College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make the arguments any less fun. In that spirit, I present the creatively named Poll Thoughts, which you can expect every Monday until the season is over.
In so far as the Monday afternoon reveal of the Associated Press Top 25 poll can be suspenseful, the past two weeks have done their best to deliver. Two weeks ago, UCLA was unceremoniously dropped from its No. 11 ranking after a home loss to Cal Poly. Last Monday, once-No. 9 Kentucky was sent packing after a home loss to Baylor. Both were among the highest-ranked teams of all time to drop entirely out of the AP Top 25.
The poll's determinative value at this stage of the season is minimal, but what it is occasionally good for is narrative. UCLA and Kentucky, two of the youngest and most talented and to date most tantalizing/frustrating teams in the country, did not have a good November. The polls told the story.
If there is a story to this week's otherwise staid ledger -- as the AP story dryly notes, the "only changes in Monday's poll is the order, not who's ranked" -- it is the ascendance of the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Illinois is not new to the polls. Last week they were ranked No. 13. The week before that, No. 21. That climb has been slow and steady because Illinois blitzed the Maui Invitational field, including a Butler team that beat Marquette and trounced North Carolina, and the Illini avoided would-be buzzkillers such as Gardner-Webb and Georgia Tech at home. (Even Western Carolina gave U of I a run last Tuesday.) But that climb did not, at least to me, confer legitimacy. It was obligatory, a tip of the cap to a surprisingly positive start. Illinois got hot in Maui and then won games at home, and then jumped in the polls when other teams lost. Were they really one of the best 15 teams in the country?
After Saturday's win at Gonzaga, it is hard to argue otherwise. The Illini may not be defending at an elite level, but they are scoring that way, primarily because they shoot a ton of 3s (their 3-pointers to field goals ratio is ninth-highest in the country) and, you know, make them (Illinois is 40.9 percent from 3, ranked No. 10 nationally). Funny enough, this was a reason for skepticism, and may continue to be an ongoing bugaboo. Pundits will say things like "when you live by the 3 ..." before ominously trailing off. And that may be right. But right now Illinois is living, it's impossible to argue otherwise, and the polls reflect as much. Good job, polls.
A couple of other quick thoughts:
I assumed Gonzaga might fall further than No. 14. It's down only four spots from where it was before a two-point win over Washington State and a home loss to Illinois. But when you think about it, you either think Illinois is good or Gonzaga is overrated; you can't move Illinois up to No. 10 and then (indirectly) punish the Zags for losing to the No. 10 team in the country. Plus, Gonzaga is good. This makes sense.
As mentioned above, there were no subtractions or additions to the Top 25, so it is hard to gin up much outrage over any of it. I would probably argue that North Carolina and North Carolina State still don't deserve to be ranked, but at least NC State has played (relatively) well at Michigan and beat that feisty UConn team last week. As for the Tar Heels, I've seen UNC crush overmatched mid-majors and get crushed by Butler and Indiana. I love Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo, but I'm still not convinced.
Were those two teams to fall out of the poll, their two replacements would clearly be Pittsburgh and Oregon. Both teams received 177 votes in the purgatorial "others receiving" category this week. Based on per-possession statistics, it is much easier to make the case for the Panthers, whose offensive and defensive efficiency numbers grade them out as a top-10 team to date. Oregon is less of a darling to date, but it is nice to see Dana Altman's team get this much of a look from national voters. The Ducks do have a win over UNLV (in Vegas, no less) and can be forgiven for a hard-fought loss to Cincinnati. Arsalan Kazemi has made an immediate impact. If only the rest of that nonconference schedule wasn't so totally abysmal, huh?