After over a month of basketball, teams are accumulating enough wins and losses for the rankings to start making sense, or as much sense as the rankings generally make. Some teams slid out of grace right away, like Pac-10 pretenders USC and UCLA, who were either cursed by injuries or over-ranked to start. Other teams have compiled attractive enough records to be rewarded with spots in recent polls, even though there is a nagging suspicion by all involved that they will not remain factors for long. (Hello, Pittsburgh, Marquette and George Washington. That might be too much luggage for the length of your stay.)
There are the solid teams, who think they are pretty good and want to beat enough good teams to "prove" it to the world. They play reasonable schedules, win almost every game they should, but generally succumb to the top guns. Our friends and rivals from Arizona State are the exemplar of this category. They are well prepared, play hard, and have talent, but all that is to no avail when Tennessee comes to town.
Most of the teams at the top of the heap don't feel the need to accumulate "good" wins. Rather than risk a bad loss to a pretty good team who is not ranked, they like to schedule total pushovers when they are not involved in well-hyped clashes of titans with others of their ilk. North Carolina played Tennessee… and that is it. Connecticut played Purdue but passed time toying with Holy Cross and Colgate. They also ran off to Italy in the middle of the season. Did anyone miss them? Perhaps Geno Auriemma was having trouble importing items for his casino restaurant (Is that thing still operating??) and thought his players would enjoy an overseas shopping trip with him. Maryland has played, well, no one yet. Why bother when everyone knows you are wonderful already?
The teams feasting on all these cupcakes are good. We know it. They know it. Those who vote in polls know it. They just like to sneak in the basketball equivalent of junk food like naughty children. No one punishes the little darlings or withholds the love in the polls. Instead we pat them on the head and allow them to continue devouring cream puffs without eating supper. Lesser teams dare not try because they know they will feel the wrath of the NCAA Selection Committee if they let that RPI slip. The top teams don't care because they know good and well they will not be a #3 seed if they end up atop the polls with only a loss or two, no matter how they piled up the wins.
There are occasional binge eaters like Duke (December 9 Sagarin #201 Houston and #282 Northeastern) and Ohio State (#294 Longwood and #328 Cornell). There are only 335 Division I schools playing women's basketball.
Too much sugar is becoming a health hazard for LSU, with their diet of #254 Detroit, #272 New Orleans, #258 Eastern Washington and #303 Howard. New Orleans is understandable, but I would love to know the reasoning behind Detroit and Eastern Washington. Maryland tested themselves against #167 George Mason, #292 Gardner-Webb and #329 Siena. Oklahoma has done itself proud with #169 Eastern Kentucky, #281 Arkansas-Pine Bluff and #332 Lamar. Only three teams are rated lower by Sagarin than Lamar, even with the boost they receive from playing a top team like Oklahoma. Pause and ponder that match-up for a moment.
The large-sized package of Twinkies goes to Junk Food Junkie Extraordinaire North Carolina, whose schedule so far has included #136 UNC-Greensboro, #143 Western Carolina, #172 Wofford, #183 East Tennessee State, #230 Elon, #295 Winston-Salem State and #329 Sacramento State. No wonder they had so much energy for Tennessee last week.
Okay, none of that is news. We know teams do it, and we know they get away with it. Here is the question, though: are all of those cupcakes actually good for you? North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell has been at it a long time. Aside from her interesting sartorial choices, she can't be too out of it. Could it be that she has latched onto something here? Does playing #329 Sacramento State help a team more than playing #25 to 50-ish rated teams like Missouri or Texas Tech? If you play lots of teams you can beat without any effort, do you keep people healthy, build confidence in players who would be sitting on the bench in closer games and conserve energy to unleash when you must play Duke or Maryland? Why doesn't UNC need to be tested to play well against the likes of Tennessee? What does Sylvia know that we do not? Is UNC's chaotic style the key? Maybe they never do practice.
Be that as it may, if they can do it, others can too. The beauty of the strategy is that if you do win those few big games, no one could possibly downgrade you for the rest of your schedule. If North Carolina did not bother to show up for the rest of their games, just beating Tennessee would keep them at the top. Coast and win a few big ones - that's all it takes. Maybe even coast and lose a big one or two. If you are one of the lucky few who is assumed to be good going into the season, and you sit at 8-1 with your only loss to another Top 10 team, all that happens is you get dropped behind that team. No one cares if your other wins were against Southern, Rider and Nicholls State. You are good. Everyone already knows that. Take advantage of your innate greatness. Be like North Carolina. Don't be like Rutgers. Losses are ugly.
Maybe Stanford is doing this all wrong? Why are we running off to Georgia and Tennessee? Sacramento State is much closer and much tastier. Poor San Jose State at #325 is right down the road! We are dutifully eating our vegetables when we could be on a sugar high. The babysitter is watching TV. Go for it, little Stanford. Hide the Brussels sprouts in your napkin, and fill up on Ding Dongs. Be like the big kids!
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