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.
It's the first ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll of 2012. Does it feel different? Do you? No? OK, me neither. So let's jump right in:
The Southern Indiana showdown: Perhaps the most intriguing argument surrounding the polls today -- at least for folks ensconced in that Southern Indiana/Louisville/Lexington nexus where so much impactful basketball was played Saturday -- is which team, Louisville or Indiana, deserves to be ranked higher in the Week 9 polls.
And this is why the polls are the polls: At this point, of course Indiana deserves to be ranked higher. The Hoosiers are 13-1 with a win over Kentucky and a win over Ohio State; few teams outside of UNLV can boast one win of that quality, let alone two. Indiana's only loss came on the road at now-No. 11 Michigan State. Contrast that with Louisville, whose best win is probably a 62-60 overtime victory over a then-struggling Vanderbilt team. The Cardinals lost twice last week, and while the Kentucky loss was actually somewhat impressive -- the Cardinals hung tough on the road with a much more talented team -- the disappointing home performance to Georgetown early in the week raised appropriate questions about this team's true quality. If you're willing to use per-possession statistics as even a general sign of ability -- and why wouldn't you be? -- Indiana's numbers rank it among the best seven or eight teams in the nation. As of Monday, Louisville is ranked No. 17.
Yet, because the Cardinals were overranked at No. 4 overall -- thanks almost entirely to the slow attrition that naturally occurs when a team begins the season in the top 10 and doesn't lose until the last week of December -- the Cardinals stayed in the top 10 this week, at No. 10. The Hoosiers came in at No. 12. This is the way the polls work. The coaches, and even the AP voters, are almost always unwilling to reset their ballots entirely, even when the evidence would seem to nudge them rather obviously in that direction. Which is why it's good these polls don't matter one bit. Sometimes -- often, even -- they're just flat-out wrong.
Speaking of Ohio State: How far would the Buckeyes fall after Saturday's loss at Indiana? Not too far, it turns out. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 7 in this week's poll, and given the six teams above them (in order, Syracuse, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Baylor and Missouri), it's hard to find much issue with that. Of course, one could argue that there's no way Ohio State should be ranked lower than Duke (not after the 86-63 beatdown the Buckeyes administered in Columbus on Nov. 29), and yeah, you know, that's probably correct. Likewise, most discerning fans would disagree with the idea that Duke is the No. 3 team in the country. But the Blue Devils haven't lost since that ugly trip to Columbus, and you know the drill: If you win, you move up, whether or not you really deserve it. Oh well.
Good poll times in the upper Midwest: Michigan State's 12th and 13th straight wins moved the Spartans up to No. 11 in this week's poll, and it's hard to find any fault with that. This team is playing very good basketball, particularly on the offensive end (and specifically on the low block), and the guard play of Keith Appling has been an improvement in nearly every way from last season's apathetic, scattershot efforts. Michigan State is a legitimate Big Ten title contender this season, and its poll ranking is slowly but surely beginning to reflect that.
Interestingly enough, Michigan is hot on its chief rival's heels. The Wolverines are ranked No. 13 in this week's poll, and with all due respect to John Beilein's high-octane offense, that's too high. The Wolverines' best win of the season is probably that neutral-court Maui Invitational victory over Memphis. The Wolverines lost to the two quality opponents they've played since, Duke and Virginia (at Virginia). Since the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, all but one of Michigan's wins have come in Ann Arbor (the exception being a neutral-court victory over Oakland), and the best win was probably Sunday's five-point victory over Minnesota. The Wolverines are ranked No. 43 by Ken Pomeroy; their defense is ranked No. 83 in adjusted defensive efficiency. At this point, the Wolverines are blatantly overranked, more than any other team in the poll.
The good news? Michigan will have an opportunity to prove it's better than the sum of its results to date and thus worthy of top-15, Big Ten-contender-type consideration, on Thursday, when it travels to Bloomington to face a hot Hoosiers team in its home building. That's a tough task, but if Michigan leaves with a win, then we can start talking top 15. Until then, this is way too high. Fair?
Farewell, Pittsburgh: This is no surprise, of course, but it is worth a brief note. In their past three games, the Panthers have lost at home to Wagner, on the road (and convincingly so) to Notre Dame and at home to Cincinnati on Sunday. The 2012 Panthers do two decidedly uncharacteristic things: They don't defend, and they don't protect their home court. With no obvious fix in sight, there's a chance we won't see Jamie Dixon's typically consistent program in the Top 25 again all season, let alone sometime soon. This team just isn't very good. (Taking the Panthers' place and coming in at No. 25: San Diego State. Gonzaga certainly has an argument after its road win at Xavier, but I'm fine with the SDSU inclusion. You?)
Where Murray State's climb stops, nobody knows: The undefeated Murray State Racers just keep on winning, and no surprise there: With each passing win, this team's chances of making it through the regular season without a loss just keep creeping higher and higher. And so the Murray State Racers keep climbing in the poll, up to No. 18 from No. 21 this week thanks in large part to strange home losses by Wisconsin (to Iowa) and Marquette (to Vanderbilt). Thing is, the Racers are hardly done climbing. Chances are, they aren't going to lose for a while; per Pomeroy, Murray State is at least an 82 percent favorite (and is more often a 90 or 95 percent favorite) in every one of its remaining games. This will be fascinating to watch. Barring a shocker, Murray State is going to keep winning, other teams are going to keep losing, and so the Racers will keep moving up and up and up. But how high? Where's their ceiling? Will voters step back, realize the Racers aren't exactly dropping the nation's best competition (especially relative to their poll colleagues) and eventually cut them off? Or will they just keep going? And how high? Top 10? Top five? Impossible, right?
These are the trivial yet fascinating dynamics that rule our weekly college hoops polls. In the daunting passage of the new year, it's good to know some things will never change.