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Let's face it: No one is No. 1
For the fifth week in a row, the best is no longer the best.
This week it was Indiana’s turn. Eighty hours after regaining their No. 1 spot in the AP poll, the Hoosiers lost. That doesn’t quite do justice to what happened on Thursday night: The Hoosiers lost on a wide-open layup at Illinois, a team that had been 2-7 since Jan. 1 but went on a 13-2 run to close the game and break Indiana’s heart.
The week before it was Michigan, losing to Big Ten rival Indiana on Super Bowl eve in one of the most exciting games of the year. The week before that, No. 1 Duke got destroyed at Miami, and that came a week after No. 1 Louisville lost to Syracuse, and that came the week after No. 1 Duke lost at North Carolina State.
On and on it goes. Surely next week will bring us another No. 1 going down. The only thing we can be sure of? Next week’s No. 1 team that’ll certainly, undoubtedly lose will be neither this week’s second-ranked team (Florida) nor this week’s fifth-ranked team (Kansas) — because Florida got blown out this week at Arkansas, and Kansas lost its second game in a row on Wednesday night, at lowly TCU.
If you’re trying to make sense of it all, don’t.
There’s no sense to be made of what happened at Illinois on Thursday night, when Indiana dominated the game for 37 minutes, then fell apart. With a tie ballgame and the clock ticking down, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo turned over the ball, then sprinted back to block a layup by D.J. Richardson with .9 seconds left. Overtime, right? Not quite. Cody Zeller lost a man in a screen play, and Illinois’ Brandon Paul inbounded it to a wide-open Tyler Griffey, who laid it in for a 74-72 win, and Illinois fans stormed the court.
Why all the giant-killings this season, Coach?
“I can’t answer that. I’m not sure,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean told reporters afterward. “I just know that these games are 40-minute games. We played at a high level for most of the game.”
The only sense to be made? There is no No. 1.
That’s the new maxim we should accept for the 2012-13 season. Every team out there is flawed. There’s more parity at the top than there’s ever been, perhaps the most parity in the history of this game.
And that’s not just a maxim we should accept. It’s a maxim we should embrace. Because instead of only one month that’s filled with upsets and court-stormings and buzzer-beating victories, we got March’s madness in both January and February.
Name a team that’s the best in the country, and there’s an easy retort to why it isn’t.
Kansas? Even before their first losing streak in seven years, the Jayhawks had been walking a fine line. They’re saddled with a natural shooting guard, Elijah Johnson, who has been forced into playing the point. Louisville? The Cardinals’ defense is superb, but their offense is inconsistent, with Russ Smith being either Russdiculous (23 points on 10-of-20 shooting in a win at UConn) or Russ-ty (2-of-13 in a loss to Syracuse), and Peyton Siva still suffers through the occasional turnover spurt (six at Marquette).
Florida? Yep, the Gators had been blowing out SEC opponents before their Arkansas loss. And yep, they’re balanced, with five players averaging 9.5 points or more, the only team in America ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But the Gators’ top scorer, Kenny Boynton, has suffered through some shooting slumps, and the Gators will be missing 6-foot-7 forward Will Yeguete for the rest of the regular season after knee surgery.
Gonzaga? The Zags will be in top five next week, but only March will be able to tell us how good they are against top-flight competition. Most of Gonzaga’s resume has been built on wins in the West Coast Conference, which is 10th in conference RPI.
Let’s not even get into the 99 problems that unranked bluebloods UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina are dealing with.
There are only two teams that can make a case to be No. 1 in next week’s poll. Michigan likely will be the pick — unless the Wolverines lose at Wisconsin this weekend, which is entirely possible. Neither of their losses were bad losses, and the Wolverines have the nation’s undisputed best backcourt in wunderkind point guard Trey Burke and sharp-shooting Tim Hardaway Jr. But they’re less than dominating on the offensive boards, ranking 117th in offensive rebounding percentage. And making it through the rest of their brutal Big Ten schedule unscathed feels impossible.
Duke could make a case for being No. 1, too, especially after Thursday night’s dominating home win against never-give-up North Carolina State, the same team that knocked Duke off the top perch in January. But this team, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged afterward, is in a precarious spot because of health concerns. Forward Josh Hairston didn’t play in the NC State game because of an infection in his arm. Star guard Seth Curry has been held out of practices due to a tender ankle. And most pressingly, 6-foot-11 sharpshooter Ryan Kelly is out indefinitely with a foot injury, which has caused this team to seek a new identity.
No. 1 in the country? Maybe. But undisputed No. 1? Likely to run the table the rest of the season? Not a chance. This year, you can’t say that about a single team in college hoops.
“We’ve been there twice before,” Duke big man Mason Plumlee said Thursday night after being told No. 1 Indiana had lost. “We don’t go by rankings. We know that right now, our last two wins have been so good because everybody’s playing and everybody’s playing well. We just focus on us. We can’t worry about Big Ten, Big 12, Kansas, Indiana. We can’t worry about them.”
That’s the maxim, Mason: Don’t worry about them. Don’t worry about who is No. 1 in the polls, because the rankings aren’t true, and the rankings won’t last. Learn this maxim. Accept this maxim. Embrace this maxim.
Because when you think about it, the sort of parity at the top of college basketball this season — a parity unmatched in any other American sport — is just what makes it great.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com
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