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Who's in First?

Top25With Kentucky being knocked off of the top spot almost as quickly as they got there, commentators (professional and amateur alike) have been discussing who will be the new number-one team in the country come Monday afternoon. As these things normally work, the current number-two, Kansas, would seem to be most people's favorite, should they make it through the weekend unscathed. Assuming they don't, however, some analysts have expressed the opinion that Syracuse should jump Villanova to get to the top.

That assessment is based on a couple of factors, relating to RPI scores and strength of schedule ratings. While both teams are in the top-4 RPI in the country, Syracuse is number 1 with a strength of schedule rank of 5th, while Villanova is 4th in RPI with a schedule rated 73rd (though that number will absolutely improve in February with tough Big East games). Do those numbers constitute undeniable proof that Syracuse is a better team than Villanova right now?

At the moment, Villanova is still ranked a spot ahead of Syracuse in both the AP and Coaches polls. Of course Villanova has been a top-five team since the preseason poll, while Syracuse opened the season unranked. Some critics might argue that Villanova's ranking is the product of that preseason hype, while Syracuse had to fight it's way to the top-four. Those critics are probably correct, too. Villanova had the benefit of a preseason ranking to bring attention to the program early in the season -- the Wildcats wouldn't have shot into the rankings after a narrow win over George Mason, and certainly wouldn't have been a top-four team on the strength of a win over then-18th Dayton or then-unranked Ole Miss. Syracuse had to beat #6 UNC (now unranked) and #13 California (now unranked) to make it into the polls at #10.

Despite this initial advantage, at the moment there are only four one-loss teams in college basketball, and all of them are currently in the top-four. While the preseason polls are speculative, it would be difficult to argue that Villanova doesn't belong.

In fact, part of the reason for Villanova's low strength of schedule rating is because of the fact that the Big East schedule makers loaded the front of their conference schedule with games against DePaul, Rutgers and St. Johns. Perhaps the out of conference schedule could have been stronger, but by the end of the Big East schedule, Villanova will have played about four more ranked opponents (and pre-season favorites West Virginia twice).

Villanova's one loss was to Temple (ranked 15th before this week's loss) while Syracuse has one loss to Pittsburgh (ranked 17th this week). While Syracuse may currently have better wins, Villanova can hardly be said to have a worse loss.

Even now the rankings are just a guess. Nobody knows which team will be the champions come April. Nobody can tell you for sure that Syracuse or Villanova is the better team (certainly not before they've played each other late next month). Recently Texas ascended to be #1 in the poll before dropping two straight, a respectable loss to Kansas State and a far worse loss to UConn. After that, Kentucky was given the nod by voters and in their first game after the poll came out, they were upset by an unranked, non-tournament team in South Carolina.

If Villanova climbs to the top of the AP poll for the first time, it would be a great honor, but it won't make Villanova the best in the land, just like it hasn't made Kansas, Kentucky or Texas the best. It is a vote of confidence by a group of people who are paid to watch and comment on college basketball.

The 11th team in the country can make the Final Four as a 3-seed. An unranked 8-seed can win the whole thing.

Who is the new #1 on Monday? In the polls, a 1-loss Kansas will have the best shot, but 1-loss Villanova and Syracuse would surely split the top votes should another team called "Wildcats" win tomorrow. Either way, the #2 team in the polls can still be the best in the country.