematch with F&M, all on the road, remain on the schedule and I don’t think Dickinson comes out of those 4-0. Plus, they have to play a very good Johns Hopkins team, albeit at home.

11 – St. Norbert (Up 6)
Several factors had me move the Green Knights up: they do only have one loss; a lot of other teams don’t seem better than St. Norbert right now; there is a lot of grey area in the middle of the poll this year. I just think you can’t ignore if a team continues to win – I just have to be careful because the Midwest Conference doesn’t seem to have a lot of teams that can compete with St. Norbert and that might result in some smoke and mirrors.

12 – Albertus Magnus (Unchanged)
As I have said in the past and will say again: this is the ceiling for the Falcons on my ballot. They can continue to win the rest of the season prior to the NCAA tournament and I am not going to move them up any higher. Their SOS is below .500 which indicates how weak their conference is (though, Johnson and Wales is playing pretty well) and their out-of-conference schedule featured one tough opponent (Richard Stockton: which was a loss). While I will move other teams up with similar or worse records, Albertus Magnus falls short in a lot of categories in comparison and thus will remain at twelve.

13 – Emory (Up 1)
Nice win over Case Western (probably expected) and didn’t have a let-down against Carnegie Mellon. It’s nice to be home again! I like how Emory is playing and they have learned to deal with bad outcomes and move on (i.e. the trip to the Midwest last week). I think the UAA is real challenge this year for teams on the road and honestly that could cost an extra bid to the NCAA tournament. Emory has Brandeis and NYU at home this coming weekend before heading to Boston and New York the following weekend. Emory can take over the conference if they do well the next four games.

14 – Virginia Wesleyan (Down 4)
The loss to Randolph-Macon isn’t the main reason the Marlins fell four spots. I was also moving other teams around and Virginia Wesleyan ended up in this spot as a result. I am not surprised they lost to the Yellow Jackets, in fact I suspected they would since the game was on the road and I feel RMC is the better team. The Marlins are clearly good since they dismantled Lynchburg, but they don’t face a real tough game until pretty much the end of the season with Hampden-Sydney and Guilford in their last two games.

15 – New York U.* (Unranked)
This is my biggest and boldest move of the ballot. I got the chance to go see the Wash U vs. NYU double-header in New York City on Friday night and I am so glad I did (for many reasons). New York is far better than I had been giving them credit for and it comes down to one reason: Hakeem Harris. The transfer from Seton Hall completely changes the look and feel of this team. Now the Violets have an outside presence who can not only shoot well, but drive and score or dish as well. You also can’t ignore the presence of Costis Gontikas (I knick-named him NYU’s Gronk) inside and other weapons that make the Violets tough to match-up against. New York shot better than 53% against a pretty good Wash U defense and after jumping out to an 11-0 lead never let the Bears back in the game. Then they turned around and did NOT have a letdown against Chicago, beating the Maroons on Sunday. NYU is going to be a very dangerous team the rest of the season. Clearly this team would like to make the last season in Coles Sports Center a memorable one.

16 – St. John Fisher (Up 8)
Another bold move, but when you look at how the Cardinals are handling teams you have to take notice. St. John Fisher beat Ithaca by 26 on Saturday – just another example of how this team has been dominating others. I have already had one coach explain that he thinks the Cardinals are completely underrated – though not that hard in an average at best East Region. Either way, St. John Fisher is clearly head and shoulders better than those around them.

17 – Whitworth (Unranked)
The start to the season for the Pirates was anything but good and I completely jumped off the ship. They didn’t look good in their loss to Rutgers-Newark and St. Thomas smoked them. However, since then they have rattled off 14 straight wins and may be walking away from what I thought was going to be a competitive Northwest Conference race.

18 – Washington U.* (Down 15)
Yeah, this is a pretty steep drop for only losing one game on the road in the UAA, but the fact the Bears have been dismantled in their two losses in conference action has me concerned. Furthermore, they clearly aren’t seasoned enough to deal with adversity during games – as testament to the fact they didn’t how to rally around the game plan to fight back against NYU culminating in Matt Palucki earning two technical fouls and an official ejection from the bench from three different refs in less than a minute of real time. Many have said Wash U. wasn’t going to be as good as in years passed just based on the youth on the team, but their start to the season certainly helped hide the flaws. Now conference action is showing the challenges.

19 – Elmhurst (Unranked)
The Blue Jays refuse to back down. They lose two of three in close fashion and then respond with three straight including on the road at North Park and at home to Illinois Wesleyan who as coming off a season-defining victory. Elmhurst is having a breakthrough season that has everyone talking and can cement themselves pretty nicely near the top of the CCIW standings with their game at home against Augustana coming up this week.

20 – William Paterson (Unranked)
I could be buying into the Pioneers a little bit too much. The NJAC hasn’t impressed me this season (despite what coaches in the conference say to the contrary) and the struggles of Richard Stockton* lately may make it harder for me to buy in. However, one fellow voter told me William Paterson scares him with how good they are and so I listened. The Pioneers have won 11 straight and a lot in convincing fashion. Their last loss was to a much better Richard Stockton team back in early December. We can get a gauge of the difference in the teams late this week in a rematch on William Paterson’s floor.

21 – Chicago* (Down 8)
I seriously considered dropping the Maroons altogether from my ballot. They lost two straight this weekend blowing a lead to Brandeis in the process. This after they held home-court the previous weekend and stood atop the UAA standings. The reason I didn’t drop them: the fact one of their losses was a close one to NYU who I catapulted onto my ballot. Maybe I am buying too much into the UAA who legitimately has five good teams on top of the conference and I need to leave more room on my ballot for other teams. Or this conference is better than even in years past and while there is no dominating team to point to they are all really good. The problem with that: it could cost them tournament bids.

22 – Johns Hopkins* (Unranked)
There is nothing flashy about the Blue Jays. They have a blue-color worker feel to the team (ironic considering those who graduate from Hopkins tend not to be blue-color) and they are somewhat cold in their execution. They had to travel to Washington and Muhlenberg* this last week and got the job done after the spotlight became far brighter by being ranked for the first time in nearly seven years. JHU has now won 12 straight and are not doing it with any pop – they are just getting the job done with at least two players who could be All-Americans.

23 – Illinois Wesleyan (Unchanged)
I really didn’t know what to do with the Titans this time around. Their win, on the road, against Augustana was impressive. The problem was they didn’t follow it up against Elmhurst. If you beat the then-number one team in the country you need to follow that performance up the next game. The Titans didn’t. I thought about dropping them from my poll, but the simple fact they beat Augustana made me hesitate. Illinois Wesleyan might be the best example of the challenges in the Top 25 this year: really good teams are flawed and no one is great.

24 – Franklin & Marshall (Down 2)
After the dismantling by Dickinson to make it two straight losses, I thought about dropping the Diplomats. They recovered and won against Haverford, but they should have won that game no matter the circumstances. F&M is a good team which clearly has the parts for the future. My concern has been that one loss could derail the season. Losing to Dickinson seemed to prove that concern as it was the second straight loss for the Diplomats. However, I expected F&M to lose that game and they did stop the bleeding against Haverford. I’ll keep them in the Top 25 for now.

25 – Case Western Reserve (Unchanged)
You lose to a team ranked ahead of you… it shouldn’t mean you get punished. Yes, other teams have fallen as a result of losses to teams ahead of them, but I didn’t find a reason to knock Case Western out especially since they are now on top of the UAA by a game after this weekend’s results. Again, I might be buying too much into the UAA – I get that. CWR did lose in Atlanta and then win in Pittsburg. Let’s see what the Spartans have in their tank as they travel to Chicago and Wash U who clearly want to send a message following this past weekend.

Dropped out:

North Central (Ill.) (Previously 15)
Have the Cardinals wings been clipped? They have lost three of four in what was going to be a tough stretch even on paper. However, Top 25 teams don’t come out of that run looking beat up. Top 25 teams don’t finish that run by laying an egg to the last place team in the conference (it doesn’t matter the conference). NCC better figure it out quick. Very-confident Millikin is up next before Wheaton both at home… then Augustana and Illinois Wesleyan.

St. Olaf (Previously 16)
I wasn’t going to drop the Oles from my ballot for losing to St. Thomas and even for their loss to Bethel, but if I was going to keep them in I was going to have to find a slot for Bethel and I didn’t have one. As a result, St. Olaf is out. I think the Oles are a good team as their losses were close, but there are a lot of good teams this year and there are still only 25 slots. We shall see how St. Olaf responds in the next few games.

Ohio Wesleyan (Previously 19)
Inconsistency was the key to this decision. I think Ohio Wesleyan also has a good team and if I hadn’t been blowing up the ballot in the first place they probably would have stayed in my Top 25 despite the loss to Denison. However, the Battling Bishops haven’t won more than two games in a row since losing to Trine in early December. It is hard to keep voting for a team who has lost game after every two-game win “streak.”

UW-Stevens Point (Previously 20)
Yes, they lost to UW-Whitewater and beat UW-Oshkosh, but they weren’t in the game in the second half (19 points in the half) against the Warhawks and had a miracle half-court buzzer-beater in double-overtime be the reason they finally beat the Titans. The Pointers are also without the services of Stephen Pelkofer who apparently is out with an injury and that could be why they seem off synch.

Husson (Previously 22)
The Eagles made a splash in Las Vegas before losing to Colby and I still thought high of them. I figured they could glide through their conference and be on a roll come NCAA tournament time. Nope. Husson lost to Lyndon State (5-11) 101-85 on Saturday pretty much ending my thoughts they are still a Top 25 team. Not sure what to think of the rest of the season, but it is going to take a nice run in the NCAA tournament before I reconsider Husson.

* – teams I have seen in person.

Previous ballots:
Week 5
Week 6
Week 7