The Top of the AP Top 25 Poll Offers Potentially Historic Depth

    Depending on how you define the "top tier" of college basketball teams, there could be more depth at the top level of the sport than we've seen in the

    December 10, 2018

    Depending on how you define the “top tier” of college basketball teams, there could be more depth at the top level of the sport than we’ve seen in the last 15 years.

    The AP Top 25 poll isn’t a perfect measure of the strength of teams, especially when comparing this year’s upper echelon to those of seasons past. Six teams received at least one first-place vote in the Week 6 AP poll, which is the highest number of teams that earned consideration for the No. 1 spot at this point in the season since the 2003-04 campaign. Seven teams received a first-place vote in Week 6 that season.

    Here was the top 10 of that 2003 poll with first-place votes in parentheses.

    School Record Votes
    No. 1 Connecticut 8-1 1,636 (21)
    No. 2 Kentucky 6-0 1,614 (25)
    No. 3 Duke 8-1 1,539 (2)
    No. 4 Georgia Tech 10-0 1,479 (16)
    No. 5 Arizona 5-1 1,364 (2)
    No. 6 Stanford 7-0 1,292 (2)
    No. 7 Oklahoma 8-0 1,275
    No. 8 Wake Forest 7-0 1,264 (1)
    No. 9 North Carolina 6-1 1,162
    No. 10 Saint Joseph’s 8-0 1,084

    Here’s the top eight of the latest AP Top 25 poll with blurbs on how each team has fared against currently ranked opponents. (The rankings listed are current rankings, not the rankings at the time of the matchup.)

    Games against fellow top-eight teams are in bold.

    No. 1 Kansas (8-0): Defeated No. 3 Tennessee 87-81 in OT, No. 9 Michigan State 92-87, No. 21 Marquette 77-68

    No. 2 Duke (9-1): Defeated No. 8 Auburn 78-72, No. 19 Kentucky 118-84, No. 25 Indiana 90-69; Lost to No. 4 Gonzaga 89-87

    No. 3 Tennessee (7-1): Defeated No. 4 Gonzaga 76-73; Lost to No. 1 Kansas 87-81 in OT

    No. 4 Gonzaga (9-1): Defeated No. 2 Duke 89-87; Lost to No. 3 Tennessee 76-73

    No. 5 Michigan (10-0): Defeated No. 12 North Carolina 84-67, No. 17 Villanova 73-46

    No. 6 Virginia (9-0): Defeated No. 16 Wisconsin 53-46

    No. 7 Nevada (10-0): Defeated No. 20 Arizona State 72-66

    No. 8 Auburn (8-1): Lost to No. 2 Duke 78-72

    If you’re trying to figure out who’s the best team in the country, the math is both linear and muddled. Kansas beat Tennessee on a neutral court in overtime. Tennessee beat Gonzaga on a neutral court by three points. Gonzaga beat Duke on a neutral court by two points. Duke beat Auburn on a neutral court by six points.

    It’s not advisable to apply the transitive property but there have been several meaningful results during non-conference play this season that can tell us how the best teams compare to one another. The bottom line is the evidence we have suggests any game between two of these top eight teams on a neutral court would probably be within a two-possession game.

    Michigan, Virginia and Nevada are all undefeated but ranked No. 5 through No. 7, respectively, if for no other reason than they haven’t played (and beaten) another team in this group.

    That trio might be three of the five best teams in the country — as believes — but the teams ranked ahead of them have each beaten at least one higher-ranked opponent, even if they’ve also taken a loss.

    It’s early in the season, but many teams have completed almost 30 percent of their regular-season schedule. If we use the aforementioned 2003-04 season as a historical guide, most of the teams that earned at least one first-place vote in this week’s AP Top 25 poll will likely contend for a top seed in the NCAA tournament and potentially the national championship.

    Of the seven schools that received at least one first-place vote in the Week 6 poll in the 2004 season, six earned a top-four seed, including No. 1 seeds Kentucky, Duke and Stanford. No. 2 seed UConn beat No. 3 seed Georgia Tech in the national championship game. Only Arizona, which earned a No. 9 seed, experienced a significant dropoff after being ranked No. 5 in the country in early December.

    So, who is the best team in the country at this point in the season?

    Kansas, Michigan, Virginia and Nevada are undefeated.

    The Wolverines have the country’s most efficient defense and Gonzaga has the nation’s best offense.

    Duke is the only team ranked in the top five in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.

    Kansas is No. 1 in the AP poll. Duke is No. 1 on Michigan is No. 1 in the NET rankings.

    Several teams can stake a claim as the country’s top team. There’s a good chance there won’t be a consensus top team this season — at least for very long — like there was at the same point in the season in 2014 (Kentucky), 2010 (Duke) and 2008 (North Carolina), when there was a unanimous No. 1 team in the AP poll.

    You can argue college basketball is better with this many teams jockeying for position atop the sport, especially when the group includes blue bloods like Duke and Kansas, conference foes (Duke and Virginia, Tennessee and Auburn), and schools from outside the Power 5 structure like Gonzaga and Nevada.

    Who’s the best team in the country? That depends who you ask. Given the depth of the country’s best teams, the answer might change as soon as next week.


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