AUBURN, Ala. — With the way Auburn basketball started its first week of preseason practice, I never thought I’d do what I did last night in my AP Top 25 ballot.
Bruce Pearl’s Tigers had an assistant coach and program legend get arrested in a federal corruption scandal that rocked the sport. Two of their best players were benched indefinitely in the fallout and still haven’t returned. Then Auburn lost an exhibition game to a Division II school.
But since then, Auburn has only lost once. Fifteen games into the season, Pearl has Auburn playing like one of the best teams in college basketball. The Tigers are rebounding and defending with impressive efficiency and have knocked off back-to-back ranked teams to begin SEC play. Concerns about their nonconference schedule not preparing them for the conference slate went out the window early.
That brings us to Monday. In a few hours, the Associated Press will release its Top 25 poll for men’s basketball. And, for the first time in the two seasons I’ve been a voter, Auburn will be on my ballot. Much more importantly, though, the Tigers should be in the real-deal Top 25 for the first time in 15 years.
Auburn picked a great week to beat two ranked opponents and extend one of the nation’s longest winning streaks. Twelve of the top 17 teams in college basketball lost. That swung the door wide open for Auburn to walk into the Top 25.
The week of upsets caused me to start my ballot this week with a relatively clean slate. Here’s what came out of it:
- West Virginia
- Michigan State
- Texas Tech
- Wichita State
- Arizona State
- Seton Hall
- North Carolina
- Florida State
Auburn would’ve been just outside my Top 25 last week, and it soared into No. 18 this week thanks to the chaos above it and the two impressive wins over Tennessee and Arkansas. Auburn is just ahead of North Carolina and Arizona for me — two talented powerhouse teams that have taken some tough losses recently. (Plus, Auburn beat Tennessee by 10 points on the road, while North Carolina only won in Knoxville by 5.)
Only six teams have just one loss in college basketball. Auburn has played the weakest schedule of them all, and some two- and three-loss teams claim a better resume at this point. But with all these losses popping up week after week, there’s a lot to be said for stringing together a long streak of wins when the rest of the country seems prone to falling at any moment.
Other notes from my ballot:
- Villanova is most likely going to be the No. 1 team in the country this week, but I’m not entirely sold on the Wildcats just yet. Give me West Virginia. It shook off an ugly first game against Texas A&M and has rattled off 14 straight wins. The Mountaineers made Oklahoma’s Trae Young look human. They have the best combination of offense and defense in the one-loss teams, and I know I wouldn’t want to play Bob Huggins’ crew right now.
- That said, Oklahoma isn’t going to face Press Virginia every week. And that loss in Morgantown is much easier to take than Michigan State’s ugly loss at Ohio State, in my opinion. That’s why I have the Sooners slightly ahead of the Spartans this week.
- Hello there, Purdue. The Boilermakers lost two games in November and have been perfect since then. Like Auburn, there’s a lot of value to me in keeping a long winning streak during this topsy-turvy start to conference play. Wins over Arizona, Butler, Maryland and Louisville don’t hurt, either.
- Seton Hall might have been the toughest team to rank this week. The Pirates have three good conference wins under their belts — including one over a Butler team that beat Villanova — but their two losses are to Rhode Island and Rutgers. That middle spot at No. 13 seemed to fit Seton Hall best.
- Clemson is a better version of Auburn, resume-wise, at this point. Its only loss to Temple was just by 7 points, and it’s also been perfect since that game in Charleston. Wins over Ohio State and Florida, along with a 3-0 start in ACC play, make for an impressive run from these Tigers.
- Tennessee stays in with a big win over Kentucky, which needs some more time to figure things out. I still think both teams are talented and poll-worthy, and they have plenty of room to move up over the next few weeks.