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.)
Onward and upward.
The Bearcats continue their slow and steady climb up the AP Poll into Week 14, reaching #6. This marks the highest ranking of the Mick Cronin era and the highest overall since January 2004.
The Bearcats, incredibly, are a unanimous top-8 team. In the first poll of 2018, the Bearcats were unranked by two voters. Three weeks ago they weren't even a unanimous top-20. The Bearcats are scorching hot, and they need to keep it going. It feels like the college basketball world is waiting for one false move to plummet the Bearcats back to #16.
This is an extremely important week for a few reasons.
First, the Bearcats are poised to move up. Xavier has two road games against KenPom top-25 opponents and #3 Purdue and #4 Michigan State play each other. It's likely a loss by either of those teams will move UC up a spot, but I'll probably be rooting for Purdue to be safe. Combine that with a loss by Xavier in one of their games and two UC wins would virtually guarantee the Bearcats a trip to the Top 5 for the first time since 2002.
Second, the Bearcats always seem to get snake bitten in this week. Mick Cronin has started a season 22-2 twice in the past four years. In each of those seasons, the Bearcats snapped a 15-game winning streak at SMU to fall to 22-3. If the Bearcats can get past UCF at home on Tuesday, they'll once again be headed to Dallas with a 22-2 record and a 15-game winning streak. You can't make this stuff up. I will say that this year more than ever feels like they're positioned to beat the Ponies on the road.
Lastly, the Bearcats can virtually lock down a share of the AAC regular season title this week. Wins over UCF and SMU will push the 'Cats to 12-0 with a three-game lead in the conference at worst. I just don't see anyone closing a three-game gap on the Bearcats in six games, especially with UC having three games at home. Another perfect week might put this out of reach.
A glimpse at teams ahead of UC:
1. Villanova: Home vs St. John's, home vs Butler. I don't see Nova losing at home, especially to a Butler team that already knocked them off once. St. John's already got their miracle with the win over Duke. They don't have another one.
2. Virginia: At Florida State, home vs Virginia Tech. That Florida State game could be interesting, but I don't think the 'Noles have the defense to hang in there. Virginia Tech definitely doesn't, especially on the road. That being said, rivalry games are weird. Keep an eye on UVa this week.
3. Purdue: Home vs Ohio State, at Michigan State. Surely Purdue loses at least one of these, right? They've been getting away with some close calls and it has to catch up with them.
4. Michigan State: At Iowa, home vs Purdue. The Spartans will not lose to Iowa. I have a hunch they beat Purdue at home.
5. Xavier: At Butler, at Creighton. The Musketeers have their work cut out for them with two games KenPom has them losing. Butler is the better team but Creighton is a further trip and their offense should give X's lackluster defense fits. Hard to picture a scenario where Xavier doesn't drop at least one of these. Brutal week.
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 1-3, Points: 1,608-1,500
Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue are going to remain the upper crust for at least another week. If Michigan State can knock off the Boilermakers on Saturday, we may see this break up. Until then, nobody is crashing this party.
Tier 2: Rankings 4-6, Points: 1,407-1,305
As expected, there's a fairly tight cluster of teams from #4-6 and the Bearcats are bringing up the rear. Most notably, they're hot on Xavier's tail. A couple votes falling differently and UC could've hopped the Muskies, even with both teams streaking. The 'Cats are down a mere 45 points. Xavier has a really tough week and one false step will give the Bearcats the lead.
Tier 3: Rankings 7-10, Points: 1,182-1,015
This has a Best of the Rest feel to it. All four of these are solid. Does anyone else feel like Auburn should be higher?
Tier 4: Rankings 11-17, Points: 895-636
These teams are packed in this tier like sardines. We have two mid-majors at the top and then five power teams with four or more losses.
Tier 5: Rankings 18-25, Points: 486-76
The bottom tier of these rankings remains uninspiring. Mixed in with a bunch of big name programs with five, six, and seven losses are spunky mid-majors URI and Nevada. New Mexico State has three wins over D2 teams and they're on the doorstep of the AP Poll. Strange season so far.
Biggest UC fan: Until this point, nobody could've ranked the Bearcats any higher than 4th. There's a clear-cut Top 3 in Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue. Everything after that is a matter of opinion. I gotta continue to give Chris Dachille credit, because he was the first to name UC as Best of the Rest. He's joined this week by Cecil Hurt, Lauren Brownlow, and Rick Bozich. Thank you to those four.
Biggest UC hater: You know what? I'm not even going there. Two voters ranked UC at #8, but that's an absolute blessing compared to some of the screw jobs the 'Cats have gotten this year. I won't be the one to complain about the 2% of the voting body that doesn't think UC belongs in the Top 7.