ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s a debate that’s taken social media by storm over the past week: Does Michigan basketball deserve to be ranked ahead of Gonzaga as the No. 1 team in this week’s polls?
Since the start of college hoops, Gonzaga and Baylor have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the AP poll. On Saturday, Baylor, which recently shut down for weeks due to positive COVID-19 cases in the program, dropped its first game at Kansas.
So now the debate has turned to the Bulldogs and Wolverines. Let’s dive into the argument for both teams.
- Record: 24-0
- Kenpom ranking: No. 1 (+36.7 adjusted efficiency margin)
- NET ranking: No. 1
- Quad 1 wins: 7
- Quad 2 wins: 5
The argument in favor of Gonzaga as the No. 1 team in the country is pretty simple: It’s the last undefeated team in college hoops. The Zags started the season as the top-ranked team in the nation, and they really haven’t done anything to warrant knocking them off the podium.
Michigan fans are taking aim at Gonzaga’s weaker conference schedule, but the validity of their argument depends on how they make it.
Anyone saying Gonzaga hasn’t proven itself this season is dead wrong. Before conference play, Gonzaga beat Kansas, Iowa and Virginia by a combined margin of 46 points. The Bulldogs also knocked off West Virginia.
That’s four legitimate wins over teams that will have high seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga was also supposed to play Baylor, but the game was postponed due to COVID issues.
If you want to make an argument against Gonzaga, it should be framed like this: Two-thirds of Gonzaga’s season is made up of games against a fairly weak West Coast Conference. So even though the Bulldogs are undefeated, they don’t have the day-in, day-out grind of teams in the Big Ten and Big 12.
That’s fair. The WCC has a second NCAA Tournament team in BYU, but the Cougars won’t be more than a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, most likely.
The last time Gonzaga took the floor against a team that could make the Sweet 16 was Dec. 26 -- 65 days ago.
If Gonzaga played in the Big Ten, it likely would not be undefeated. Even the best teams slip up in a league as deep and talented as this one. But Gonzaga does not play in the Big Ten, so the question becomes whether or not the poll should be determined by hypotheticals or actual results.
The cold, hard fact is that Gonzaga is the only team in the country that hasn’t lost a game this season. It did enough in the non-conference slate to validate itself as an elite team, and so far, that’s been enough to ward off anyone threatening to steal the top spot.
- Record: 18-1
- Kenpom ranking: No. 2 (+33.92 adjusted efficiency margin)
- NET ranking: No. 2
- Quad 1 wins: 8
- Quad 2 wins: 1
- Loss: 75-57 at Minnesota on Jan. 16
Remember that date, Dec. 26 -- the last time Gonzaga played a Sweet 16 caliber team? Michigan has played eight such games since then. The other games have been against tournament hopefuls like Minnesota and Indiana while Gonzaga played some lesser competition.
Nobody -- not even Gonzaga fans -- would argue that a WCC schedule is more difficult than playing in the Big Ten. The question is whether that’s enough for Michigan to overcome a couple of factors working heavily in Gonzaga’s favor.
Most obviously, Michigan has a loss, and that loss has aged like a Rob Parker tweet about Tom Brady.
When Michigan lost to Minnesota, the Gophers were undefeated at the Barn and ranked No. 23 in the country. It wasn’t even a question whether Richard Pitino’s team would make the NCAA Tournament.
But since then... um, wow. Minnesota has completely collapsed, losing eight of 10 games, including at home against Northwestern and at Nebraska last week. It’s been an unmitigated disaster, and now, at 13-12, Minnesota is on the wrong side of the bubble.
Should Michigan’s only loss be judged on what Minnesota was at the time, or what Minnesota is now? That probably depends on which side of this debate you’re on.
The part of Michigan’s resume that really stands out when compared to Gonzaga: road wins.
Gonzaga’s four best wins came in neutral site games. It beat Kansas in Florida, West Virginia in Indianapolis, Iowa in South Dakota and Virginia in Texas. Most teams don’t have many fans this season, but playing on the road is still more difficult.
Here are the teams Gonzaga has beaten on the road this season: Portland, Saint Mary’s, San Diego, Pepperdine, Pacific, BYU and San Francisco. Again, BYU is a solid team, but the rest of that list isn’t even in consideration for the NCAA Tournament.
Now, here are Michigan’s road wins: Nebraska, Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Indiana. That’s four definite tournament teams, including a possible No. 1 seed, and a very solid Indiana squad. In the past, road games have been very important to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, but maybe not so much to AP voters.
Style points are a big reason Michigan is even in this conversation. Take a look at some of Michigan’s winning margins against strong competition:
- At Maryland: 11 points
- Minnesota: 27 points
- Wisconsin: 23 points
- Maryland: 24 points
- At Purdue: 17 points
- Rutgers: 17 points
- Iowa: 22 points
- At Indiana: 16 points
In a way, Michigan has made the middle tier of the Big Ten look like WCC teams.
Personally, as someone who has watched every minute of Michigan’s season and a lot of Gonzaga, as well, I’m going back and forth as to who should be No. 1 right now.
Michigan has definitely been battle tested throughout the Big Ten schedule, especially on the road. Not many teams can win at Purdue and Ohio State.
But how do you go against a team that is literally perfect on the season? It’s not Gonzaga’s fault that the WCC is a weak conference -- yet, it’s not Michigan’s fault, either.
Gonzaga isn’t going to lose a game before the NCAA Tournament, so if the Bulldogs come out on top of Monday’s AP poll, that isn’t going to change.
My prediction: Gonzaga at No. 1, Michigan at No. 2 and Baylor at No. 3. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s a fun discussion about two teams that will be on the top seed line when the bracket is announced.
More important for Michigan is a battle with Illinois on Tuesday (March 2) that could determine the Big Ten regular season title. Then, back-to-back matchups with a Michigan State team that’s playing nearly as well as anyone else in the league.
The Wolverines have already accomplished plenty, but their work is far from over.