(Please forgive the lack of links and items like bolded words and such, like normal. Having trouble with formatting this week.)
Well then. Three weeks of results should make it far easier to determine who are the best 25 teams in the country. Right? HA! Wrong.
Don’t get me wrong. I really didn’t have high expectations going into this week’s voting. I knew it was going to be tough. Last week, I had read somewhere there was 90+ schools in Division III men’s basketball with 2 or fewer losses, I think. So in preparation to vote and for this blog, I double-checked that number on the NCAA stats website: it’s actually 64 teams (through games played 1/3/16) – women have 78 teams, in case you were curious. At least the number wasn’t 90+, but 64 teams with two or fewer losses is still a lot of programs.
No. Before you think I am going to consider every one of those 2-loss teams for my ballot, that isn’t possible.
Yes. I also didn’t preclude teams who have lost more than two games. Heck, there were several sitting on my previous ballot.
But just in the simplest of thinking: there are more than 70 teams out of 415 (technically) that one could at least bring up based on their record and say, “why not so-and-so” when talking about the Top 25. A ballot that only represents the top six-percent of the division… and more than 17-percent of the division could make some kind of argument to be included. In early January.
The result? I nearly blew the entire ballot up. If I actually had more time in my day on Monday (I had a basketball game to attend for a client), I would have done it. Instead, I did the next best thing: a major shake-up.
For those who know me and these blogs over the last few years, you know I am good for at least one “blow-up” vote a season. Usually two. While I resorted to a major shake-up this time around, I am already looking to probably having to blow it up in the next week or two and start nearly from scratch.
I won’t bore you with why and how I blow up a ballot in this blog, but the major shake-up took shape when I got into the section between 5-10 as I voted. I had a team moving down into the group, I had teams at the bottom of the ballot who really needed to move up and probably deserved more than a handful of spots. I also have had a large drop off in my feelings of who really is the best seventh, eighth, ninth, etc. best team in the country the entire season. As a result, I decided to get bold with a few teams and make some major moves northward. I also decided to just punt on a team I had ranked number ten previously. And I got aggressive both up and down with other squads. The moving around forced me to look outside of not only my Top 25 but who had been on my short-list but off the ballot in the previous weeks and search for other candidates.
Between the information we get from D3hoops.com, the information I had already had on the side to keep track of, and the information I went searching for on Sunday night and Monday… I probably had nearly 70 teams I considered in some manner this week. Some were easily dismissed. Others didn’t make it and are gnawing at me. Some made the ballot, despite reservations I have even sitting here now.
But I wasn’t alone. I spoke to several voters this week (most of whom reached out to me) and to say there is almost no consensus would be an understatement. Besides Augustana being the number one team in the country and maybe having the same feeling for who are the top four or five teams (not necessarily the same order), no one has even a remotely similar ballot. Everyone has valid arguments and opinions. No one feels absolutely sure they are right in their read on almost any of the teams.
There are many teams who are not living up to any expectations anyone had in the preseason or early part of the season. There are many other teams who are playing so far above preseason expectations it is hard to know if things are for real.
There is so much parity and so many good teams it is really hard to nail down who are the best 25 in the country right now.
Before we look at this week’s ballot, here is my ballot from mid-December. I wasn’t able to get my blog out due to football and other commitments that week, but you do need to know where I was coming from heading into this week.
1 – Augustana
2 – Whitworth
3 – Hope
4 – Amherst
5 – St. Thomas
6 – Ohio Wesleyan
7 – Elmhurst
8 – Marietta
9 – Christopher Newport
10 – Mount Union
11 – Babson
12 – Benedictine
13 – Chicago
14 – John Carroll
15 – Brooklyn
16 – Stockton
17 – Oswego State
18 – Salisbury
19 – Virginia Wesleyan
20 – Texas Lutheran
21 – East Texas Baptist
22 – Susquehanna
23 – Northwestern( Minn.)
24 – St. Norbert
25 – Wooster
That was Week 3, December 13th’s ballot.
Just to give you a head’s up, I did take a peak at early SOS numbers as best calculated my our friend —. I realize these numbers are very raw due to the fact a lot of teams haven’t played half their schedule and conference action hasn’t had an influence (good or bad), but they gave me an idea of what teams had in their out-of-conference scheduling (despite some conference games mixed in, but I can read between the lines with that). You can find the info here: . I did use it to break up some teams in a group, but usually the SOS number was dramatically different.
Here is this week’s ballot:
1 – Augustana^
I realize the Augies have had a few close games, but you have to expect that for a team who has a major target on their back for many reasons. They are getting into CCIW play where certainly every team and every coach knows each squad extremely well… and NO team has gone undefeated since 1973! Will Augustana go unfazed through conference action – NO! I expect Augustana to take a loss or two before we get to the NCAA tournament, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t think they are the best team in the country.
2 – Whitworth* (Unchanged)
I got the chance to see the Pirates in action at the D3hoops.com Classic (called both of their games, actually) – I liked what I saw. I realize Whitworth hasn’t played the most difficult out of conference (their SOS is/was below .500), but they have talent and depth at nearly every single position on the court. It starts with Kenny Love who isn’t even the team’s leading scorer (see Christian Jurlina AND George Valle), but he is the one that makes this team go and draws the most attention. But it goes beyond Love, Jurlina, and Valley… add in Staudacher, Sears, Roach, Baker, Bishop… the list just gets longer of the guys they can bring in – even freshman – who make an impact. This might be one of the best teams Whitworth has had and it is unheralded right now because it is so hard to judge them in the Pacific Northwest. Their game against Calvin was tight as expected (at least I didn’t think it was going to be an easy game and I have a few coaches who will testify me telling them that in Vegas) and their game against UMHB took them out of their comfort zone. I wasn’t surprised in the least. I am comfortable with the Pirates at number two.
3 – Hope (Unchanged)
Not sure what to add here. They got it done with four wins over the holiday break. They are the team to beat not only in the MIAA, but probably the Great Lakes Region – though that region is stacked at the top this year.
4 – St. Thomas* (Up 1)
Not much to add to what I have been talking about over the last few blogs. The Tommies didn’t have a very busy holiday break with just two games. They do now get into the conference tilt which isn’t as challenging schedule wise as in the past, but will still be daunting with Bethel, St. John’s, St. Olaf, Carleton, and Augsburg all with good first-half(ish) records and significant wins. The MIAC may be emerging as one of the top five in the country; it certainly is underrated in terms of talent and success.
5 – Ohio Wesleyan (Up 1)
Another team who simply got the job done despite only playing two games. The Battling Bishops have a lot of talent, but now things get interesting as they re-enter conference play and Hiram enters the mix having beaten OWU already this season. Ohio Wesleyan needs to dominate a conference that can dominate for me to feel really comfortable with them at number five.
6 – Elmhurst (Up 1)
I might have the Blue Jays a little high or at least not behind the only team they have lost to (more on that in a minute), but that one loss is starting to look better and better as time goes on. I already had high expectations for Elmhurst and they are living up to them with this start to the season. They are beating all kinds of different teams in different ways showing they can score a lot of points (125 vs. Buena Vista) or shut down teams (50 points for Albion). The top of the CCIW this season with Elmhurst and Augustana is damn good.
7 – Amherst^ (Down 3)
I would have dropped the Lord Jeffs further, but there was only so far for them to fall. A bit brutal a treatment for taking their first loss of the season, but it wasn’t a good loss. Losing to Rhoades on the road isn’t what people expect from Amherst. It reminds me of last year’s holiday road trip that saw the Lord Jeffs blow a 15 points lead to Goucher (winning in OT after a buzzer beater forced the extra five minutes) and other stumbles during that trip. Plenty has been made of Dave Hixon’s scheduling on the D3boards which starts out slow with easier opponents and builds up, but the Lord Jeffs seem to be struggling at the holiday break before conference play often. I’m nervous thinking we assume Hixon has this under control when in reality we are just blinded by the words “Lord Jeff” and the purple colors. Eastern Connecticut, Williams, and Wesleyan in the next three (all at home, mind you) will tell us plenty. (By the way, I used the Lord Jeffs name as much as I could because it could be going away.)
8 – Susquehanna^ (Up 14)
Hello Crusaders! Susquehanna cracked into my Top 25 at #22 last ballot, but I didn’t get a chance to say anything about them. Maybe that was good as the holiday break has changed my mind. The Crusaders have probably the toughest out-of-conference schedule in years (at least, that’s what Frank Marcinek said on Hoopsville Sunday) and they are unbeaten. Those wins include hot-starting Lycoming, then-22nd-ranked Catholic, then-15th-ranked Trinity (Conn., 79-74), and Johns Hopkins in a mixure of home, away, and neutral games. They then reentered conference play with a dominating win over Moravian. Susquehanna came on late last season and the coaches in the conference picked them to be second (behind Catholic). It looks like the rest of us are just catching on that Susquehanna is maybe for real. (Here is another school I tried using their mascot name as much as possible because it is actually going away.)
9 – Benedictine (Up 3)
I didn’t think I would be voting for the Eagles in my top ten this season. My mentality was similar to my approaches to teams like Albertus Magnus in years past. I just thought there was a ceiling I couldn’t put them through. I also expected Benedictine to lost at least once in their non-conference, CCIW-only set of five games even if they had beaten Elmhurst to garner national attention in the first place. They haven’t. That has warranted at least one voter I know to put Benedictine number two on his ballot. I’m not buying that high (and my vote probably offsets enough to place them number six overall). My only concern and reason for pulling in the reigns more than others is the fact that when you truly look at their non-conference schedule… they are beating CCIW teams who would consider themselves “average” by their own standards: Illinois Wesleyan (6-6), Wheaton (4-8), North Central (8-4), Carthage (7-5). Yes, the North Central win is starting to look better after the Cardinals started 2-3 on the season. And yes, Benedictine did blow the socks off last year’s NACC champs, Aurora, a few weeks ago. All that adds up to a significant win (Elmhurst) and two solid wins (North Central and Aurora) and pushes the Eagles through the ceiling I had self-imposed. But can Benedictine, a team coaches expected to battle but finish second in the league, go undefeated? That seems like a tall order, so how they deal with a loss or two in conference will be the real story of the season.
10 – John Carroll (Up 7)
Ok, I have now bought in with the Blue Streaks. You might remember in previous ballots I stated I was “leery how high I put the Blue Streak” because of what we hadn’t seen in awhile from John Carroll – early season success. So higher they streak on my ballot, buoyed by the fact they went 3-0 during the holidays including a solid win over conference-foe Marietta and a pretty solid Brockport State squad while in Florida. But now comes a dogged conference schedule and what should be a three-horse race at the top. The OAC should be fun to watch this season.
11 – Christopher Newport (Down 2)
A loss to Scranton, even if it is on your home floor, isn’t the worst thing in the world. I am not punishing the Captains for the loss by dropping them two spots as much as I was opening a spot to get the undefeated teams who were behind them ahead of them now that CNU is no longer undefeated themselves. You will notice later my opinion on Scranton and thus why the loss isn’t horrible for Christopher Newport. However, they have to be careful in the Capital Athletic Conference ahead for them are teams itching to pull off another upset (and the team they beat): PSU-Harrisburg (#21 Salisbury), Wesley (#2 VWC), Mary Washington (#18 VWC), York (Stevenson), and St. Mary’s (Salisbury) in the next five games.
12 – Marietta (Down 4)
A second loss, needing room for undefeated teams behind them in the previous poll, and one of the losses being to John Carroll is why the Pioneers fell four spots on my poll. Normally a loss to a team I had previously ranked behind them and now rank ahead of them wouldn’t have resulted in four spots, but it did this time. Marietta is still a very dangerous team and after watching St. Vincent in person at the D3hoops.com Classic last week, I can better appreciate why Marietta lost that game. But like John Carroll, they re-enter OAC play with a large target (being regular season champs last season) and have some interesting challenges ahead in Ohio Northern, Capital, and Otterbein before seeing Mount Union for the first time this season.
13 – Chicago^ (Unchanged)
I think the Maroons are starting to click as a team, though I am sure others would disagree. Chicago has been a little streaky this season, but the two losses in the first three games of the season are well behind them and they are starting to take control of games including a 74-57 win over Illinois Wesleyan. We finally get to see the UAA start conference play and that always starts with Wash U for Chicago. This time it’s in St. Louis before then traveling to Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve. Nothing is easy in the UAA, but Chicago has a chance to take control of the conference early if they stay focused.
14 –Mount Union (Down 4)
Just saying that I have three OAC teams in my Top 15 is a little surreal, but I like the Purple Raiders this season and not selling easily. Each of their losses look good in some capacity: William Paterson (despite internal problems seem to be recovering), North Central (as mentioned before are now off and running), and Colby (who is off to a quiet 9-1 start). And while good losses are fine and dandy, you need to get some good wins as well and the Mount has those in Chicago, Capital, and Ohio Northern. Their re-entry to OAC action is a little easier than the other three: Heidelberg, Wilmington, and Muskingum. But, after that they have John Carroll and Marietta back-to-back in mid-January – a perfect “mid-season” litmus test for the Purple Raiders.
15 – Brooklyn (Unchanged)
Not much to say here for the Bulldogs. They only played one game over the holidays and beat a very good in-conference opponent in Staten Island. I look forward to seeing them work through the rest of the conference schedule before I make a reevaluation of Brooklyn.
16 – Stockton^ (Unchanged)
Depending on who you ask, Stockton is either really good or overrated. I can get different opinions from just about everyone I talk to or ask. I don’t know if Stockton is as good as advertised or not. I know I lose favor in them last year at this point after seeing them in person. I will luckily get a chance to see how things are going since they play league-leading New Jersey City and vastly-improved over the break Ramapo in their next two games.
17 – Oswego State (Unchanged)
In a strange scheduling occurrence… the Lakers didn’t play a single game in the three weeks between Top 25 votes. So, not much I can add now. They are in a very difficult SUNYAC from what the start of the season indicates. I will be interested to see how Oswego recovers from the long lay-off and reenters conference action.
18 – WPI^ (Unranked)
I finally decided to buy in with the Engineers this week. Why now? Because they still haven’t lost. Ok, they lost once to Fitchburg State. Say what?! Well, to be honest there are a lot of teams who have lost a game that makes no sense. WPI has actually beaten some good teams this season and in a year where everyone is beating everyone, it seems, the Engineers only have one blemish. Can’t say I saw that coming. So… I’m on board now.
19 – Trine (Unranked)
The MIAA might have the most interesting race in the country this year. At the beginning of the season in my conversation with Hope head coach Greg Mitchell on Hoopsville, he talked about how Alma was a team to watch out for along with obviously Calvin. We also talked about Trine. We also talked about Trine. The Thunder are off to a 10-1 mark with that one blemish coming to Ohio Wesleyan. They have beaten some good teams along the way as well. Trine has made the MIAA a four-team race and that’s not too bad for that conference. Big game coming up against an underrated Calvin squad (by their standards), but no matter the outcome I am looking forward to watching this race.
20 – Texas Lutheran (Unchanged)
It was a mixed bag of a holiday time frame for the Bulldogs. They ended up going 3-2, but against some pretty good teams. Loss to IWU, beat Alma, lost to Texas-Tyler, and then beat East Texas Baptist (again) and Southwestern. I wasn’t sure what to do with Texas Lutheran until I remember some of the conversations I have had with coaches out of Texas and read comments of those who have seen TLU in action. I am willing to keep TLU where they are here at 20th and see what happens next. The Bulldogs have a big weekend looming with hot-starting Austin in the second game of two. Going to keep a close eye on that one.
21 – Northwestern (Minn.) (Up 2)
Not much to add here for right now. The Eagles won five straight during the holiday poll break after losing to a good Bethel squad. There wasn’t any world-beating teams on the list, but it showed they can shake off a tough loss. Their win over UW-Stout was something I can better appreciate after seeing the Blue Devils in action in Las Vegas (good, solid team; no where close to what their 0-16 WIAC record last season indicated). Then the Eagles lost to North Central on Saturday. Not what I was expecting and I probably gave them a little too much credit by moving them up two spots (more on that … shortly). However before that loss, Northwestern wrapped up a two-loss 2015 year. That’s pretty darn impressive.
22 – Bethel (Unranked)
The MIAC is just ridiculous these days. Bethel is certainly one of those reasons. The Royals are 8-1 with a pretty good out-of-conference schedule and an SOS that was higher than I expected. Their one loss: St. John’s. And that is what reveals the challenge of this poll especially this year and most particularly in this part of the poll. I could have easily put the 9-1 Johnnies in this spot instead of Bethel especially with their win over the Royals as an example. I also could have easily put Bethel ahead of Northwestern also thanks to the Royals win over the Eagles. But the Johnnies have a couple of non-Division III games that make it hard to appreciate those wins, they also have a loss to Carleton who beat St. John’s and St. Thomas in back-to-back games. So, I don’t think the Johnnies should be ranked ahead of Bethel and they were left out for now. But here is a conference (MIAC) that St. Thomas has won ten straight times, but we are talking about three teams who probably deserve to be in the Top 25. By the way, I am not sure why I left Bethel behind Northwestern – that one might have slipped past me.
23 – Scranton^ (Unranked)
There are some Royals fans in the Poconos who might have just spit-taked their coffee. I have been a bit critical of Scranton, and the Landmark Conference, for a few years now. It doesn’t help that I know the conference very, very well and thus I see the teams a lot and all season. I just haven’t been buying into Scranton in recent years as they yo-yoed in and out of my ballot. Too many times I find inconsistencies and it frustrates me for a program I think could be so much better. This year, Susquehanna and Catholic were predicted to be better. Susquehanna has been; Catholic has not (the defense seems to be getting worse). Out of that has come the Royals. For most of the season, Scranton hasn’t had any significant wins until they beat Christopher Newport. That gave me a good reason to dive into the team. I still don’t see anything that blows me away outside of the win over CNU. However, their SOS was better than expected, they do have some good wins, and they haven’t taken the losses I have gotten used to that don’t make any sense (though, they did lose to Hobart). I will see the Royals later this week… so let’s see if this ranking holds.
24 – St. Norbert (Unchanged)
The Green Knights have been dominating teams once again this season. They would have moved up the poll, but they lost to Alma right at before voting and that gave me pause. It isn’t that Alma isn’t a good team; they are. I was just surprised coming off of an easy win over Anderson the night before AND it was at home. Now let’s see how St. Norbert does re-entering conference action.
25 – Pacific Lutheran* (Unranked)
I didn’t know what to expect when I got to Las Vegas knowing I was going to see the Lutes. Actually, I am pretty sure I was going to be disappointed. I was going to see a team who clearly is overrated beating some easy non-Division III opponents. That’s not what I saw. Pacific Lutheran has a lot of size inside, good talent on the outside, and they don’t quit. This is a team that barely lost to Chicago earlier this season, handled a fired-up UMHB squad, and then held off a very tough squad in UW-Stout to prepare for (five-man substitution patterns that don’t hold at any point in a half). I was impressed. With two players scoring 18 points per game and a third in double-digits, there are plenty of dangerous weapons to help put the Northwest Conference on it’s head. Whitman is going to have a say eventually in this battle to play Whitworth for the title as well.
Babson^ (Previously 10)
I just can’t stay on board with a team that lost the only game it played in three weeks and has won just 60-percent of the games they have played. I know the Beavers lost a bit from last year’s final four, but they had a lot of good talent coming back and got other help especially in the transfer system. It resulted in a 5-0 start to the season, but since then the team has lost four of their last five. Yes, they are playing good… very good teams, but if you are deserving of being a Top 25 team you have do more than play those teams, you have to beat most of those teams. In reality, Babson is 1-4 in the tougher half of it’s schedule. That doesn’t deserve to be ranked even if they had been 10th previously.
Salisbury* (Previously 18)
After a terrific start at 5-0 including two big wins at the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic, the Sea Gulls are 3-3 in the last six. Ouch. Salisbury would have stayed in the Top 25 if they hadn’t lost to St. Mary’s. Yeah, the Seahawks. The squad that for years dominated the Mid-Atlantic Region and got to Salem in the Elite Eight in 2013 after years of knocking on the door. This seasons St. Mary’s team isn’t bad, but if Salisbury is a Top 25 squad they should beat SMC … especially when it’s on their own home court! Salisbury is going to be dangerous especially if they get into the tournament, but they need to shake off their funk and get back on track.
Virginia Wesleyan^ (Previously 19)
I never thought I would not have a single ODAC team ranked in my Top 25 in this day in age, but here we are. The Marlins are 7-4 after losing two in a row in the middle of Decemeber. It doesn’t seem like the usual reloading of talent as gone as smoothly for Dave Macedo’s squad this season. I can’t put my finger on it, but the Marlins just aren’t consistent this season. They may still make the NCAA tournament because they are at the top of a somewhat-down ODAC this season, but I think expectations of another good season because of the ability for them to have talent-in-waiting on the bench is probably unjustified this season.
East Texas Baptist (Previously 21)
The Tigers drop out because they have lost two in a row. According to my last ballot, losing to TLU was expected. Then they lost to Concordia (Texas) – guh. The Tigers are still a good squad, but with so many teams worthy of being in the Top 25 conversation, losing two in a row when ranked that low on the ballot just gives me an easy excuse to replace them. I am interested to see how ETBU recovers and heads into conference action.
Wooster (Previously 25)
This was probably one ballot too late, but I am now done with the Scots. This is clearly not their season, by their normal standards. That isn’t to say Wooster still isn’t very good. They just aren’t Top 25 good right now. The loss to Salisbury was just the excuse I needed to finally convince myself to pull the trigger. Wooster is still going to be very much involved in the very interesting NCAC race and may make the NCAA tournament, but I just don’t think they are one of the 25 best in the country like they usually are. Just an off year.
* – Teams I have seen in person this season
^ – Teams I have seen in person in the last year
Something of note: I think I have turned over half of my ballot in the last two or three polls and probably two-thirds of it so far this season. It is hard to really figure out who are the best in the country when so many schools can beat so many this season.
So, I guess I am looking for more wins. That would be nice for another reason – I won’t feel like I have to write as much in each blog.