You don't start each game with a five-point lead. Your players don't get six fouls. You don't get to pick your referees or play every game at home or have a sixth player on the court. So maybe it's a moot point whether or not Northwestern gets into the vaunted AP Top 25.But maybe not.
Being ranked is a potential selling point to recruits, plus fans are sure to take note if the "No. 24" team in the country is at Welsh-Ryan. (Plus, on an totally intangible level, it's fun to be ranked, right?)Well, Northwestern looks poised to crack the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 1968-69 season. So the same week that the Wildcats won their ninth game in a row – their longest streak since 1993-94 – and pushed their record to 10-1 – their best start since 1930-31 – they could also bust into the Top 25 for the first time in more than 30 years. Not a bad week.
Why would this be the week for NU? Because the list of teams with better Top 25 résumés is dwindling.Really, you could argue that Northwestern should already be ranked. Even before the AP Top 25 came out Monday – it always comes out on Mondays – Northwestern was 9-1, on an eight-game tear and had just beaten Stanford by eight points. Two games earlier, the Cats downed North Carolina State down in Raleigh by double digits, and that was two games after beating Notre Dame in Chicago. Now, of course there are other teams with convincing we-should-be-ranked cases. But Northwestern definitely has one of its own.
And people are taking note. NU received 89 votes* in last week's AP Poll, so there were at least some pollsters who are impressed with the Cats' hot start. Indeed, only three teams – Florida State, UNLV and Wisconsin – received more votes than Northwestern but weren't ranked. Gonzaga, which came in at No. 25, had 146 votes, and Clemson, No. 24, had 151. So NU isn't far behind. (The top "receiving votes" teams: FSU had 127, UNLV 126 and Wisconsin 96.)
* Each week NU has been getting closer and closer to the coveted Top 25. Three weeks ago Northwestern received 15 votes. A week later, NU had 48 votes. And last week, NU got 59 votes. Fifteen to 48 to 59 to 89 to...?So yeah, NU was pretty close to being ranked this week. Sure, the Cats missed that No. 25 slot by more than 50 votes, but the gap between Northwestern and the Top 25 is shrinking.
In addition to Northwestern's already-made case for being ranked – bolstered by the 74-54 win over Central Connecticut State on Tuesday – some teams between No. 15 and No. 25 lost this week, making it all the more likely that NU could wiggle its way into the Top 25*. Let's take a look at the teams teetering toward the bottom, and whether or they could swap spots with the Cats.
* This article, by the way, is looking only at the AP Top 25. There are other polls, like the ESPN/USA Today poll, a number of RPI rankings and power polls, as well as bloggers and pundits with their own rankings. But the AP Top 25 poll is still the eminent poll, so we'll talk about that one here.
We'll start with Gonzaga, which was ranked No. 25 in this week's poll. One thing that sticks out about Gonzaga is that the Bulldogs already have three losses; they were 8-3 when the poll came out. As always, Gonzaga has played a murderous non-conference schedule: those three losses are to Michigan State, Wake Forest and Duke. That's brutal. But save a neutral-site win against Wisconsin, there isn't a lot for Gonzaga to brag about. The Bulldogs don't play this week, so their Top 25 credentials are stagnant at the moment.Clemson, currently ranked No. 24, is 11-2. The Tigers played Tuesday night and pounded Western Carolina by 22. Now, they did beat Butler at a neutral site, and they beat South Carolina, which isn't bad. But the other two noteworthy teams on the slate, Texas A&M and Illinois, were both losses. Alas, on the strength of that 22-point W, Clemson will probably safe – for this week at least.
No. 23 Texas Tech isn't going anywhere, either. The Red Raiders lost their last game of last week – 85-83 at Wichita State – but they just beat Stanford by 13 and won't play again until after next week's rankings come out. A team ranked 23rd that goes 1-0 on the week should stay put.No. 22 Washington is also safe. The Huskies had one game this week, and it was a nine-point win against No. 19 Texas A&M. No. 21 Temple is idle this week; it won't drop more than four spots going 0-0.
Indeed, Nos. 25-21 all won or aren't playing Christmas week. Thus, don't expect much downward movement from them (and by downward movement, I mean help for Northwestern).But this is what could – should – happen: Nos. 21 through 25 move up, and Nos. 18-20 drop out. Because it was a rough, rough week for those 18-20 teams.
Florida began the week ranked No. 18, and that was after two straight losses. And UF's only game until next week was last night against South Alabama – and the Gators lost. To recap, that's three straight losses, the second two to Richmond and at home to USA*. So despite an 8-0 start, the Gators could be heading out of the Top 25 – even with their Nov. 27 win over Michigan State.
* According to ESPN, that's the proper abbreviation.At No. 19, Texas A&M has lost two of its last three, including its only game this week, a 73-64 defeat to Washington. That one – which was in Seattle – is definitely forgivable, but last week's neutral-site loss to New Mexico is less so. While the Aggies do have wins over Minnesota and Clemson, a southward move seems imminent.
And at No. 20 is the team that handed NU its only loss of the season: Butler. The Bulldogs, like Gonzaga, generally play a rugged non-con schedule, and this season was no exception. But after downing Xavier and Ohio State in back-to-back tilts, Butler lost its only Christmas week game…by 10…to UAB. Now with four losses, don't expect to see Butler in the Top 25 next week. Laudable schedule or not, it's tough to lose one-third of your first 12 games and stay ranked.We could look at some teams higher in the rankings, but it seems unlikely that a squad would plummet from the top 15, even with a loss. Plus the most likely candidates to take the tumble – teams like No. 17 Ohio State or No. 15 Mississippi – have had successful weeks; the Buckeyes and Rebels won their games this week.
But there could definitely be some movement elsewhere. Those No. 20-25 teams repped themselves well, and the teams sitting right above didn't. If A&M, Butler and Florida all get booted from the rankings – and since each of them lost their one game this week, that makes sense – then the Texas Techs and Clemsons and Gonzagas will move on up.And if that happens, someone is going to have to fill the void left in their wake. Someone like, say, Northwestern?
Granted, this is a lot of conjecture. And granted, none of the other three "receiving votes" teams that were ahead of NU this week have lost. And granted, being ranked in the Top 25 is little more than something to talk about. Tournament bids, after all, aren't decided based upon whether or not you were ranked in the Dec. 28 poll.But that doesn't mean it's totally irrelevant. And for the first time in more than 30 years, Northwestern looks poised to crack the Top 25.
Monday, we'll know for sure.