March Madness has arrived and it’s only February 1. On a huge day for college hoop fans, #1 Arizona falls on the road to Cal on a buzzer beater, while #2 Syracuse withstands a buzzer beater against Duke to tie it in regulation, winning by two in OT to remain undefeated. Meanwhile back at the ranch #3 Florida wins big over another overmatched SEC foe, this time Texas A&M. Additionally, numbers 6-8 all lost as well.
What does it all mean for the Gators, who this past week rose to #3 their highest ranking in years? Logically, and for the casual fan it should mean the Gators should move to #2 right? Maybe. Maybe not. What are you talking about? Do you hate the Gators? No I don’t hate the Gators, in fact, I love the Gators. My love for the Gators has nothing to do with the reality of the situation however.
In reality, while nobody is completely unbiased, the people who vote in the college basketball poll are expected to be somewhat objective. They’re expected to consider the body of work of a host of teams without regard to personal biases. On that note, let’s examine the task ahead for the poll voters and see where Florida is likely to end up on Sunday.
Before we jump into some numbers to try to foster an objective comparison, let’s lay out the naked ugly realities that we all must face. First, there is bias. No matter what, no matter how hard they try, and no matter how much they scream they’re objective, there is bias involved. Not specifically against the Gators, but against the SEC in general. In basketball, the perception of the SEC is similar to the perception of the WAC in football. That’s the cold, hard, naked truth. Like it or not that’s the way it is and what Florida faces perception-wise on a national basis. Two NCAA tournament championships, three championship game appearances, and three consecutive Elite Eight appearances notwithstanding, the Gators still have to face the stigma of being a football school in a football conference that is perceived as being weak in basketball. It’s not necessarily fair, but it is real.
And it’s not entirely unfounded. Compared to the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, the SEC tends to be top heavy. A couple of good teams and everyone else. This year is no different. It’s basically Florida, Kentucky, and that’s about it. Oh I know about Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss, about Missouri, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. But realistically for a conference that has a weak perception nationally this is a particularly down year in terms of depth of strength. That hurts Florida… in the polls and come tournament selection seeding time. Maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s not but regardless that’s what Florida faces.
Numbers-wise, it would have been better for the Gators had Syracuse lost rather than Arizona. First of all, the Wildcats have a huge lead on the Gators in RPI measure coming into Saturday at .6975 to the Gators .6680. In terms of strength of schedule Arizona was at #10 while the Gators were farther back at #41. Considering the Gators tough out of conference schedule, which really got them to 41, it’s very obvious that the SEC is not a power conference, particularly not this season. In games against teams in the top 25 of the RPI, the Wildcats were 5-0, the Gators 2-1 and against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, Arizona is 7-0 while Florida is 5-2. By almost every statistical measure, the Wildcats should be ranked ahead of the Gators.
Syracuse, on the other hand is another story. The Orangeman is ranked 91 in terms of strength of schedule, head scratching considering they play in everybody’s favorite power conference the ACC. A weak non-conference schedule combined with an unusually down ACC this year is to blame. This, of course, is where bias comes in. To voters who likely don’t get to watch all the games and don’t seek out statistical comparison measures, the assumption naturally would be that Syracuse would be the stronger team with all things being equal. Statistically, they might be wrong. They are 3-0 versus the RPI top 25 and 4-0 against the RPI top 50 but their RPI ranking coming into Saturday was slightly behind Florida at .6625. So statistically speaking the Gators would have been better off with a one loss Syracuse team than a one loss Arizona team.
What lies in Florida’s favor, assuming voters are paying attention, is Florida survived a strong non-conference schedule with a highly depleted roster which saw the Gators barely able to field a starting lineup and practicing with scrubs and assistants just to scrimmage. They survived an early season loss of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin to suspension, injuries to Wilbekin, freshman Kasey Hill, and leading scorer Casey Prather. And they’ve done it without superstar freshman and former McDonald’s All American Chris Walker who was finally cleared to play by the NCAA. Their two losses were a tough road loss to a top ten Wisconsin team and a buzzer beater road loss to a tough UConn team. Either loss would be a better loss in terms of RPI than Cal.
Beyond that, the Gators are playing very well right now. In spite, of their usual slow starts and lulls and lapses that have allowed some outmatched teams to hang around, the Gators have been largely able to assert their dominance in the second half of games and win going away, particularly at home. Their win streak is at 13 and their 19-2 start ties the school record with the two title winning teams. They are playing as well as anybody in the country and they certainly have a strong argument for being the #2 team in the nation. Whether or not poll voters agree we’ll know Sunday afternoon when the polls come out. What’s certain is they should remain ahead of unbeaten Wichita State.
My gut feeling is the polls will split with the Gators moving to #2 in the AP and remain at #3 in the coaches poll behind Arizona.