It appears the absence of the University of Massachusetts on my Associated Press men’s basketball ballot has caused some consternation in New England, as one paper exposed me, I guess, as the lone voter not to vote for the Minutemen in the top 25 and a blogger used his forum as a bully pulpit to attack me.
Fair enough. UMass is 9-0, ranks No. 2 nationally in RPI (.7111), behind Wisconsin. The Minutemen have beaten opponents from the ACC (Boston College and Clemson), Big Ten (Nebraska), Mountain West (New Mexico), Southeastern (LSU) and West Coast (BYU) conferences this season. By those standards — undefeated record, high RPI and opponents from quality conferences — the Minutemen certainly deserve to be ranked in the top 25.
So allow me to explain my rankings.
First, this is not the first time I’ve been a dissenting voice in an AP poll. Yes, even though I cover high school sports (primarily writing columns on Western Pennsylvania football) for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I also have covered college football (Pitt and Penn State), as well as the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup Final (twice each) and countless other major sporting events.
Now, I have nothing against UMass. In fact, I was a fan of the Minutemen when a pair of Pittsburghers, Central Catholic’s Jim McCoy and Allderdice’s William Herndon, played for Moon native and former Pitt assistant John Calipari in the late 1980s/early ’90s. But I didn’t have UMass in my preseason top 25, and the reason I don’t know is that it hasn’t beaten any teams that I have ranked in my ballots this season. (UMass did beat New Mexico, which I didn’t rank).
I did, however, rank Pitt in the preseason top 25. This is my second season on the Pitt men’s basketball beat, but I’ve covered them for more than a decade, first as the backup to the beat writer, later as a columnist. So I’ve seen my share of college basketball, and believe this Pitt team has a chance to be pretty good despite the graduation of Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor, the early entry of Steven Adams to the NBA and the transfers of J.J. Moore and Trey Zeigler.
The Panthers are 10-0 heading into tonight’s game against Cincinnati in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. They have yet to beat a ranked opponent, although they have beaten teams from the Big Ten (Penn State), Big 12 (Texas Tech), Mountain West (Fresno State) and Pac-12 (Stanford) this season. They won nine games by double-digit margins.
Attack me as a homer, if you will, but Pitt finished fourth in the Big East last season and returned three starters
and two reserves who have moved into greater roles. I expected the Panthers to be a top 25 team, so I ranked them 21st to start the season. They have since moved up six spots in my ballot.
I don’t believe in punishing ranked teams for playing each other, especially when the games are close. That’s why I have a three-loss Kentucky team ranked No. 14 (ahead of undefeated Pitt). The Wildcats’ losses are to then-No. 2 Michigan State, then-No. 20 Baylor and then-No. 18 North Carolina. I have all three of those teams ranked ahead of Kentucky.
That rationale doesn’t leave much room for teams to jump ahead, which is why Wisconsin has gone from No. 20 to 11th on my ballot and Baylor (who has wins over Kentucky, Dayton and Colorado and whose only loss is to Syracuse) from No. 18 to seventh. I didn’t have Villanova ranked to start the season (I saw Pitt beat the Wildcats twice last year), but have moved them to 19th. And I dropped North Carolina before the Tar Heels beat Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville, teams that started the season 1-2-3 in the AP rankings. I don’t have Gonzaga ranked because its lone loss is to Dayton, which only lost to Baylor by one but then dropped a game to Illinois State.
I hope that begins to explain my reason for not ranking UMass, which is off to its best start since 1995-96. If the Minutemen beat Ohio Wednesday and Florida State Saturday, that should help their cause. If the Twitter attacks of their passionate fans, which I don’t take personally, has done anything, it’s made me very well aware of UMass.