Why we should occasionally be less impressed by undefeated records

If a team's still undefeated at this point in the season, they will almost invariably be ranked or very close to it. Is that a correct assessment? Good question.

If a team’s still undefeated at this point in the season, it will as a matter of custom be ranked or very close to it. Is that a correct assessment? Good question. (TCU)

TCU and Colorado State have posted identical 13-0 records to start 2014-15, and I would venture to say that both the Horned Frogs and the Rams are indeed much better than we expected them to be in the preseason. Kyan Anderson, an unfailingly aggressive sub-six-foot lead guard, really is playing the way Chris Jones probably thinks that Chris Jones plays. CSU is winning games with zero (or multiple) point guards, a very high barrage factor (many offensive boards and few turnovers), and heaping helpings of clutchy clutchness and just wanting it more in close games. Trent Johnson and Larry Eustachy, take a bow.

I’m just not sure either team is really as mighty as what’s currently being shown in the polls: Colorado State is No. 24, and TCU’s No. 1 in the “others receiving votes” small type. There’s an evaluative bonus that comes from being undefeated, and I’m not interested in lobbying against it as much as I am in defining it more precisely. Indeed I myself have been known to bestow the evaluative bonus on this or that team on occasion. If anything I was perhaps too charitable in my pre-Stony Brook ranking of Washington. 

Of course Kentucky and Duke are undefeated too, and I’m not picking on them. But history has not been particularly kind to teams ranked outside the top 10 in the preseason who then carry undefeated records into very late December. The exceptions in this category are Wichita State last season (ranked a rather puzzlingly low No. 16 in the 2013-14 preseason) and, perhaps, Villanova this year (No. 12 in the preseason — I think the Wildcats will be reasonably mighty this season, though most assuredly they’re sitting at 11-1 right now if Michael Gbinije simply inbounds the ball successfully).

The Shockers and Nova notwithstanding, quote-unquote surprise teams in the non-conference season have an unnerving tendency of coming back down to earth….

Oregon 2013-14
Preseason rank: 19
The Ducks started 13-0 and rose to No. 10 in the AP poll. From that point on Oregon went 10-11. Entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed and lost an outrageously entertaining game to Wisconsin (in Milwaukee no less) in the round of 32. Finished the season 24-10.

Ohio State 2013-14
Preseason rank: 11
Started 15-0 and rose to No. 3 in the AP poll. From that point on the Buckeyes went 10-10. Entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 6 seed, lost to Dayton in the round of 64, and inspired a front page that went small-scale-viral. Finished the season 25-10.

Cincinnati 2012-13
Preseason rank: 24
Mick Cronin’s team started 12-0 and rose to No. 8 in the AP poll. From that point on the Bearcats went 10-12. UC entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed and lost to Creighton in the round of 64. Finished the season 22-12.

Murray State 2011-12
Preseason rank: NR
You remember the Racers. They refused to lose all the way into February that year and thus became a fascinating case study in poll dynamics. No one would come out and say that Steve Prohm’s team could really contend with Anthony Davis and Kentucky that season, but that didn’t prevent MSU from rising to No. 9 in the AP poll with a 23-0 record. Entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 6 seed with a 30-1 record and lost by nine to Marquette in the round of 32.

UCF 2010-11
Preseason rank: NR
Started 14-0 and rose to No. 19 in the AP poll. From that point on the Knights went 7-12. Missed the NCAA tournament, and finished 21-12.

This history explains why I don’t have either the Horned Frogs or the Rams in my top 25, but I unreservedly salute both teams for being much further along than I thought they’d be. Tomorrow night CSU will tip off Mountain West play by hosting Boise State, and given their track record this season I have no doubt that Eustachy’s men will not only win but will do so by one point in triple-OT.  If nail-biters are your thing, I heartily recommend Colorado State for your viewing pleasure.