It’s only December: Early season rankings are far from absolute

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It’s only December: Early season rankings are far from absolute

Jamel Artis drives past a Purdue defender towards the hoop.  Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Jamel Artis drives past a Purdue defender towards the hoop. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Jamel Artis drives past a Purdue defender towards the hoop. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Jamel Artis drives past a Purdue defender towards the hoop. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

By Chris Puzia / Assistant Sports Editor

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When Pitt lost to Purdue — the No. 11 team in the country — they lost to a team that was seemingly one of the best in the nation. But the Boilermakers’ ranking doesn’t really say much, at least not yet.

The NCAA Tournament selection committee won’t care what Purdue was ranked on Dec. 1, come March. The Boilermakers could be the top team in the country by the end of the season, or they could hit a wall and self-destruct, making Pitt’s loss look even worse in retrospect.

This is because early-season basketball rankings are immensely arbitrary and based on preconceived notions about teams, about which some are unwilling to waver.

While the AP Top 25 rankings can certainly help gauge team performance relative to other schools, until teams like Pitt have played more than just one meaningful game — sorry, Kent State — it’s hard to justify setting national rankings in stone.

About a month into the college basketball season, 10 teams in the preseason top 25 have already fallen out of the rankings to be replaced by early-season afterthoughts, like Providence College or Xavier University. Even Pitt could have potentially propelled into the top 25 with a win over the Boilermakers.

Wichita State University, which began the season ranked No. 10, has lost four of its first six games — some to middling squads like University of Southern California and the University of Tulsa — and completely dropped from the polls.

While most writers had the Wichita State Shockers at least in their preseason top 15, ESPN writer Myron Medcalf said, “Right now, Wichita State looks like a squad that might need a conference tourney title to get into the Big Dance.”

Medcalf highlighted Wednesday’s Syracuse University-University of Wisconsin matchup as the perfect example that it is truly too early to evaluate teams. The Wisconsin Badgers began the season No. 17 and the Syracuse Orange were unranked, but the roles have already reversed, with Wisconsin now unranked and Syracuse jumping up to No. 14 nationally.

“[The matchup] highlights the hovering murkiness — the uncertainty, disappointments and surprises — within the game,” Medcalf said. “After three weeks, we’re already wondering. Questioning. Second-guessing.”

Some teams certainly do not fit this bill, of course. AP poll stalwarts University of Kentucky, Duke University and University of Kansas checked in within the top five in the preseason. And all still sit within the top seven in the polls, with Kentucky jumping to their familiar spot atop the rankings.

But for the more perplexing teams around the country — Xavier, from preseason unranked to now No. 12, or Indiana University, preseason No. 15 and now unranked — there are other, better ways to evaluate skill than just the number, or lack thereof, next to their name.

Ken Pomeroy, basketball statistician and creator of the website KenPom, uses his own advanced and tempo-adjusted metrics to provide alternative judgments, focusing more on offensive and defensive efficiency and strength of schedule.

Pomeroy currently has Purdue ranked No. 6 in his own rankings, with Pitt at No. 39 after Tuesday’s loss. But other schools show a greater disparity from the AP polls.

Syracuse, instead of its top-15 ranking, sits at 27 to Pomeroy, and University of Maryland is at No. 20 instead of its No. 2 spot in the AP poll.

Additionally, using ESPN’s Ratings Percentage Index this early in the season can make for wacky and unusual results — but as the season progresses, the RPI rankings will even out.

Currently, Valparaiso University is the best team in the country based solely on RPI rankings, and Kentucky is 18th — Pitt is 102. Once conference play begins around the new year, though, you can start looking more seriously at ranking metrics.

The players, at least publicly, certainly don’t concern themselves with rankings early on. In the beginning of the season, Maryland guard Melo Trimble said his team wasn’t paying attention to the pressure his then-top five squad would carry.

“The expectations really don’t matter,” Trimble said. “Last year, they thought we were going to be bad, and we proved everyone wrong. Next season, they’re going to give us our props, but we’re still going to be humble and hungry.”

This is not to justify or condemn Pitt’s loss on Tuesday. Purdue had hype entering the season due to its extreme length in the post and balanced scoring attack.

But the best way to evaluate the loss will be in about three months, when the dust has settled and the two teams are either solidly in the NCAA Tournament field or on the outside looking in.

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