The amount of attention you should pay to top-25 rankings? Zero is a high percentage

When the NCAA tournament ends, Jim Nantz tells us about “a tradition unlike any other.”

Before the NCAA tournament begins, we are being brought in touch with the possibility that this edition of March Madness could be unlike any other.

After Wednesday night’s events, which featured Michigan State’s home-court loss to surging Nebraska (the Huskers are still fighting an uphill bubble battle, however), we live in a world where Michigan State AND Duke are both immersed in three-game losing streaks. What’s even more jarring? Two of those three losses — for the Spartans and the Blue Devils — occurred at home.

After Wednesday night’s events, which also featured sixth-ranked West Virginia losing at home to Texas, four teams ranked in the top six have lost since the new top 25 came out at the start of the week. The Mountaineers are joined by Kansas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 plus Xavier of the Big East. Only Oklahoma’s loss — in Hilton Coliseum against Iowa State — doesn’t carry negative baggage. The other three losses were highly unexpected. Accordingly, they magnify just how unsettled this season is. It’s a theme we’re forced to comment about on a regular basis, because there’s really no respite from it, no hiding place in the midst of such chaos.

This insanity in college basketball underscores a number of very important points, and The Student Section will surely address them in the course of time. Let’s start with one basic point for now:

If you thought the AP Top 25 meant nothing in most college basketball seasons, it means even less this season.

You would not be met with a vigorous argumentative challenge if you said there are no truly great teams in college basketball this season. At least in the present moment, no team is carrying itself like a world-beater, with the possible exception of Villanova. Yet, even then, it’s easy to be skeptical of the Wildcats. They might conquer every Big East team which tries to get in their way — after sliding by Seton Hall on Wednesday, they’ve won 22 straight in their conference (including the 2015 Big East Tournament) — but Nova has not translated its Big East dominance into NCAA tournament results, failing to make the Sweet 16 each of the last two seasons. Villanova is highly likely to be a No. 1 seed in a couple months, but the idea that a great team exists in the sport is hard to affirm in late January.

Let’s identify a team which could be in the top five of the national rankings next Monday: Iowa. If Maryland loses to Michigan State and Iowa wins its next two games, the Hawkeyes will certainly crack the top five. Even if Maryland wins, Iowa should jump SMU for No. 5 if it takes care of business against Rutgers and Purdue.

Iowa has a solid resume, but is it a resume which typically belongs to a No. 1 seed? The Hawkeyes have no bad losses, but just the same, they did not lose to world-beaters in Dayton or Notre Dame. Their loss to Iowa State — in a season when the Cyclones have largely underperformed — represents a missed opportunity. The main reason for Iowa to tout itself as a top-five program was that Michigan State appeared to be an elite team through the end of December and very early January.

Now that the Spartans have lost three straight, the value of Iowa’s two-game sweep of MSU is just not what it once was (a week ago). That’s not a resume which ordinarily belongs to a top seed.

This season, however, it just might get Iowa to that top line on Selection Sunday.

The reality of the top 25 this season is that teams might not be “one of the five (or 10, or 15) best in the country,” but they will be “not as bad as everyone else.” Teams will attain lofty rankings not because they stand out as obvious choices, but because there just aren’t enough compelling alternatives.

This is how Xavier reached No. 5 in this week’s polls. This is how West Virginia ascended to No. 6. The Musketeers and Mountaineers exposed themselves as teams unworthy of top-10 rankings… but it’s not as though they never should have been ranked in those spots. Other teams weren’t making a stronger case.


The top 25 is notorious for causing heartache among fans. In each of the last two seasons, a team ranked in the top 25 going into Selection Sunday did not make the NCAA tournament. SMU was the victim in 2014, Murray State in 2015. No one should pay much attention to the top 25 to begin with, especially in a sport which consistently settles arguments on a playing surface and not in the realm of theory or conjecture.

This season in college basketball, the top 25 is even less noteworthy than it has been in the past. That’s saying something.

That’s saying a lot about how unpredictable this college basketball season has become.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.