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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

A conundrum at No. 1: Voters explain reasons for ranking Gonzaga, Auburn No. 1 in AP Top 25 poll

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 18, 2022

For a few hours on Monday morning, Jesse Newell unintentionally became the most popular sportswriter in America.

The Associated Press Top 25 men’s basketball poll is a weekly reflection of how 61 sportswriters, sportscasters and national media personalities view the country’s best teams. A single ballot usually can’t do much damage on its own, but a few outlying or “extreme” votes – especially those at least five places higher or lower than the panel’s average – can occasionally move the needle.

That’s how Newell, a sportswriter from the Kansas City Star who primarily covers Kansas University, became culprit No. 1 among Auburn fans desperate to figure out how the Tigers didn’t leap Gonzaga for the country’s No. 1 ranking despite amassing 11 more first-place votes than the Bulldogs.

Gonzaga, which collected 25 first-place votes, surfaced with 1,486 points in Monday’s poll. Auburn, which collected 36 first-place votes, fell just shy of obtaining its first No. 1 ranking in school history with 1,482 points. Fifty-nine of the 61 voters who submitted Week 11 ballots voted Auburn No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4, but two voters – Jon Wilner of The Mercury News in San Jose, California, and Newell – weren’t sold on the Tigers as a top-four team, respectively ranking them No. 6 and No. 9.

“Auburn isn’t No. 1 in the AP poll mostly because @jessenewell voted the Tigers 9th. It’s his ballot. I’ll let him defend it,” tweeted CBS Sports college basketball columnist Garry Parrish. “But if he’d merely put Auburn in the top 4 like 59 of the 60 other AP voters did, the Tigers would now be No. 1 for the first time in school history.”

On Monday, The Spokesman-Review sent emails to more than 45 voters with a simple request: explain in a few sentences, but no more than a paragraph, your reason for voting Gonzaga or Auburn No. 1 in this week’s poll.

One of the first responses came from Newell, who succinctly described his voting process – something that either gave Auburn fans the closure they felt they needed or left them with more questions.

“Each week, I vote ‘best’ teams and not ‘best resume,’” Newell wrote. “For help with that, I look at many of the best predictive rankings out there like KenPom and Bart Torvik. Gonzaga is No. 1 in every single one of those measures I consult, and per-possession, they’ve undoubtedly been college basketball’s best team so far this season. The Bulldogs would be favored against any other NCAA team right on a neutral court. That’s why they were No. 1 in my poll.”

When it comes to where Gonzaga and Auburn sit, Ken Pomeroy’s ratings mirror Newell’s recent AP poll. The Bulldogs are KenPom’s top team with an adjusted efficiency margin of +31.64, while Auburn sits at No. 9 with a rating of +26.07. Gonzaga is No. 1 in the NCAA’s NET rankings while Auburn is No. 5.

Wilner, the only other voter to omit Auburn from the top-four, didn’t consult analytics when filing his ballot.

“Actually, I didn’t consider Auburn for No. 1,” Wilner said. “Gonzaga was my second-ranked team last week and pretty much a no-brainer for No. 1 this week.”

Other voters applied the same logic.

“Wish I could give you some detailed response filled with analytics and stats and strength of schedule and all of that, but I had Gonzaga No. 1 this week over Auburn for no more reason than this: Gonzaga has been ahead of Auburn on every ballot I’ve cast this season and when Baylor, UCLA and USC lost games, I simply moved Gonzaga and Auburn up,” said Justin Jackson of the Dominion Post in Morgantown, W.Va. “Nothing scientific. I believe you put those two teams on a neutral court and Gonzaga wins probably 7 of 10 times, so I have them 1 and Auburn 2.”

Jeff Call of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City may have come to a conclusion on the Gonzaga-Auburn debate earlier than most. A BYU beat writer, Call was credentialed for the Zags’ 110-86 thumping of the Cougars last Thursday in Spokane, and couldn’t shake watching GU score 61 first-half points against a BYU team that was conceding 61 points per game this season.

“I watched the Zags live Thursday night at The Kennel when they shot 69%, scored 110 points, and dominated a BYU team that has been really good defensively this season,” Call wrote. “Respect for Auburn, but that was a performance that left a lasting impression.”

Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times added Gonzaga’s “offensive numbers – especially these last few games – are too cartoonishly good to ignore” while Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed to the uber efficient shooting percentages of Drew Timme (65.5%) and Chet Holmgren (61.1%), “players a coach can count on in difficult situations,” DiPaola said.

Many of those siding with Auburn in this week’s poll constructed their arguments around the Tigers’ 13-game win streak – a run that dates back to a six-point, double-overtime loss to then-No. 22 UConn. Auburn’s strength of schedule was a difference-maker for some voters while others valued the Tigers’ five true road wins. Gonzaga has four wins outside of the Kennel, but three of those came at neutral-site venues.

“I really value wins away from home, particularly true road games. Auburn just won at Alabama and at Ole Miss. It won at Saint Louis and has a nice neutral-court win over Loyola. The loss – double OT against a good UConn team on a neutral court – is certainly not bad,” said Andrew Kahn of MLive in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I actually have Arizona No. 2. The win at Illinois keeps looking better. The loss – close, at Tennessee – is acceptable. This is a bit of an eye test deal, too, since I cover Michigan and Arizona smoked the Wolverines on a neutral court.”

Some voters factored in head-to-head results against Alabama, the only common opponent Gonzaga and Auburn have this season. The Zags lost to the Crimson Tide by nine points at a neutral site arena in Seattle where Gonzaga fans significantly outnumbered those of Alabama. Auburn, meanwhile, won 81-77 last week in Tuscaloosa.

“There is a momentum/recency component to any poll, and Auburn has been playing its best basketball lately, including in a 15-point win over LSU and in a road win over Alabama last week,” said Michael Rodak of AL.com in Birmingham, Alabama. “Alabama had not lost at home in over a year, was favored and has generally played its best ball this season against its best opponents. And in a narrow decision like this was, I’ll give the edge to the team with the SEC schedule to navigate.”

The quadrant system utilized to determine NCAA Tournament seeds also gives an edge to Auburn, which has fewer quadrant one/two losses than Gonzaga despite playing two more games against that caliber of opponent.

“Auburn has a much higher overall strength of schedule, including a 4-1 record in Q1 and 4-0 in Q2 versus 4-2 and 1-0, respectively for Gonzaga, which has more than twice as many Q4 games that I basically dismiss entirely in ranking teams unless there’s a terrible loss,” said James Crepea of The Oregonian, who also noted the quality of GU’s win over then second-ranked UCLA has diminished since the Bruins slipped to No. 9 in the AP poll.

Paul Klee, a columnist at the Denver Gazette and a 2002 Gonzaga graduate, bypassed his alma mater to rank Auburn No. 1. Klee is still high on the Zags as a national championship contender and indicated a convincing win over KenPom’s No. 36 team, USF, could catapult GU back to No. 1 on his ballot.

“Channel the fight of Gonzaga legend Mark Spink, and the Zags will win the national championship,” Klee said. “So I let Auburn enjoy the No. 1 spotlight for a week. Whoop USF and this proud grad will return the Zags to No. 1 – all the way to April 5.”

The Tennessean’s Aria Gerson ranked Auburn No. 1, reasoning that Pearl’s team “seems to really be hitting its peak as conference play gets into full swing” while Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico singled out Gonzaga’s “less-than-elite showing at home vs. Tarleton State” before concluding “the good is No. 1 worthy for both, but the bad is probably a bit worse for Gonzaga.”

With 18 losses for Top 25 teams in Week 10, including four losses among the top-five teams, voters like Scott Richey used the latest poll as an opportunity to reevaluate the entire college hoops landscape.

“I used the sheer number of top 25 teams losing last week – particularly No. 1 Baylor losing twice – to re-evaluate my entire ballot at what was nominally the midway point of the season,” said Richey, a writer for the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. “Auburn as my new No. 1 came down to the fact the Tigers have the best record in the country right now against Quad I and Quad II teams.”

Others saw little sense in moving Auburn past Gonzaga after the Bulldogs dialed up 225 points in wins over BYU and Santa Clara. GU’s wins over the Cougars and Broncos, teams with an average KenPom ranking of No. 56, came by 58 combined points while Auburn’s wins over No. 24 Alabama and Ole miss, teams with an average KenPom rating of 60, came by only 13 points.

“I was impressed with the victory over BYU, which I considered an elite mid-major,” responded Bret Bloomquist of the El Paso Times. “I’ve had them higher than Auburn all season and haven’t seen enough reason to jump Auburn past them, although I admit I’ve been behind on acknowledging the season Auburn has put together.”

Aside from being a source of pride, many will note the weekly rankings – especially at this midway juncture of the season – are ultimately inconsequential. Four teams have already held the No. 1 position this season with Gonzaga having two stints at the top of the poll.

“It was a tough call to rank Auburn No. 1 ahead of Gonzaga,” said Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “But since I’m not on the NCAA Tournament selection committee, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

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