(Author’s note: Thanks to Chris Conaty and the rest of the FOW Staff on Slack for bouncing ideas and offering insight to inspire this piece.)
The TCU Horned Frogs had one of their better weeks in recent memory, securing two marquee wins in Dallas and in Los Angeles against name-brand opponents. The Frogs have played themselves up to 30th in the Kenpom rankings (and 51st in the controversial NET rankings) with two Top 100 wins (one on the road). The Frogs’ lone blemish, a nine point loss at the hands of Atlantic Sun Conference contender Lipscomb (74th in Kenpom, 45th in the NET), seems to keep a lid on the Frog hype for AP Voters: one-loss TCU received just thirteen points in the most recent AP Poll and sits behind a cluster of eight 2-loss teams: Kansas State, Indiana, Syracuse (all tied for 25th), Iowa, Marquette, Nebraska, Maryland, and Iowa State (all also receiving votes). (Author’s Note: 4 loss Purdue also received more votes than TCU, but that’s a whole different story).
Of those eight teams, we can separate the pretenders and the contenders. Let’s do some adjudication at the bottom of the Top 25.
Indiana (25th KP, 20th NET) has 4 top 50 KP wins, and the Hoosiers’ only losses come on the road to #50 Arkansas and #1 Duke. They should be ranked.
Iowa (38th KP, 44th NET) beat both Oregon and Connecticut on a neutral site, and boasts a win over rival #19 Iowa State. Their two losses are a six point loss to #13 Wisconsin and a demolishing at the hands of #8 Michigan State. They should be ranked.
Marquette (35th KP, 22nd NET) is a little inflated because of a 12 point win against #24 Kansas State, but their only losses are away from home - at #25 Indiana and neutral against #2 Kansas - and they have wins against Louisville, and Wisconsin. They’re fine.
Nebraska ( 21st KP, 16th NET) was on top of the Sangarin rankings to start the season, but have slid a little with an excusable loss to #12 Texas Tech (neutral site) and #55 Minnesota. Most recently, the Huskers put up a 19 point margin on rival #39 Creighton. Couple those with wins at home vs #56 Seton Hall and at #41 Clemson, the Huskers’ placement in front of the Frogs is probably merited.
Syracuse (18th KP, 32nd NET) leads the pack of pretenders, at least when it comes to teams who shouldn’t be ranked in front of the Frogs. Yes, the Orange have a true road win against #20 Ohio State, but the only other times they’ve played away from home have been neutral site games, and both losses - to #31 Oregon and #79 Connecticut. (Oregon, you’ll recall, lost to mighty #226, Texas Southern).
Kansas State (15th KP, 46th NET) was the media darling for Big 12 dark horse and have failed to live up to that moniker. The Wildcats have played two top 100 teams, and they took care of Missouri, but didn’t look competitive at #35 Marquette. Their resume also features a loss in the only other road game, a bizzare and ugly 47-46 to #122 Tulsa. The Wildcats have struggled to look like a good basketball team when playing even competent opponents, and that won’t bode well with games against #112 Georgia State and #63 Vanderbilt. Notably, the Wildcats have played 6 of 8 games against teams outside the top 100.
Iowa State (19th KP, 35th NET) has played 5 teams outside the top 35, and lost the only two top 50 games they’ve played. This is a preseason ranking sticking to a team. The Clones have lost by 14 at #38 Iowa and by 5 on a neutral site against #48 Arizona. Their marquee win is... #95 Missouri at home?
Maryland (28th KP, 42 NET) is the epitome of “was once good at basketball and so should be relevant” ranking by voters. The Terps have played three top 50 games and lost two of them. Their ranking again sits on preseason rankings.
So, there you have it - four teams propped up in front of the Frogs, crowding out votes and keeping TCU on the outside looking in of the AP Top 25. Is this a travesty? No. Is this a slight disaster? No. Might this even be a good thing to keep the fire lit under a surging TCU squad? Yes. Am I asking easy questions to make myself sound smart? You bet.
Maryland, Iowa State, Kansas State, and Syracuse all sit in front of TCU based on preseason rankings and margin of victory against smaller teams. Nerds around the internet have suggested that the NET rankings correlate to raw margin of victory, and so voters are misusing poor information to make decisions confirming their preseason priors.
TCU’s measly thirteen points in the AP Poll are a result of three conflating factors:
- Injuries: TCU started the season injured, and missed opportunities to really pad their margin of victory optics against inferior opponents. A five point win against #204 CSU-Bakersfield (without examining context) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in voters.
- TCU’s played too well: The Frogs had two key wins against top 100 opponents - they beat (at the time) #88 SMU in Dallas so thoroughly, the Ponies dropped 20 spots in the KenPom rankings. Similarly, after getting smacked in the mouth by TCU, the (at the time) #63 USC Trojans dropped all they way down to #87. This will stabilize as the season goes on, but for now, drubbing key opponents has actually made those wins lackluster.
- Losing to a non-brand opponent: Lipscomb (74th KP, 45th NET) are set to compete for the A-Sun championship, and they are driven by their experience: the Bisons have an average experience of 2.12, 48th in the nation, and 78.4% of their minutes from last season returned. No AP voter is looking at the context of an injured TCU team who turned over 9 roster spots losing to a quality, experience-laden opponent early in the season.
All in all, the Frogs should’ve received more than 13 votes, and comparing them to their peer vote-getters reveals that while the Frogs’ resume needs to improve, their quality has been surging as late. Fortunately for TCU, winning in the Big 12 will cure all ills of the AP Voters.