As if the AP Poll itself wasn’t meaningless enough, there is actually a story behind the story. There’s a tiny number next to teams in the Top 25, but there are a ton of little things going on behind that number. Breaking the Poll is a series that breaks down the AP voters and dissects why the Bearcats are ranked where they are. (This series is made possible by College Poll Tracker.)
Top 5, Top 5, Top 5
The Bearcats rejoin the nation's elite for the first time since 2002 on the back of a 23-2 start and a 16-game winning streak, both of which are the best of the Mick Cronin era. The Bearcats improved their #6 ranking from a week ago, meaning they've advanced in the poll each week since the Christmas edition seven weeks ago. With their hardest individual week of the season, things are going to get intense.
The Bearcats had two voters place #2 votes, undoubtedly their highest individual votes since at least the 2002 season. Two more voters placed #3 votes and four voters placed #4 votes. It's crazy that nine weeks ago we were worried about falling out of the rankings altogether and now the team is in the Top 5 and there are eight voters who feel they should be even higher. That Florida game feels like eons ago.
More surprising than the #2 votes are the number of voters who actually dropped the Bearcats on their ballots. The Top 5 this week was utter chaos, so this should've been expected. But Cincinnati (and Xavier, for that matter) moving up just one spot after undefeated weeks while the rest of the elite teams lost seems stupid. Frankly, and this is bad for my brand, I was pretty shocked Xavier was only at #4.
A non-comprehensive list of voters I noticed moved UC down after a 2-0 week and losses at the top of the poll: Seth Davis, Jon Nyatawa, Doug Haller, Cecil Hurt, and one voter I'll mention later.
A new thing I want to try out this season is the idea of tiers. Not enough people talk about this, but it definitely exists in the AP Poll. If you examine how the votes shake out, you start to see groupings of teams. Four or five teams will fall in a 150-point window and then there will be a 200-point gap before the next team. There were a couple situations last season where the Bearcats lost a tough game and fell significantly. However, sometimes that fall can be deceiving when you notice Cincy is simply the last team in a five-team cluster of vote getters. Pointing out these tiers each week is 1) interesting and 2) hopefully going to give us a better idea of how the Bearcats are seen on a national landscape. Here are this week’s tiers:
Tier 1: Rankings 1-4, Points: 1,557-1,465
Xavier aced its tough week, thanks to some luck, and joins the top tier of Virginia, Michigan State, and Villanova that we've been seeing for a while now. The latter three lost this week, allowing the Muskies to move up. Unfortunately for Xavier, as the three teams ahead of them hit a relatively easy week, X has to reckon with a Villanova team that's had their goat since the founding of the New Big East.
Tier 2: Rankings 5-7, Points: 1,359-1,258
Honestly, the Bearcats are nearly in their own tier this week, with a roughly 100 point gap ahead and behind them in the poll. For the sake of simplicity, I'll group them with a stumbling Purdue and a streaking Texas Tech.
Tier 3: Rankings 8-12, Points: 1,094-942
I think this is about where Ohio State deserves to be, although I'll continue to express my disbelief that Chris Holtmann got this Ohio State team into the Top 10. The Buckeyes would be in the conversation for #1 if not for the silly bank shot that Penn State beat them on. Rounding out this group are Gonzaga and Duke, along with two teams who are going to give UC fans headaches the rest of the way as far as seeding goes: Auburn and Clemson. I refuse to believe either of those two are legitimate 2-seeds.
Tier 4: Rankings 13-19, Points: 816-495
Tier 4 continues to be the monster group. There are two high-loss blue bloods at the top in Kansas and UNC followed by mid-major darlings St. Mary's and Rhode Island. The rest of the tier is rounded out by Arizona, Tennessee, and Wichita, who just rejoined the Top 20 in time for this Sunday's game in Cincinnati.
Tier 5: Rankings 20-25, Points: 339-83
Once again, the bottom tier just isn't good. Five uninspiring teams and Nevada. There are two eight-loss teams in the poll, with another threatening to break in with Florida. Yuck.
Teams ahead of UC this week:
1. Virginia: At Miami FL, vs Georgia Tech. That Miami game is one to watch, but I just don't see Virginia losing back-to-back. That being said, it would be very Virginia-esque to lose immediately after being ranked #1 for the first time since 1982.
2. Michigan State: At Minnesota, at Northwestern. Ehh, both of these could be single-digit games and may be upset potential based on how close MSU has been cutting it on this win streak. That being said, neither are KenPom Top 75, so I don't foresee a loss.
3. Villanova: At Providence, at Xavier. Not an easy week for the Wildcats. They're one of the best two teams in the country on paper, so I have a hard time forecasting any losses. That being said, Providence did prove its mettle earlier this year in beating Xavier and the Muskies have the potential to knock off Nova this weekend.
4. Xavier: vs Seton Hall, vs Villanova. That Seton Hall game screams trap, but I'm not sure Mack lets them overlook it. Sunday's game will be a war. I have no idea who will win, but my gut says Xavier.
Biggest UC fan: Chris Dachille continues to be the unofficial mascot of this website. He gave the Bearcats the #2 look and was joined by Justin Jackson.
Biggest UC hater: Here we go. Graham Couch is back, baby! Remember last week when I expressed shock that the Bearcats were a consensus top-8 team and nearly top-7 if not for one voter? Notice how I didn't mention that this week? That's because Graham Couch, Cincinnati's biggest hater from last week, dropped the Bearcats in his poll.
The Bearcats are 23-2. The Bearcats have won 16 games in a row, with seven of those coming against top-100 teams, easily the best streak in the country. Graham, the country's biggest Big Ten basketball fan, has the Bearcats behind two five-loss Big Ten teams. Further down his ballot, seven-loss Michigan is in the Top 15, eight spots ahead of where they sit in the composite poll.
What's more, Graham simply does not like UC. He's been UC's biggest detractor for five consecutive weeks, serving as UC's lowest vote in every poll since mid-January. Since he actively started dogging the Bearcats in Week 11, UC has won eight games in row. How many games in a row does Cincy have to win before Graham says 'Hmm, maybe there's a reason every other voter in America thinks this team is better than I do'?
Graham ranked the Bearcats behind Duke (the team with five losses and Ls in two out of their last three) and Ohio State (another five-loss team). Look: Ohio State is very good, and I've readily admitted that at every turn. But they aren't #5. They're the only team in the Top 11 of this week's poll with five losses, and they've earned that distinction, but they are not #5. Duke, on the other hand, has as many losses in the past 10 days as the Bearcats have had all season, and has a loss to St. John's that's worse than any KenPom loss Cincinnati has suffered in more than two calendar years. You may be able to make a case that Duke is a top-10 team. They should not be ahead of Cincinnati.
What are you doing, Graham?
As I said, this is probably Cincinnati's toughest calendar week of the AAC slate. They hit the road Thursday for a game against KenPom #29 Houston (four-point favorites) and then return home on Sunday for a game against KenPom #18 Wichita (10-point favorites). Those represent two of the three toughest remaining games by a wide margin.
Hold onto your seats.